Inside the Committee that Runs the World

September 11, 2001, was a catalytic event that revealed the core character of the Bush administration's national security team. As rival factions fought for the president's ear, the transformative ideals espoused by the neocons gained ascendancy -- triggering a rift that has split the Republican foreign-policy establishment to its foundations.

The inner circles of the U.S. national security community -- members of the National Security Council (NSC), a select number of their deputies, and a few close advisors to the president -- represent what is probably the most powerful committee in the history of the world, one with more resources, more power, more license to act, and more ability to project force further and swifter than any other convened by king, emperor, or president.

The inner circles of the U.S. national security community — members of the National Security Council (NSC), a select number of their deputies, and a few close advisors to the president — represent what is probably the most powerful committee in the history of the world, one with more resources, more power, more license to act, and more ability to project force further and swifter than any other convened by king, emperor, or president.

At the same time, the political party controlling that committee has a grip on power in Washington unprecedented in recent history. For the first time in nearly eight decades, the Republican Party has won control of the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives in two consecutive elections. Yet, despite this political monopoly, the elites who exert the most influence on this little-understood, shadowy committee are being buffeted and pulled apart by forces from within.

An increasingly bitter philosophical debate pits the supporters of the policies of former President George H.W. Bush and many of his one-time team of foreign-policy experts, led by former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, against those who back views embraced by President George W. Bush and his team, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. What Scowcroft calls the "traditionalists" of the Bush 41 team are pitted against the "transformationalists" of the Bush 43 team, pragmatists vs. neocons, internationalists vs. unilateralists, the people who oversaw the end of the Cold War against those who oversaw the beginning of the War on Terror. Of course, the irony is that many of these people were not too long ago seen as parts of a whole. All are or once were close. What happened?

Partisan critics have offered theories, many of which distort the facts or speak for key players in ways that suit their own arguments. However, as the transition from the first to the second term of the Bush administration takes hold, many of its current and former members and others inside the Republican Party foreign-policy establishment are beginning to open up and speak their minds about the character of the key players and their relationships within these inner circles. More revealing and more credible than partisan critics, the picture they paint is useful not only for what it tells us about the operations of the administration during its first term but also for what should be expected from the next four years.


The NSC was established in 1947 as a coordinating mechanism to ensure the president received the benefit of the views of the principal members of his national security team — a reaction to President Franklin Roosevelt’s close-held, ad hoc management style. Its staff was tiny and uninfluential. The NSC’s clout grew modestly during its first couple of decades, but it then emerged as a unique power center during the 1970s under the leadership of national security advisors who shaped it into a modern institution: Henry Kissinger, Scowcroft, and Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Since that era, the NSC’s power has ebbed and flowed, but the trend has been in its favor with recent national security advisors eclipsing the influence of their counterparts in the State and Defense Departments. As part of the executive office of the president, the NSC operates with unusual freedom compared to most cabinet agencies. Neither the national security advisor nor any other member of the NSC staff is confirmed by the Senate. As such, the NSC as an entity is not subject to congressional oversight, even though it now performs many of the policymaking functions once reserved for the State Department. Indeed, it has become a preserve for those activities that an administration wishes to conduct beyond congressional scrutiny, as the country learned to its collective discomfort with the revelations of the "operational" NSC of Adm. John Poindexter and Col. Oliver North during the Reagan years.

The NSC’s power has expanded since the end of the Cold War, as critical constraints on its operations have been removed or reduced. Virtually every major decision made during the first 45 years of the NSC’s existence was influenced by calculating what the Soviet reaction would be. Today, the United States operates as a sole superpower unburdened by such considerations. Policymakers no longer must be concerned with the consequences of their actions beyond how their domestic audience responds — and even that constraint diminished with the national mindset that developed in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Such was the political landscape that characterized Condoleezza Rice’s tenure as national security advisor. In that vital role, she was closer to the president she served than any of her 16 predecessors. By her own account, she often spent as many as six or seven hours a day at the president’s side. But she was also an unofficial member of the Bush family, with her own cabin at Camp David, coming as a regular guest to Sunday dinners, and relaxing with the president and his family on vacations.

