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Former National Security Advisors Discuss Their Roles

Six former national security advisors (NSAs) came together to describe the post considered by some to be one of the most powerful positions in the White House.

A "Forum on the Role of the National Security Advisor," co-sponsored by the Wilson Center and the James A. Baker III Institute For Public Policy of Rice University, featured the distinguished panel of Samuel R. Berger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Frank Carlucci, Andrew J. Goodpaster, Robert McFarlane, and Walt W. Rostow.

During the first half of the discussion panelists were asked a series of questions by CNN's Wolf Blitzer, while the second half was moderated by Wilson Center Director Lee H. Hamilton and founding Director of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy Edward P. Djerejian and included a question and answer session with the audience of 150 participants.

It's the President, Stupid

The panelists were in agreement that the role of the national security advisor is determined largely by the president. According to Sandy Berger, to paraphrase from the first Clinton campaign, "It's the president, stupid." The role is to insure that the president's decisions are executed by the government in some coherent way. With regard to the role of the NSA, Zbigniew Brzezinski described two different types of administrations: the "presidential system" and the "secretarial system." In the first, the president wants to play a large role in foreign policy so "The NSA is the inevitable bureaucratic beneficiary of deep presidential involvement." While a president who is more interested in domestic affairs will be inclined to delegate to his principal advisors like the secretary of state and the NSA. According to Brzezinski, neither system is superior to the other.

“Mr. President, You Are Wrong.”

While Andrew Goodpaster quipped that "Empirical rule number one under Eisenhower was that the president is always right," all the panelists agreed that it is the duty of the NSA to tell the president when you believe he is wrong. Yet, if the president ends up sticking with his decision despite protest, you must always support him 100 percent in public. The only other option is to resign.

Sibling Rivalries

The principal foreign affairs advisors to the president—the NSA, the secretary of state, and the secretary of defense—all need to work closely together, particularly when a crisis is at hand. Moderator Wolf Blitzer inquired about the conflict that develops when there is fundamental disagreement about policy among these principal actors. Both Berger and Brzezinksi emphasized the imperative of accurately representing their colleagues' viewpoints when they are not present, even when there is strong disagreement. According to Berger, "You have to be perceived by your colleagues as an honest representative of their viewpoints, or the system breaks down."When asked whether there is an inherent rivalry among the principal actors in foreign policy, Frank Carlucci maintained that there is often a healthy tension between the Department of State and the Department of Defense, and that in many cases, it was up to the NSA to mediate. According to Walt Rostow, "The problem between the secretary of state and the secretary of defense can be solved with the right characters in place and with a mutual deference and a mutual trust." Robert McFarlane stressed the importance of the NSA keeping to its advisory role and staying out of operations.

The Policy Process

Goodpaster, Carlucci, and Berger each spoke about the need of the NSA to coordinate decisionmaking among the principals before taking the issue to the president. This greatly helps the president and makes the process of decisionmaking more efficient. When there was profound disagreement among the principals, Berger liked to "bring the members of the cabinet to the highest common denominator" which meant that he would bring the president two starkly different points of view to consider. Goodpaster spoke of Eisenhower's preferred process for decisionmaking: careful planning and thorough thinking on the part of his principals, followed by eye to eye meetings with the president where each "lieutenant" could present his or her view and recommendation. Of this process, Goodpaster said, "We didn't make any mistakes in a hurry."

The Power of the Press

Each of the panelists acknowledged the great changes that have taken place in the press and how today's 24 hour news cycle has affected the role of the NSA and the other major foreign policy players. Each of the panelists agreed that the secretary of state should be the principal foreign policy spokesperson for the administration, but the larger media playing field now requires that the NSA is pulled out more frequently as part of a team. Brzezinski pointed out that the communication skills of the secretary of state are now quite different than those of the 1960s when the secretary would read a prepared formal speech or produce a ghost-written article. Today, the foreign policy team needs to be somewhat photogenic, with the ability to be quick on the uptake, and to speak in sound bites. Goodpaster pointed out the difference between today's environment and that of his day. The advice he was given when he came on board as NSA: "Do your job the best you know how and stay out of the newspapers."

On Senate Confirmation

The members of the panel agreed that the office of the NSA should not be subject to Senate confirmation for a variety of reasons. The two dominant reasons presented concerned time requirements and confidentiality. Brzezinski and Berger focused on the enormous time requirements of Congressional testimony, saying that this would be an undue burden upon an office that already has a very demanding schedule. Rostow, Goodpaster, and Carlucci each focused more on the loss of confidentiality that would result if the NSA was routinely required to submit to Congressional questioning. According to Carlucci, "If you make the NSC subject to Senate confirmation, you are going to degrade the process significantly.The president will have a very difficult time implementing a coherent foreign policy… It would impede the ability to give the president confidential advice so I would strongly recommend against it." While McFarlane agreed with this generally, he maintained that it is important for the NSA to have a "working dialogue with members of Congress."

The Future Role of the NSC

In the question and answer segment of the program, Brzezinski raised the issue that there is no centralized planning mechanism in the U.S. government. He went on to propose that the White House establish a planning board whose mission would be to relate coherent strategic planning to policy making. Goodpaster agreed but pointed out that this is an especially difficult task given that the payoff is not immediate, so will require strong leadership to get it off the ground. Sandy Berger thought that the role of the NSC needed to change in tandem with the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of the global economy. To his thinking, the NSC now needed more of a protean quality to it, enabling it to configure differently depending on the issue it is confronted with. While the world may seem less dangerous, the problems confronting the NSC, including terrorism, global financial crises, and disease epidemics, are more complex. Given its flexible structure though, Carlucci did not feel that the National Security Act of 1947 needed to be rewritten.