Trump’s National Security Council Is Replicating Reagan’s Chaos
If John Bolton isn’t careful, he could go the way of William Clark, whose hawkish policies sowed White House discord.
The Time magazine cover said it all. Above a somber portrait of U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s national security advisor, William “The Judge” Clark, a bold-faced headline proclaimed: “The Big Stick Approach.” The message was clear: The White House was taking charge of a more forceful foreign policy. Yet just two months later, in October 1983, that cover boy was out of the job, a casualty of a breakdown on the National Security Council over the United States’ role in the Middle East.
This mostly forgotten history should serve as a warning to President Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton—whose push to use the big stick effectively against Iran, North Korea, and other countries has led to speculation over his job security.
Unlike Clark, a longtime Reagan loyalist who admitted his own lack of expertise on foreign policy, Bolton has been a decades-long fixture in the right-wing national security establishment. But the two national security advisors have something fundamental in common: They both found themselves pushing so hard for hawkish policies that they turned off their colleagues and their presidents.
On Thursday night, Trump pulled back from a retaliatory strike against Iran—urged, reportedly, by Bolton—for shooting down a U.S. drone. Planes and ships were moving into position by the time Trump changed course. Friday morning, Trump explained the whiplash on Twitter, saying the strikes would have been disproportionate.
Such an about-face—a president not feeling confident enough in his own call and having to change it—is the result of Bolton’s muddled decision-making processes, with senior advisors pulling one way and the president another, and none of the options solid enough for the commander in chief’s comfort. For the national security advisor, the question is whether he can find a way to wield a big stick effectively without getting whacked himself. The question for the rest of us is whether we should be worried more about how the Trump administration makes policies than about the decisions themselves.
Such tension isn’t new. Though many choose to remember Reagan’s foreign policy, especially his stewardship of the Cold War, in iconic terms, the making of it was far more chaotic. Like Trump today, Reagan was not a hands-on commander in chief. Instead, he preferred, according to one close observer, to have “the boys” (as the president called his older advisors) settle their disagreements and then submit a consensus recommendation for presidential approval.
But Reagan’s boys rarely got along well enough to recommend anything at all. The State and Defense Departments fought their usual bureaucratic battles. Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger also brought a decades-long personal rivalry with them to the Situation Room. And all the players had strong, differing opinions about policy, especially Reagan’s deployment of U.S. Marines to Lebanon in 1982 to try to bring peace to a flare-up in the country’s civil war.
The tenure of Clark—whom Reagan appointed only after his first national security advisor, Richard Allen, resigned over bribery allegations after less than a year on the job—was one product of the chaos. Still, Clark tried to get everyone, if not on the same page, then at least behind the same policies. Lebanon proved how hard his job was. After the Marines’ initial deployment, Shultz and the State Department defended their control of the diplomatic initiatives, and Weinberger and others at the Pentagon battled to limit the mission amid growing violence near the U.S. Marines’ headquarters at the Beirut airport.
For almost a year, Clark and his NSC staff fought in vain to push the State Department and the Pentagon to expand the mission. The White House complained about the agencies’ ideas—a Clark aide wrote on one proposal, “All this is absolutely bunk!” They tried to replace the State Department’s chosen diplomatic envoy, at one point proposing that former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger take the reins. And they tried several ploys to get Reagan’s attention and approval for ambitious new military initiatives in Lebanon. Yet each and every time, the State and Defense Departments fought back against the White House’s ideas and their meddling.
The cycle—every month it seemed new proposals to expand the mission were met by heated arguments and followed by another disappointing progress report—gave Clark a feeling of “déjà vu.” In July 1983, Reagan finally put the national security advisor and his staff in control of Lebanon policy not only in Washington but as leads of the diplomatic missions around the Middle East. When Time put Clark and the “Big Stick” on its cover, all of government believed State had lost control, the Pentagon was in the backseat, and that “For NSC Staff, It’s Heady to be the Hub of Activity,” as the Washington Post declared.