Her view of the presidency and her ideas about how the executive branch was intended to function came, as it did for many members of the Bush team, from her experience as an NSC staffer during the administration of George H.W. Bush — and, in particular, from her tutelage at the knee of Scowcroft, the elder Bush’s national security advisor and the man whose NSC is taught in graduate schools as a model of organization and management. Rice is at the center of the divide within the administration, pulled between her traditionalist mentor and her transformationalist president. This tug of war has produced repeated tense exchanges between Rice and Scowcroft over his critique of the administration’s policy in Iraq. As a result, the man who coauthored the memoirs of Bush senior has been banished from his son’s advisory circles (including the recent decision not to reappoint him as head of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board).

When Rice speaks of the president, there is no hint of ambivalence. She is passionately loyal, with equal parts admiration and fondness. "This president," she declares, "is more strategic than any other president I have dealt with. Sometimes, something in the intelligence will trigger it, and he’ll just go off on strategic issues. We do a fair amount of it at Camp David or down at the ranch. We’ll just be sitting there working on a puzzle, and all of a sudden he’ll say, ‘You know, I was just thinking … the China situation.…’ That’s something I think is not very well understood about the president. And unless you sit with him in the Oval Office, you can’t see it." Likewise, Colin Powell, Rice’s predecessor at Foggy Bottom who served in both Bush administrations, sees a strong contrast between father and son: "Bush 43 is like 41 in that he is ready to act, but [for 41] it was a more deliberate process, whereas 43 is guided more by a powerful inertial navigation system than by intellect. He knows kind of what he wants to do and what he wants to hear is how to get it done."

Those who know the president well suggest that George W. Bush’s decisiveness might be attributed, in part, to a higher power. Scowcroft was quoted late last year as saying, "It’s possible that the transformation came with 9/11, and the current president, who is a very religious person, thought that there was something unique if not divine about a catastrophe like 9/11 happening when he was president. That somehow that was meant to be, and his mission is to deal with the war on terrorism." But, as Scowcroft also notes, the problem with absolutist beliefs "is that they can get you into traps in which the ends justify the means. It can be dangerous to believe that one’s motives are so noble that therefore anything we do becomes okay because we are doing it for a good cause." The paradoxical implication is clear: From undercutting traditional relationships with allies to Abu Ghraib, the less moral ambiguity you have in your worldview, the more of it you can justify in your actions.

Another problem with this approach, according to Scowcroft, comes from the fact that "if you believe you are pursuing absolute good then it is a sin to depart from it." Which means that absolutism either creates dangerous policy handcuffs or, alternatively, it leaves the United States open to charges of hypocrisy. "For example," Scowcroft observes, "we advocate the export of democracy and yet we find ourselves embracing a number of leaders who are anything but democratic in order to advance other policies or even the spread of democracy elsewhere. You can not argue for absolutes and then practice pragmatism without opening yourself up to criticism."

Beyond the ideological turf wars between traditionalists and transformationalists, divisions within the inner circles of the NSC are also a consequence of the personalities and management styles of the key players. Once again, the contrasts with the famously harmonious workings of the Bush 41 team are striking. "I really did want to have an NSC that functioned a lot like Brent’s NSC," Rice reflected while still serving as national security advisor, "low-key, very much more of a coordinating function, much less operational, smaller." To achieve this end, she tried to instill in her team a culture of staffing the president. "I spend a lot of time when I meet with every new director … and these guys will tell you that I always say, ‘Your first responsibility is to staff the president. If that means the president got a paper and he wanted it in 12-point type and it is in 10-point type, it’s your job to go fix that.’"

Although widely praised within the administration for providing attentive support for the president and for her accessible management style, Rice has also been criticized from within by some who believe she transformed the NSC into an organization that serves the individual requirements of the president at the expense of better serving the national interest. "There are two models for being national security advisor," observes Scowcroft, "staffing the president or running the institution. The trick is doing them both." Many within the administration who still work at the NSC or within NSC member agencies put it another way: As national security advisor, Rice was so preoccupied with being at the president’s side every minute, whispering in his ear, being his "alter ego on foreign-policy matters," that she has let the NSC’s role as a coordinating body weaken. "I am not saying she was not seeking to play the role of honest broker," says one. "She is earnest and dedicated and very smart. But she can’t be in two places at once…. The guys in this administration are old hands, experienced players, and you can’t leave them to their own devices, or they will eat your lunch." One senior individual closely involved with the nonpartisan 9/11 Commission was even more blunt: "We concluded as a group that the National Security Council was dysfunctional."


