Eleven rules for how Barack Obama, or any U.S. president, can have his way on national security.
- By Elliott AbramsElliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.
"A visitor once came to the White House and presented an idea to President Kennedy," Charles Frankel recounts in his classic memoir, High on Foggy Bottom. "The President was enthusiastic. ‘That’s a first-rate idea,’ he said. ‘Now we must see whether we can get the government to accept it.’"
Every president, regardless of party or ideology, struggles to push his agenda through America’s unwieldy — and increasingly massive — national security bureaucracy. "To govern is to choose," the old saying goes, but to govern is also to manage, demand, cajole, impose, and wheedle your way to control of "the government." Choosing is the easy part.
I spent eight years at the State Department in President Ronald Reagan’s administration and nearly the same length of time in George W. Bush’s White House, working in the National Security Council (NSC). In both places, I saw many instances of smooth presidential control, but also many where bureaucratic decisions went against the president’s core beliefs. The earliest example for me came in 1982, when Chinese tennis star Hu Na defected to the United States — and the State Department’s China desk immediately took a strong position against granting her political asylum. This idea from "the government" was passed on by the Reaganites at the State Department to the president, who of course rejected it. She was given political asylum.
Bush’s second term offers perhaps the best recent case study of a president trapped by a bureaucracy. By 2007, the United States was clearly losing the war in Iraq, but the president simply could not get "the government" — in this case, his own top generals — to give him any real options that could reverse the tide. Bush would eventually defeat the bureaucracy by going around the military hierarchy entirely: He and a handful of top aides in the White House put together a bold counterinsurgency plan he then imposed on the Pentagon. It became known as the "surge."
But Bush is hardly alone. Every president must confront powerful rivals for control of the foreign-policy agenda, and the 11 rules presented here are intended to offer a blueprint for how to do so.
Don’t underestimate the gravity of this problem. Bureaucracies can be amazingly resistant to outside control. Max Weber detailed their power as far back as 18th-century Prussia: "All the scornful decrees of Frederick the Great concerning the ‘abolition of serfdom’ were derailed," the German sociologist wrote. "[T]he official mechanism simply ignored them as the occasional ideas of a dilettante." And Frederick the Great was both a charismatic authoritarian leader and an organizational genius. The task is even more difficult for America’s elected presidents, who get eight years at best to make their mark on the world. If President Barack Obama fails to master the bureaucracy during his second term, he too will find his agenda thwarted by his natural antagonists in the foreign-policy establishment.
1. Let your principals really fight it out — and send you their actual recommendations, not a fake consensus.
President Dwight Eisenhower’s governing style relied on consensus. He ordered his staff members to confer and then present him with their shared recommendations on foreign-policy issues. Maybe it worked for the former Supreme Allied Commander, but it won’t work for anyone else. If you don’t even know when your top advisors are arguing, how will you be able to settle their disputes?
After Eisenhower left office, President John F. Kennedy saw the error of the demand for consensus and reversed it, ending the practice of having all agencies sign off on "agreed recommendations" that were then presented to him for ratification. He hoped instead to be offered "alternative courses of action which would allow real Presidential choice among them," as I.M. Destler describes in Presidents, Bureaucrats and Foreign Policy.
In the Bush years, the 2007 discovery of a secret Syrian nuclear reactor provided a prime example of why decisions — and arguments — should be preserved for the president. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates favored a diplomatic approach: Take this to the United Nations. Vice President Dick Cheney argued that the United States should bomb the reactor. My view was that Israel should bomb it. Scenarios for all options were carefully developed and argued out in front of the president, who then opted for the diplomatic path. I thought that was the wrong decision, but it was certainly the right process — and the right person got to decide. (Well, almost: The Israelis thought the United Nations was hopeless, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert quickly told Bush that if we wouldn’t bomb the reactor, they would. They did, and it worked.)
But too often, Reagan and Bush relied excessively on consensus recommendations from their staff that often obscured precisely this kind of cabinet disagreement. I well recall Bush’s top White House aides interrupting arguments in the Situation Room to say, "We can’t go to the president like this. Let’s keep trying until we reach agreement." Agreement, of course, most often means that two or three clear choices become one homogenized policy mess.
