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He Was There

Peter Rodman was a wonderful and remarkable insider -- and better than anyone he knew how foreign policy is made.

By From the February 2009 issue

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Presidential Command: Power, Leadership, and the Making of Foreign Policy from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush
By Peter W. Rodman. Introduction by Henry A. Kissinger.
(Alfred A. Knopf, 368 pages, $26.95)

Reviewed by Mark Falcoff

THE LATE PETER RODMAN, who died last summer, was one of those remarkable people rare in Washington—the key insider unknown to the general public and (rarer still) happy to remain that way. A lawyer by training, a former student of Henry Kissinger at Harvard, he accompanied his mentor to the capital in the early days of the Nixon administration, where he labored quietly during those decidedly unquiet days on the staff of the National Security Council. During the presidency of George H. W. Bush he was director of policy planning at the State Department, and during the first administration of our most recent president he was assistant secretary of defense for security assistance. In between his tours of government he worked as a research assistant for Dr. Kissinger in the latter’s production of his monumental memoirs. Presidential Command is not, however, a memoir itself but rather a detailed review of the role of the president in the field of national security during our last seven administrations. It draws upon the abundant academic and journalistic literature—the endnotes reveal just how vast it really is—but far more importantly it brings to bear the qualified judgment of someone who in many cases was actually there. This fly-on-the-wall perspective is not to be discounted. A friend of mine who worked on the Clinton National Security staff—since departed for academic life— remarked to me recently that most of the literature in his own field (U.S.-Latin American relations) reveals an appalling ignorance on the part of his fellow professors “as to how policy actually works.”

Rodman knew better from hard experience. The United States government is a sprawling and enormous bureaucracy, he explains, and as it has grown it has proven more impervious to direction and presidential leadership. This is particularly true in the field of foreign policy and national security, where dozens of agencies have found their way into the decision-making process—not just State, Defense, and the intelligence community, but commerce, labor, agriculture, and environment. Unfortunately, the American system, Rodman writes with characteristic understatement, “has not solved the problem of presidential control.” 

The major poles of contention, of course, are the national security adviser, whose office is in the White House itself, and the secretary of state, whose office is halfway across town. The former position was created during the Eisenhower administration to provide the president with a kind of synoptic view of the larger policy process and to lay out a menu of options. Its other purpose—vain hope that!—was to assure policy coordination. The importance of the NSC increased vastly during the presidency of Richard Nixon (1969–1974), largely because the latter harbored a deep distrust of the State Department. Indeed, so hostile was Nixon to that agency that he eventually ignored (some would say even humiliated) his own secretary, William Rogers, who in any case proved a far less agile practitioner of bureaucratic warfare than Dr. Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser. Moreover, although Rogers was one of President Nixon’s oldest political friends (he had served as attorney general in the Eisenhower administration), he was quickly co-opted by the institutional culture of his department. “Periodically,” Rodman reveals, Kissinger’s staff felt obliged to put together “a compilation of instances of State’s overeagerness in contacts with the Soviets, press leaks disparaging presidential policy, refusals to clear important cables at the White House, and/or efforts to curry favor with Congress at White House expense.” In the end Nixon and Kissinger decided on an end-run policy; they established a back channel with Soviet ambassador Dobrynin, which “kept the top political levels involved on both sides and facilitated rapid decision.” Nixon’s only problem wasn’t with the State Department, however. His secretary of defense, Melvin Laird—a seasoned veteran of trench warfare on Capitol Hill—had his own agenda when it came to troop withdrawals from Vietnam, and was not above leaking his numbers to the press to force the president’s hand “or make clear that delays in getting out were Nixon’s fault, not Laird’s.” As Rodman puts it, “the interagency process [was] decidedly unhelpful when it came to…basic questions of strategy.” 

If so vigorous and determined an executive as Richard Nixon failed in the end to get a full handle on the policy process, how much more was that the case with his accidental successor Gerald Ford (1974– 1977)! Kissinger, who had taken over the State Department in the late months of Nixon’s presidency, stayed on to assure policy continuity, but Ford, a modest man of modest talents, was simply overwhelmed by events. And he proved unequal to a rebellion both to his right and his left—against pursuit of détente in one case, and against efforts to resist Soviet involvement in the Third World on the other. In any event, from the day he took office Ford was hamstrung by a raft of legislation dating back to 1974 that seriously limited the executive’s power in foreign policy. The best-known innovation is the War Powers Act, passed over Nixon’s veto, but Rodman provides a long list on pp. 112–113 of this book. 