The State Department, although the odd man out in this story, was clearly not without influence. Colin Powell entered office with a higher approval rating than the president, and he maintained it throughout his time in office. Indeed, his popularity may actually have been a problem for him when it came to retaining the trust of the president’s loyalists, who saw him as a political power in his own right.

One top State Department official who worked very closely with Powell suggests that the secretary of state’s popularity also complicated his relationship with the outside world, in that Powell became perceived as the voice of reason who could rein in the administration’s transformative impulses. "A lot of people look at Colin Powell and they see the Colin Powell GI Joe doll action figure," he notes. "And they want to dress him up in their own clothes.… At the 2003 World Economic Forum in Davos before the war [in Iraq] … he actually was forced to get pretty explicit with the Europeans and say, ‘I’m not the man you think I am. I’m not fighting your case in the American government. I think differently than you. I think we have to deal with Iraq. I think the president will decide if we have to do that militarily or not. But you guys have to understand, I am not the European spokesman inside the administration.’"

Powell’s diminished influence while at the State Department is also a consequence of overseeing a vast bureaucracy in a world that demands a rapid response to crises. Marc Grossman, Powell’s under secretary of state for political affairs, has discussed this trend with Powell and observes, "Decision cycles sped up so much that the way we do business at the State Department was now too slow.… One of the things we had tried to do is tell everybody here that if we don’t change the way we do business, then we’re going to go out of business. There will still be a building here and people still come to work, but it will be just another irrelevant bureaucracy."

But the obstacle that most frustrated Powell was one that was 30 years in the making: the Cheney-Rumsfeld partnership. As Cheney reportedly jokes, "When I look at Don Rumsfeld, I see a great secretary of defense. When Rumsfeld looks at me, he sees a former assistant to Don Rumsfeld." Or, as another close friend of Cheney’s observed, "Sometimes when you see them together at a party, you’re not sure who is working for whom."

Kissinger has been heard to describe Rumsfeld as the "most ruthless man" he ever met while in government. It is a view that is disputed by almost no one. And nearly all who know Rumsfeld acknowledge that he is exceptionally intelligent, hardworking, and skillful. But his unique relationship with one of the most powerful vice presidents in history and the exceptional network that binds their offices and the rest of the administration has set the center of gravity wherever these two men are standing together, literally or figuratively.

A former senior official in the Bush 41 administration, reflecting on Bush 43’s first term, puts it this way: "People on the NSC staff believe that the secretary of defense has four points of entry into the White House. He can go to Condi for the easy stuff. He can go to [White House Chief of Staff] Andy [Card] for the stuff that’s a little tougher, to Cheney, if it’s really difficult, and then, for the ace in the hole, direct contact with the president if necessary. You just can’t run a system like that and expect it to work."

Many senior administration officials were frustrated by the Department of Defense’s (DoD) repeated disinclination to play by the rules, arriving at meetings unprepared, refusing to discuss or advance issues, and working through back channels. One NSC staffer complained he spent half his time "cleaning up DoD’s messes, much of the time actually at the Pentagon, trying to soothe military leadership who had been snubbed or burned by Rummy and his guys." Another complained of an instance in which, after a deputies meeting, a senior Pentagon official called then Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley at the White House and asked him to change the minutes of the meeting to arrive at a modified conclusion. Hadley was subsequently confronted by another official, who reportedly said, "Hey, this isn’t Stalinist Russia, you can’t just rewrite history!"

The acrimony between the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and other agencies has become legend. According to one individual who served on the Bush 43 NSC staff, they were "just out of control, an endless nightmare." Another NSC staffer from George W. Bush’s first term said that "OSD was nuts…. We would say they were out of their fucking minds both from a policy perspective and from a process perspective. In effect, [Rumsfeld] said, ‘I don’t give a shit what the NSC staff says, I am going to do whatever I feel is in my right to do as the chain of command to the president.’ He was like his own venture capitalist. He liked to dabble in different areas and throw things here and throw things there…. We would characterize Rumsfeld as Secretary Strangelove."