But both the State and Defense Departments, and Weinberger in particular, were unhappy. They kept pushing back in meetings and with leaks to resist a more aggressive posture in Beirut. Eventually, Clark gave Reagan a manipulative telegram from his deputy, Robert “Bud” McFarlane, a former Marine and Kissinger aide then traveling in the Beirut. In what some in the military called the “sky-is-falling cable,” McFarlane made a manipulative plea to try to shock Reagan to “fish or cut bait,” in the words of one staffer, and finally opt for a more aggressive policy. Eventually, Reagan sided with Clark, McFarlane, and others on the NSC.
In the days after the decision, amid questions and leaks about the internal debate, Clark persuaded Reagan to order members of the National Security Council to be polygraphed about disclosures to the press. White Houses before and after Reagan’s, including Trump’s, have worried about leaks, but polygraphs were an unusually drastic step. Before the tests could be carried out, Shultz threatened to resign, which convinced Reagan to back down. As Clark fought on, it became clear he had overstepped with Reagan, who soon nominated the national security advisor to be interior secretary and named McFarlane his replacement.
More than taking over Clark’s office, McFarlane tried to pick up the big stick. He and others on the NSC staff kept pushing Reagan to allow the Marines to take part in the fight in Lebanon, even after tragedy fell and 241 Marines were killed in their barracks by suicide bombers in late October. Still, disagreements confounded sound policy-making, including a decision many thought Reagan had made in mid-November to retaliate. The order never got finalized or executed, which led McFarlane and others on the NSC to accuse the Weinberger of “insubordination.”
As that episode demonstrated, a change in national security advisor does not put an end to a president’s policy preferences or the messy process in Washington. McFarlane, who had so supported using lie detectors to keep discipline that he volunteered to take one the year before, also grew as frustrated as Clark by the disagreements on Reagan’s team. Eventually, he and a few others got in the habit of working around the breakdowns in Washington and those blocking them at the agencies, the result of which was a scheme like the Iran-Contra Affair.
Today, with news reports of infighting in Trump’s national security team and Bolton’s push for aggressive policies in Iran and elsewhere, Americans should remember the story of Clark’s rise and demise. It will not help them predict whether or when Bolton will be fired over Twitter, and it will not help them figure out whether the United States should strike Iran. But the history serves as a reminder that a chaotic foreign-policy process is like an acid bath that eats everything: reputations, relationships, and rational policy choices.
An irregular president like Trump was never a great fit for the regular way of making foreign policy in Washington. There are few institutions in which this has been more apparent than the National Security Council, where Trump has upset traditions by putting a political advisor on a key committee, disrupting policy development with tweets, reneging on his own decisions like the retaliatory strikes against Iran, and obsessing about some matters like his relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un while abandoning most others to aides.
A seasoned policymaker like Bolton, who has been serving in government off and on since the Reagan administration, could have helped bring order to the White House. The national security advisor has said, “I’m proud to say I’m a good bureaucrat,” and the unconventional president needed one.
Instead, however, Bolton appears to be more interested in pursuing his own initiatives on Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela. As a result, the national security advisor, who has rarely held back from sharing his hawkish views, disrespecting the chain of command, or seeking to overcome those who disagreed, has found himself on the wrong side of colleagues such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and their boss, Trump. Indeed, in recent weeks the president has taken steps to publicly distance himself from Bolton, undercutting some of his statements about North Korea and Iran.
The ensuing breakdown was predictable, and Thursday’s chaos was no surprise. Now, as tensions remain high with Iran, the Trump national security team is making decisions (and backtracking on them) about a growing crisis in the Middle East even as leaks about tensions and infighting spill onto Twitter. Today’s breakdown will eventually lead to bad policy choices and personal changes, much like what happened 36 years ago.
That’s unfortunate. Wielding a big stick is never easy in Washington, but it is sometimes necessary. If Trump does not take the steps, whether with Bolton or a new national security advisor, to bring some order to his policy process, neither he nor the country will not be ready when a more forceful foreign policy is really required. So far, the crises of the Trump administration have been minor or of its own making. That sort of luck is unlikely to last.