Why is this point so important? Because the most difficult decisions are not technical but political and deserve presidential attention: How much risk shall we accept? What burdens are the American people prepared to bear? How will Congress react, and how much do we care about the views and interests of other world leaders?
Dean Acheson, President Harry Truman’s last secretary of state, explained the need to bring decisions all the way up to the president: Staff, Acheson wrote in his great memoir, Grapes from Thorns, is indispensable for collecting information and implementing decisions, but should not be permitted to substitute for executive decision-making. "This can happen in a number of ways, but the most insidious, because it seems so highly efficient, is the ‘agreed’ staff paper sent up for ‘action,’ a euphemism for ‘approval,’" Acheson wrote. "[A] chief who wants to perform his function of knowing the issues … and of deciding, needs, where there is any doubt at all, not agreed papers, but disagreed papers."
Acheson was right. A president should demand to know what his top officials are arguing about. "Disagreed papers" are a key to presidential control.
2. Don’t let your cabinet secretaries put career officials in top positions.
In most cases, Reagan’s secretary of state, George Shultz, made political appointees his assistant secretaries — for good reason. As he wrote in his memoir, "In the end, it is the president’s foreign policy, so key people who help him shape it and carry it out — including in the State Department — should be on his political wavelength." He stuck carefully to the line that important decisions must reflect the president’s views, and in Shultz’s opinion, the most energetic and successful enforcers were unlikely to be bureaucrats.
There’s a reason for that. For most career bureaucrats, the most important reference points are other career officials; they are bureaucratic loyalists rather than presidential loyalists. A cabinet or subcabinet official can be very lonely surrounded by career officials and needs the moral, intellectual, and political sustenance of other political appointees around him or her. If he or she is left out in the wilderness, the outcome is predictable: going native.
This is inevitable. "Making the bureaucracy accountable to the president in any comprehensive or enduring way is impossible," wrote the late James Q. Wilson in his classic work Bureaucracy. "[M]aking it alert to his preferences is possible in those cases where presidents put loyal and competent subordinates in charge of making decisions."
It’s not that all career officials are disloyal, though some are. I recall an assistant secretary under Secretary of State Colin Powell, a career Foreign Service officer who in 2004 made very clear her hope that Democratic nominee John Kerry would win the presidential election and rid the country of the fools in the White House. The more common problem, however, in the vast U.S. national security establishment is that career military, intelligence, and diplomatic officials come to see American foreign policy as, in the words of historian Arthur Schlesinger, "their institutional, if not their personal, property, to be solicitously protected against interference from the White House and other misguided amateurs."
No one has ever explained the problem better than Truman, who defied the unanimous demand of his top State Department appointees that he not recognize the new state of Israel in 1948. Secretary of State George Marshall famously told Truman that, in view of his decision to defy those recommendations, Marshall could never vote for him again. Truman reflected on the incident in his memoir Years of Trial and Hope, noting that career bureaucrats see themselves as "the men who really make policy" and "look upon the elected officials as just temporary occupants."
That was a notion Truman was keen to dispel, and he worked mightily to do so. "The civil servant, the general or admiral, the foreign service officer has no authority to make policy," he wrote. "They act only as servants of the government, and therefore they must remain in line with the government policy that is established by those who have been chosen by the people to set that policy."
It is impossible to carry out presidential policies without appointees who owe their jobs and loyalties to the president, not to their own service’s personnel system. This is about more than personal prejudices or ambitions. It is also about having a genuine understanding of the president’s worldview. And who better than the president’s personal picks?
3. Treat cabinet officers as friends, but understand they are also enemies.
Members of the cabinet are sent out to live among the natives, who surround them all day long. Any president should try to maintain close contact with his cabinet, holding occasional (if useless) cabinet meetings, inviting them and their spouses to glamorous state dinners, and having lunch with them one-on-one once in a while.
Inevitably, however, they have very different perspectives from those of the president or White House staff. They will be focused on their own careers: Some will be worried about a future Senate seat or gubernatorial race; most will worry about their reputations with the media. All will seek the loyalty of their own subordinates in their agency. These factors will push them away from total loyalty to the White House.