Other than the president himself, Vice President Dick Cheney is ultimately seen by many as the engine that drives the group dynamic. Gen. Jay Garner, briefly in charge of Iraqi reconstruction, recounted his frustration at being blocked from hiring two "superbly well-qualified" State Department Iraq experts for his team by Rumsfeld, who explained that the decision was being made "above his paygrade." Later, Garner found out the instruction had come out of the vice president’s office.

Cheney has had the largest national security staff of any vice president in U.S. history — one larger than President John F. Kennedy’s entire NSC staff at one time. He also has a network of close associates that extend throughout the government and who report to him or to Lewis "Scooter" Libby, his chief of staff, whose rank (assistant to the president) is technically equivalent to the national security advisor’s. Estimates of the total number of staffers, consultants, and those seconded from other agencies to the vice president’s office to work on national security-related issues have ranged from 15 to 35; it’s impossible to know for sure, as the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act do not cover the Office of the Vice President, and therefore it does not need to disclose details of its operation.

Rice describes Cheney as a "terrific" asset, in that "he has been able to sit as a principal without a bureaucratic domain to defend, so he’s always just a really wonderfully wise voice in the principals’ councils." Others see it differently, including many officials within the administration who believe that the true value of a principals’ committee meeting is to allow the president’s national security team to have a free and open discussion about the advice they wish to give the president. Unfortunately, when Cheney is at the table, he is not simply, as Rice characterizes him, just a wise, old principal without a portfolio. He is seen as an 800-pound gorilla whose views carry much more weight than the others and which therefore skew discussions and quash open dissent, inadvertently or otherwise.

Richard Haass, who served in the administrations of both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush and is currently president of the Council on Foreign Relations, recalls that Cheney had "three bites at the apple. He has his staff at every meeting. He would then come to principals’ meetings. And then he’d have his one-on-ones with the president. And given the views that came out of the vice president’s office, it introduced a certain bias to the system…. As a result, I felt that at just about every meeting, the State Department began behind two and a half to one."

Some are puzzled by the vice president’s emergence in his current role, especially those who saw him as a professional but nonideological cabinet secretary during the administration of George H.W. Bush. "You know, the big mystery to me is Dick Cheney," says one senior Republican who has known him since the Ford years. "He instinctively started from the conservative base, but if you made a compelling rational argument he was not an ideologue. My sense is that now, for whatever reason, he has become an ideologue … and I don’t know whether it is because he is an extraordinarily powerful vice president, more powerful than any in our history, and nobody talks to him and says … ‘Dick, you’re full of shit, you know?’ Or whether he’s only now able to let his true feelings come out or whether there was some kind of shift."

Some within the Republican establishment acknowledge that September 11 was catalytic, revealing the core views or character traits within the members of the group. "The traditionalists believe in operating within the traditions of 20th century U.S. foreign policy," observes Scowcroft. "That one proceeds in foreign policy in conjunction with, or reaching out to, our friends, allies, and international organizations. The transformationalists argue that 9/11 showed that the world environment was deteriorating rapidly and we had to be bold. Friends and allies would only hold us back. We know what has to be done and we have the power to do it. What has to be done is to transform the Middle East into a collection of democracies. That will bring peace and stability, and, when that has been done, will be applauded by the world."


The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon produced immediate and striking changes within the White House. Cheney snapped into action on 9/11 and immediately went from being a very influential conservative vice president into being the hub of the ideologically driven policy-formation process his colleagues have described. Rumsfeld, in mid-2001 the most likely cabinet member to depart early, was redeemed that day, and the primacy of his department for the foreseeable future was insured. The importance of Rice to a president for whom national security was now the central issue grew geometrically, and she was drawn inexorably to his side and away from the process and the institution she might otherwise have managed quite like Scowcroft had. The neocons saw the opportunity to assert their case that diplomatic balancing acts in the Middle East had created danger for the United States and that the time had come for stronger measures, whatever the cost. As for the president himself, one Bush family intimate, commenting on the commander in chief’s renewed sense of mission, muses, "I don’t know exactly what it means to be a born-again Christian, but, if it means that Jesus has entered your soul, then does it mean that you are infallible? I don’t know the answer to that. But it may impart a certitude to the president that affects the way he reacts to his team and everything else." The lightning bolt had struck and the transformation of the transformationalists had begun.