In contrast to Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter (1977–1981) encouraged what he regarded as “natural competition” between the State Department and the NSC. The result was a kind of “philosophical schizophrenia” (Rodman’s term). One former Carter staffer told Rodman that Carter “had no consistent philosophy in foreign policy except that what had gone on in his predecessors’ administrations was bad.”1 Although Carter had some important foreign policy achievements to his credit—notably the Camp David accords, normalization of relations with China, and aid to anti-Soviet insurgents in Afghanistan—in the crucial case of Iran he was immobilized by guilt and indecision, weaknesses magnified by his secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, himself unable or unwilling to impose political direction on the Department’s career bureaucracy.

RONALD REAGAN (1981–1989) was a horse of an entirely different color, Rodman writes, but only when he was engaged. The key to his approach to U.S.-Soviet relations was the Strategic Defense Initiative, which he rightly saw as a lever to move Moscow in the direction of political and strategic reevaluation. Not surprisingly, he was constantly being urged by State and other agencies to abandon this approach, and one of his most memorable moments—his speech at the Berlin wall—was made over the bitter protests of his own diplomats. Where he let things slide, as in the case of Central America, others took over and ran roughshod over the terrain (the famous Iran-Contra episode). But whatever his weaknesses, Ronald Reagan understood one important fact: the avoidance of hard choices may actually increase risk. 

Reagan was fortunate to have as strong and talented a secretary of state as George Shultz, but his successor, George H. W. Bush (1989–1993), was even more fortunate in the case of James Baker and Dick Cheney, both of whom saw themselves as the president’s man at the departments of State and Defense, respectively. Bush senior was able to knit together an unprecedented international coalition and in spite of resistance from the career military (notably Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff) to pursue a policy of reversing Iraqi aggression in the Persian Gulf. Perhaps unique among all the administrations surveyed in this book, that of Bush senior enjoyed a unique degree of policy coherence between the major departments. 

In some ways President Bill Clinton (1997–2001) most nearly resembles Ronald Reagan, at least in the sense that when he was actually focused on major foreign policy issues he often brought a high degree of coherence to the outcomes. “In other cases,” Rodman writes, “the loose informality of his style and decision-making often permitted bureaucratic stalemate and indecision.” But, Rodman adds, “even when the President was deeply engaged, discipline was not his strong suit.” Unlike Reagan, he also had to face serious philosophical contradictions within his administration—the liberal predilection to be for all good things and against all bad things, regardless of the fact that the two are often inextricably intertwined in real life. (The Balkan crisis festered for two long years before the administration summoned up the courage—and the leverage—to force a satisfactory outcome.). 

The presidency of George W. Bush (2001–2009) is obviously too recent for more than cursory evaluation, but Rodman does offer some interesting insights, many of them gathered from his time at the Pentagon. He describes Bush the Younger as “like Ronald Reagan…a leader capable of great decisiveness but who set up or tolerated a system that impeded his exercise of it.” (More than once he denies that Vice President Dick Cheney was really running the show, as often claimed by partisan opponents and the media.) On the major issues of his presidency, Bush’s own judgment “was better than that of some of his senior advisers.” Yet, he adds, “the system floundered when it did not have his decisive intervention, and it sometimes fostered bitter bureaucratic resentments even when it did.” 

Perhaps the most interesting part of this chapter deals with the run-up to war in Iraq and the diplomatic games played at the United Nations in New York. With much arm-twisting and horse-trading, Secretary of State Colin Powell was able to obtain passage of UN Resolution 1441 in November 2002 declaring Iraq to be in “material breach” of its obligation to renounce weapons of mass destruction or face “serious consequences.” But when Washington sought a second resolution to act upon this finding, which is to say, to go to war (a vote that British prime minister Blair badly needed to pacify critics in his own Labour Party), the French (who told the administration privately to “just do it” without another vote), sabotaged the effort. “Such,” Rodman declares dryly, “are the joys of multilateralism.” (Obamites, take careful notes.) Rodman concludes that any president, no matter how talented or visionary, is dependent on what he calls “the permanent government.” Each presidents requires “a variety of tools to reinforce his persuasion—political appointees in the departments who are attuned to his wishes, and cabinet officers for whom the presidential agenda is a top priority.” So far no president has enjoyed the entire range of resources to successfully implement his foreign policy. Those who just now imagine that the mere change of personalities at the White House will nullify this problem are living in a dream world. 

One cannot conclude discussion of this book without paying tribute to Peter Rodman. Although he was at the center of so much that had happened in Washington these past three decades, his outstanding characteristic was modesty and generosity. Even those of us who knew him fairly well never realized the fund of knowledge he carried around with him. Fortunately in this posthumous work he has bequeathed his country a priceless legacy. One can only hope that administrations present and future will make good use of it. 

1 I recall being present some years ago at a conference with former West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt at which the latter related that when the Carter administration came into office it immediately dispatched envoys to Bonn to tell him “to ignore everything our predecessors told you; the truth is exactly the reverse.” Schmidt said that he tried as best he could to explain to Carter’s people that this was not necessarily so.

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About the Author

Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.