To promote fidelity, the president should encourage thoughts of promotion within the administration or of vast White House assistance in a future career. He should also be aware that each cabinet member sees him and the White House staff as rivals for power, influence, and reputation and will seek to pin blame for errors and failures on the West Wing.
This phenomenon depends less on who is president than you might think. Every president, at least since Kennedy, has trusted his White House staff more than his cabinet. President Richard Nixon had Henry Kissinger run foreign policy as his national security advisor and virtually neuter Secretary of State William Rogers. Many people in the Bush White House saw Powell’s team at the State Department as a major problem — and vice versa. Obama’s White House team and Secretary Hillary Clinton’s State Department team were enemies during the fight for the Democratic Party’s 2008 presidential nomination, and they still saw each other as rivals once in power. This shouldn’t be surprising. White House staffers are devoted to the man in the Oval Office, identify his interests with their own, and have no other task but advancing his interests and policies.
The selection of cabinet officers reflects a wider variety of influences. "Some are appointed to reward campaign workers, others to find places for defeated members of Congress, still others to satisfy the demands of interest groups," Wilson wrote. "Sometimes the agency head is picked because he or she is thought to be an expert on the subject, but many times the president has no real idea of the content or policy implications of this expertise."
The president must understand that the members of his cabinet are, if not natural enemies, unreliable allies. The system will work fine so long as the president remembers this.
4. Establish a shadow government of presidential loyalists.
The formal org chart of every administration is nearly identical, and it is of course an indispensable description of how the affairs of government are conducted. It is important to know, for example, that the NSC senior director for Asia connects to the assistant secretary of state for East Asia, the national intelligence officer for Asia, and so on. But it’s not enough to understand how government really works.
Every administration needs an alternative nervous system of loyalists who look to the president and his staff for guidance. Many will come from the campaign or Capitol Hill. These appointees should think of themselves as colonial officials dealing with natives who will appear at various times compliant, enthusiastic, or rebellious — they should be rewarded or punished, empowered or removed, in the never-ending daily struggle for power.
Loyalists are a critical source of inside information on the activities of their departments, including private remarks and views of key officials. Some such individuals should be put in personnel positions in the departments to help promote other loyalists and thwart individuals who deeply disagree with the president’s policies; some should be the president’s point men with Congress; still others should be in the White House liaison positions that every agency maintains. Many, however, must be in decision-making jobs in the bureaucracy — as assistant secretaries and deputy assistant secretaries handling the heart of the agency’s work — if they are to have the knowledge and influence to enhance White House control.
Such special networks are nothing new. One informal group of dovish officials, for example, worked hard to end U.S. efforts in the Vietnam War. As Destler describes it, critics of escalation built a web of war skeptics in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and also found allies in the office of the undersecretary of state and the White House. When President Lyndon B. Johnson balked at tempering the war effort, Destler writes, Defense Secretary Clark Clifford "widened the field of battle by encouraging the President to call together the ‘Senior Advisory Group on Vietnam,’ thereby bringing McGeorge Bundy, Dean Acheson, Douglas Dillon, and Cyrus Vance into the coalition urging the President to change policy." This was certainly not a group found on the organizational charts of any agency. But it is often how the most important business of government gets done, and if a president does not work hard to establish networks of his own, they will likely be established to undermine him.
Such networks are not only critical to decision-making but to the gathering of information, without which decisions cannot be made. This problem is not unique to the United States, as Winston Churchill’s biographer, Martin Gilbert, explained two decades ago. Churchill, who was in 1939 and 1940 sympathetic to the movement of Jewish refugees from Europe to Palestine, was thwarted by a hostile bureaucracy. It was not a civil servant who ultimately let Churchill know that British ships were intercepting Jewish refugees, but his own son, Randolph.
Other U.S. presidents likewise have relied on their families. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush asked George W. to study his White House team. When the son reported that his father’s chief of staff, John Sununu, was a problem, the president decided to fire the guy, but had young George, then a private citizen, do it. In his memoir, Decision Points, W. laconically describes it as "an awkward conversation."
During his own White House tenure, the younger Bush had his vice president, Cheney, reach outside government to bring in retired Gen. Jack Keane for a reliable independent view of the situation in Iraq. When Keane would report in, Bush would come down the back hallway of the West Wing to the vice president’s office and join the session — so the president’s formal schedule recorded no meeting with Keane, an event that, had the bureaucracy known about it, would have set off major alarm bells.
