Despite a National Security Strategy that earned rare praise from a generally critical foreign-policy establishment, the Trump administration’s National Security Council (NSC) has been a chaotic institution acting outside its mandate. In this, according to John Gans’s new book, White House Warriors, it is like most other administrations’ NSCs throughout history.
White House Warriors is a survey of how the NSC has operated in every administration since Kennedy. It charts the ways in which the NSC has strayed from its original purpose since its inception. This may sound like a dull project, but Gans succeeds in making it interesting by zeroing in on the human stories behind the headlines. Each chapter focuses on a different protagonist operating as the NSC mulls a major foreign-policy decision, and the results are often riveting.
The NSC has been receiving a lot of attention in academic and policy circles lately. It was created to help the president arrive at answers to great strategic questions and coordinate between the various agencies of the country’s national-security apparatus, but has taken an increasing role in setting policy and strategy over the years. As it has stepped outside its mandate — policy and strategy are rightly the purview of the respective national-security agencies — the NSC, originally intended to include a few-dozen specialized staffers, has also grown bloated. During the Obama administration, it employed hundreds of policy staffers, to the point where Congress felt the need to cap its policy staff at 200 — a number that is still too high, according to Gans.
George H.W. Bush’s NSC, in contrast, receives high marks from Gans. After the Iran–Contra scandal, President Reagan tasked the three-person Tower Commission with conducting “a comprehensive study of the future role and procedures of the National Security Council (N.S.C.) staff in the development, coordination, oversight and conduct of foreign and national security policy.” One of the Commission’s members was former and future national-security adviser Brent Scowcroft, and he took the lessons he learned to heart. Placed in charge of the NSC by Bush, he made it a small, yet assertive force coordinating between national-security agencies and their principals. Working in concert with a team of well-matched principals (Secretary of State James Baker, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, CIA director William Webster), Scowcroft’s NSC contributed to the quick, resounding success of the Persian Gulf War. In this it was helped greatly by Bush, who was more familiar with the world of national security than any of his predecessors and willing to rein in his underlings when necessary. (In one of the book’s most revealing episodes, he intervenes to overrule the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, who opposed military intervention, asserting civilian authority over the military.)
Sadly, the NSC of George W. Bush’s second term — the one that successfully implemented the troop surge in Iraq — is the only other one not to receive a failing grade from Gans. (Gans attributes its success to the leadership of Steven Hadley, Scowcroft’s protégé and the chief author of the Tower Commission Report.) The rest of the book tells different tales of presidents unable to put together the same sort of well-oiled national-security machine as Bush. The NSC headed by Henry Kissinger under Presidents Nixon and Ford illegally wiretapped its members. President Reagan went through six national-security advisers in his two terms. None of them were able to referee the fierce disagreements between Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, and the consequences were dire: an unfortunate conclusion to Lebanon’s civil war, the tragic deaths of American servicemen, and ultimately the Iran-Contra scandal. President Clinton’s NSC was a dysfunctional disaster throughout the 1993 crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which ended well enough through sheer luck, according to Gans. Obama’s surge in Afghanistan, the episode through which Gans examines his NSC, was largely unsuccessful.
A pattern eventually emerges from the chapters that recount failures (which is to say the non-Bush chapters): The NSC oversteps and micromanages, there is too much distrust between the principals and within the NSC, and the commander-in-chief and his national-security adviser fail to assert themselves to settle disputes. This explains why Obama’s much-ballyhooed “team of rivals” approach to cabinet-building ended up being such a disaster.
The genius of White House Warriors is that it doesn’t have a partisan axe to grind. Gans doesn’t comment on the policies each president pursued, but on how they were implemented in a crisis. He is critical of most Republican and Democratic administrations’ NSCs, and his evenhandedness lends the recommendations for reform at the end of the book more weight. He advocates a smaller NSC that focuses on big-picture strategic challenges and manages the president’s day-to-day and administrative needs, leaving the various national-security agencies to make strategy. This approach would require a responsible staff that doesn’t overstep the NSC’s original mandate, assertive and disciplined national-security advisers and presidents, and stronger agency bureaucracies with more empowered and responsive staffs that respond to challenges before the NSC has to step in.
The late Charles Krauthammer once observed that decline is a choice. The United States is the most successful hegemon in history, and still has a better hand to play than any of its competitors today. Given that hand, there should by rights be no reason to forecast a triumph of autocracies over the liberal-democratic order we’ve championed to such great effect since World War II. But a good hand can only carry you so far if you don’t play it properly. In an era that’s seen the return of great-power competition, the United States must rethink how it strategizes and makes policy.