Will the ascendancy of the transformationalists be followed by the realization of their vision? A key factor in answering that question will be whether they retain their influence in the years ahead, especially as the shock of September 11 slips further into memory.

With Powell’s departure, many felt that as the second term of the Bush administration began, power had consolidated around the neocons. However, some moderating forces are also in play. First is the old Washington rule that where you sit is where you stand. Rice will be changed by the State Department more than she changes it. She will be called upon to advance its agenda and she will grow close and responsive to those within it, including many career Foreign Service officials. Furthermore, key projects, such as those that will emerge in the context of attempting to realize a true broader Middle East policy, will be her initiatives and she will be motivated by pride of authorship. Also, she has put together a core team of senior advisors who are much more in the traditionalist vein. Many of them have a strong background in trans-Atlantic relations, suggesting a desire to make the repair of traditional alliances a top priority. Rice is unlikely to be burdened by the recurring rivalry between secretaries of state and national security advisors, given that her former deputy, Stephen Hadley, succeeded her at the NSC.

In addition, should the United States be able to gradually wind down its involvement in Iraq — and should no major terrorist attacks occur — the "militarization" of U.S. foreign policy (as one State Department official calls it) will recede, lessening the influence of a Department of Defense already wounded by its own missteps. Those are big "ifs," but with an apparent desire to switch focus toward domestic issues such as Social Security, the "war cabinet" mentality of the Bush inner circle seems likely to abate somewhat, perhaps restoring more balance to the State–Defense rivalry that has been a centerpiece of the NSC since its inception.

In the end, of course, the determining vote will come down to Cheney and, above all, as it always does, to President George W. Bush. The NSC is built differently from other parts of the U.S. government in which the Constitution provided for institutional structures to be more important than the influence of any one person. If the president chooses to use it as a system to present himself with various views and to test those views before ensuring their implementation, it tends to work rather well. If he chooses to use it as a mechanism that is more focused on implementation than debate — or more focused on debate than on effective implementation, as sometimes happens — then it does not. If he chooses to ignore formal structures and depend on informal ones as do most presidents, the formal ones fade in relevance.

Further, the chemistry of the group and the personalities of the individuals within it play a far greater role in determining its true function than does any preconceived aspect of its structure. Indeed, the structure of the actual committee (which is the ad hoc group the president relies on rather than the formal NSC itself) is based on a constantly changing series of transactions between the president and its members in which he offers or withdraws access, trust, influence, and power. Statutes and history are far less important than these transactions, which continuously remake this powerful entity.

Philosophies are, of course, of central consequence to this process, in that they shape affinities and the collective character of the group. Tugs of war over ideology are a central tradition of the NSC, and today’s struggle shares much with those of the past, particularly those that have divided the Republican Party throughout the modern era. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was torn between anti-Communist hardliners who urged him to act forcefully (and unilaterally, if necessary) to "roll back" the Soviets and more moderate voices who urged a "block-and-tackle" approach that relied on international alliances and institutions to help contain communism and promote American values. Goldwater and later Reagan championed conservative views in which "extremism in defense of liberty [was] no vice" and that attacked the realpolitik advocated by the likes of Kissinger and Scowcroft.

Underlying these battles was a debate over the nature of U.S. leadership, and whether Washington weakens that leadership by seeking agreement and cooperation with the international community that the United States helped construct. The question is whether the next four years will see a continued ebb and flow between these opposing viewpoints or whether we really have entered a new era in which the nature of the threats we face warrants the approaches that the transformationalists propose. Will the war on terrorism be supplanted by other economic or political issues that dictate new priorities? Will their policies start to bear fruit? As these answers are revealed, so too will be the answer as to whether the rifts within the Republican foreign-policy establishment represent momentary tremors or transformative tectonic shifts within the party that now controls the committee in charge of running the world.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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