5. Recruit your staff to your (real) team,and shower them with the perks of office.
The workload of the White House staff is inhumane, so maintaining morale must be a constant concern. Public matters, such as a media consensus that the president will not be reelected, or private ones, such as pressure from an irate spouse, can evolve into serious problems.
No easy solutions exist, but team spirit can be boosted in a few simple ways. For staff members, nothing can substitute for meetings with the president and other high officials. As Niccolò Machiavelli advised in The Prince, a leader "ought to entertain the people with festivals and spectacles at convenient seasons of the year."
These perks matter: invitations to state dinners for the official and his or her spouse, to events at Blair House or other private gatherings, and to public events the president is attending. Ceremonies to which parents and other family members can be invited are also valuable; they constitute a form of psychic income to substitute for the income lost while working for the government. "[T]o keep his servant honest the prince ought to study him, honoring him, enriching him, doing him kindnesses," Machiavelli wrote.
Direct contact with the president is also an essential element of power and influence for White House staff and loyalist officials throughout the bureaucracy. It is critical for White House aides to be able to say, "The president said," and "No, no, the president thinks" on the right occasions. As Acheson explained in his memoir, witnessing presidential decision-making firsthand "meets a fundamental, almost primitive, need of the staff."
Hearing the president himself make a decision also short-circuits staff attempts to subvert or sabotage policies. As Acheson put it, learning about decisions secondhand sows doubts within officialdom: "Did [a policy] have that authority behind it which demanded obedience, or would a plot or a protest, a discreet leak by ‘unimpeachable’ sources to the press or to the Hill — if that is not tautological — upset it?" he wrote. "In a city where, since the Gettysburg Address, few public men have written their own utterances, one should not underestimate the importance of the chief’s announcing, explaining, and, on occasion, discussing his decisions in the presence of his staff."
The most valuable and scarcest commodity in Washington is the president’s time, but some of it must be used to "jolly up" staffers and maintain their morale. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley made sure that Bush met with the entire senior NSC team periodically, and he tried to bring junior NSC staff members to the Oval Office or to lunches with foreign heads of government. It paid off not only in morale, but in the irreplaceable ability to start a rebuttal of unwelcome bureaucratic proposals with: "The president said to me last week.…"
6. Meet the foreign-policy bureaucracy early on, and say you love them.
Every bureaucracy will look askance at a new president, perceiving him as a threat to its preeminence. Frankel, in his account of his time as an assistant secretary of state in Johnson’s administration, wrote that his supposed underlings "have minds of their own, professional pride and an esprit de corps." If a new boss is going to get anything done, Frankel concluded, "He is going to have to make his way into the network of loyalties that already exists or to turn these loyalties in his direction."
Accomplishing that task should be high on any president’s to-do list, and it starts with making career officials feel important and highly valued. He should visit the State Department, the CIA, and the Pentagon early in his term and speak to sizable audiences of career officials, reassuring them that he understands their critical, irreplaceable role. He should promise to rely on their advice and expertise, and point out how many career officials he has recently promoted (assuming there are any).
This is flattery and misdirection, but it will have some value. At the least, failing to make such statements will be poorly received and might give rise to greater suspicion and disloyalty. If there are tangible things to say or do — asking Congress for a greater budget or better retirement plans on behalf of said agency, for example — this will also go over well, and if Congress refuses, the gesture is cost-free.
Sure, the president may not mean it when he tells the men and women of "the government" that they are wonderful. But his job is to get things done, and that requires stroking some egos. Sincere or not, the gesture will be appreciated.
7. Make sure that loyalists are the key players in dealing with Congress.
Over the years, career officials at every agency will establish close relations with Hill staffers and key members of Congress. This makes sense: These are the men and women who determine their budgets, have the power to investigate them, and can block the road to high positions requiring confirmation. These relationships last not just years but decades — and they threaten presidential power.
The only effective way to observe, influence, and sometimes interfere with these relationships is to ensure that the legislative liaison offices in the various departments and agencies are manned by loyalists who report to the central White House Office of Legislative Affairs.
These figures must be conditioned to see that White House office, not offices and officials in their own building, as their central connection in life. This will require a system of rewards and punishments, as well as constant contact through daily phone calls and frequent meetings. They must see that they are members of the president’s legislative team who happen to be stationed at the State or Defense department, rather than State or Defense department officials who happen to be handling the Hill.
The State Department’s legislative bureau has for decades been regarded as weak, and one reason is that career diplomats often staff it. In addition to disliking the work and not being very good at it, those officers often have very little idea how to protect a president’s priorities. Why should they? How can they be expected to know the members of Congress and understand the political processes on the Hill? They may have been in China during the last election and may well be in Jordan for the next, and their focus is less on the chief executive than on the needs of their colleagues and superiors within the State Department.
Just think for a moment about the investigation into the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, which resulted in the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. As State Department legislative liaisons conferred with Capitol Hill and prepared Clinton’s testimony, were they thinking about advancing the Obama White House’s best interests, or about protecting Clinton — and their own friends of many years who may have been affected by the attack?
Relations with Congress are too important to be ignored by top officials — and far too important to be left to career agency officials who will protect their agencies more than the president.
8. Fire all White House holdovers — and do it fast.
The Bush administration’s experience was decidedly mixed when it came to holdovers. Rand Beers was a career civil servant who was held over from President Bill Clinton’s years as an assistant secretary of state and then brought over to the White House as an NSC senior director in 2002. In 2003, he resigned and immediately joined the Kerry campaign as the candidate’s national security advisor. Richard Clarke was held over from the Clinton team as the top NSC counterterrorism official, but after resigning in 2003, he repeatedly attacked the president and other former colleagues. On the other hand, many of Condi Rice’s top staffers at the NSC were career people who served with such loyalty and distinction that she took them with her to the State Department.
Those exceptions aside, the NSC staff does change, and it should — what is the point of elections if the same people hold the same important jobs? White House staff must be responsive to the new president they serve, not some platonic ideal of the presidency. Career people won’t be likely to share all the president’s views, and if they have not gotten their new jobs from him, they will also be unlikely to feel a deep sense of loyalty to him.
These people need to go, and fast. This isn’t only a partisan issue: When George H.W. Bush replaced Reagan, there was nearly as broad a changing of the guard as there would have been had Michael Dukakis won — and rightly so. Putting aside serious issues like fatigue and burnout, the new president wanted people who understood and were loyal to him, not to his predecessor.
When putting his team in place, the president should aim to do it in one fell swoop, at the beginning of his term, rather than let holdovers linger. Once again, Machiavelli understood why this is so. "[I]n seizing a state, the usurper ought to examine closely into all those injuries which it is necessary for him to inflict, and to do them all at one stroke so as not to have to repeat them daily," he wrote. "[T]hus by not unsettling men he will be able to reassure them, and win them to himself by benefits."
Former diplomat Richard Haass takes a more nuanced view, arguing that keeping some holdovers around can augment a new administration’s institutional memory. My experience, however, suggests that very few if any people should be kept. The decisions of any one staffer will rebound around the bureaucracy and the international arena; thus a president must pick his team with the utmost care. "You make only one decision — whether to hire or keep an individual," Haass explained in The Bureaucratic Entrepreneur. "[O]nce on board, that person will make thousands of decisions that will affect your reputation, impact, and effectiveness."
Think of it this way: When staff members are holdovers, the new president did not even choose them at all. What kind of impression will that make on the rest of the bureaucracy? And how can such holdovers really understand the thoughts, goals, and desires of the new president as well as they understood those of the previous incumbent, who did them the honor of selecting them for higher office? Continuity and experience are important, but the career services at the cabinet agencies, not the White House team, can supply them.
9. Get your appointees to stick around, because getting your way takes time.
While career officials in financial or regulatory agencies sometimes leave for high-paying jobs, bureaucrats in the national security arena typically stay for decades. Such officials have seen many administrations come and go, and they know the rules and tricks of their trade.
Political appointees may not need 20 years to tame their bureaucracy, but they do need more than one or two. These staffers often do not even get started until halfway through a new administration’s first year, due to the confirmation process. Those who leave their positions in the second year of an administration have contributed little, and their short tenure makes all problems of presidential control of the bureaucracy far worse. A vacancy in top posts is always a real problem, as it leaves the bureaucracy "alone" for many months without any direct control by a presidential appointee confirmed by the Senate. During the entire Benghazi crisis and ensuing investigations, the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs had a political vacuum at the top — something that cannot have helped the bureau, the secretary of state, or the White House.
Those who stay for their third and fourth years, and into a president’s second term, will be far more effective. Many projects take time to shepherd through government; still others must wait until the time is ripe for trying to push them through. What’s more, the appointee who stays for years will acquire some bureaucratic allies and a better sense of who his or her (and the president’s) enemies are.
As a president becomes a lame duck, the power of his appointees will also wane. Their authority, however, will still be greater if they have come to dominate and fully understand the bureaucracy. Nothing is gained — and much is lost — if the most loyal presidential appointees are short-timers.
10. Don’t hire senior staff without successful federal experience.*
Although this rule excludes enormous amounts of talent, it also excludes people who will not know how to get the job done. Truth be told, expertise about a subject is not as important as knowing how to manage the bureaucracy on behalf of the president, and academic politics does not prepare one for controlling Foggy Bottom, the Pentagon, or Langley. Big business may provide training in handling big bureaucracies, but not in doing so with blogs, television networks, and newspapers watching one’s every move, including one’s (previously) private life. The only way to be sure an applicant can do the job is evidence that he or she has already done it, or something very close to it.
In his memoir, Shultz tells the story of Jerry Van Gorkom, a very sharp and successful businessman whom he invited to try his hand in the wilds of Washington. The experiment soon went awry. "I look over a problem and decide what to do," Van Gorkom told him. "No sooner have I sent out an instruction than it’s overridden by the White House or leaked to the press, or a call comes in from some congressional staffer irately challenging what we’re doing. In business, when we decided to do something, we did it. In government nothing ever gets settled."
Van Gorkom did not last a year before returning to the private sector. Many others have suffered his fate. No particular prior experience — not business, or academia, or think tanks, or law — suggests that an individual will master the bureaucratic politics of Washington. The only way to know someone can do it is knowing that he or she has done it before.
This suggests another responsibility for any administration: It must bring in, at lower levels in the agencies and the White House, young men and women who are political loyalists. In the next round, when the next administration of the same party is elected, these staffers will not only be ready and willing, but truly able, to serve the president in managing the bureaucracy.
*(except Henry Kissinger)
11. Realize that control of the bureaucracy does not come from issuing orders, but from the daily grind.
Truman once famously bemoaned what he imagined would be the fate of the recently elected Eisenhower: "He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike — it won’t be a bit like the Army."
Truman knew the U.S. government well. Maintaining presidential power requires the daily exercise of it, as well as a constant monitoring of the bureaucracy. This is best conducted by loyal officials assigned to the bureaucracy, for too much is going on in the national security agencies every day for any White House to keep track.
Often, the best asset can be career officials themselves — if they can be brought around. They know the bureaucracy best: how to make their fellow officials act, how to prevent action, and where decision-making power is located. Moreover, they are experts, having dealt with the key issues for years or decades, and they know the key figures in other governments and rival U.S. bureaucracies. Winning their loyalty and assistance is therefore critical — treating them all like enemies is as foolish as assuming they are all allies.
But keeping them on the team can be a struggle. One day during Bush’s second term, I mentioned to a career diplomat at a Situation Room meeting that the president’s speech the night before had at least settled several policy questions we’d long been debating. "What do you mean?" he replied. "Policy is not made by speeches. Policy is made by the interagency process." Oh boy, I thought, this guy is going to need watching.
There is no solution, only the daily grind. The president’s loyalists must go to work every day, at the level of office director or deputy assistant secretary, and endeavor to make the decisions the president would if he were there. Policy guidance is fine, indeed essential, but it is not sufficient. Day after day, someone must review the cables, talking points, and memos of conversations, ensuring that the activities of America’s vast national security bureaucracy remain in line with what the president wants. Senior officials must give orders, or at least send signals, about how individual decisions should be made, or bureaucrats will resolve them according to their agency’s bureaucratic interests — or their own personal views. Eternal vigilance is the price of presidential control.