Team of Heavyweights

The Washington Post

President-elect Barack Obama has appointed an extraordinary team for national security policy. On its face, it violates certain maxims of conventional wisdom: that appointing to the Cabinet individuals with an autonomous constituency, and who therefore are difficult to fire, circumscribes presidential control; that appointing as national security adviser, secretary of state and secretary of defense individuals with established policy views may absorb the president's energies in settling disputes among strong-willed advisers.

It took courage for the president-elect to choose this constellation and no little inner assurance — both qualities essential for dealing with the challenge of distilling order out of a fragmenting international system. In these circumstances, ignoring conventional wisdom may prove to have been the precondition for creativity. Both Obama and the secretary of state-designate, Sen. Hillary Clinton, must have concluded that the country and their commitment to public service require their cooperation.

Those who take the phrase "team of rivals" literally do not understand the essence of the relationship between the president and the secretary of state. I know of no exception to the principle that secretaries of state are influential if and only if they are perceived as extensions of the president. Any other course weakens the president and marginalizes the secretary. The Beltway system of leak and innuendo will mercilessly seek to widen any even barely visible split. Foreign governments will exploit the rift by pursuing alternative White House-State Department diplomacies. Effective foreign policy and a significant role for the State Department in it require that the president and the secretary of state have a common vision of international order, overall strategy and tactical measures. Inevitable disagreements should be settled privately; indeed, the ability of the secretary to warn and question is in direct proportion to the discretion with which such queries are expressed.

The U.S. Foreign Service is an incomparable instrument honed by lifetimes of dedicated service. Like every elite service, it does not avoid a certain clannishness. The views of those who did not rise through its ranks are not always taken seriously enough, perhaps on the theory that they could not have passed the Foreign Service exam. Secretaries of state have been frustrated by its complex internal clearances, and presidents have complained in their memoirs about how slowly it reacts.

In its daily business, the State Department is in effect a big cable machine responding to thousands of reports from posts all over the world. In the vast majority of cases, these deal with the immediate; there is no institutional filter on behalf of the long-range. Processed through the various assistant secretaries for formal action, only a small percentage of these cables ever reach the secretary, and even fewer make it to the White House. Geopolitical and strategic considerations have no organic constituency. Though a Policy Planning Council exists, its activities are often shunted off into non-operational, semi-academic sideshows or, most frequently, into speechwriting.

No one can question the secretary-designate's leadership potential for breaking through encrusted patterns or her formidable presence in a negotiation. Her most immediate challenges are to provide strategic guidance and to reorganize the department so that its implementing capacity matches its extraordinary reporting skill. This role of the secretary is all the more important because, organizationally, the State Department is geared more toward the secretary than the White House.

No one has ever been appointed national security adviser who had the command experience of retired Gen. James L. Jones, the former head of the Marine Corps and NATO commander. Inevitably, the facilitating function of the security adviser will be accompanied by a role in policymaking based on a vast, almost unique, experience.

The maxim that the national security adviser should act as a traffic cop, not a participant in the policy process, is more theoretical than practical. No president will feel obliged to limit advice to flow charts prescribed by schools of public administration. Whenever a department insists on its bureaucratic entitlements vis-a-vis the White House, it has already lost half the battle. And the frequency of the security adviser's contact with the president makes the distinction between management and policy advice psychologically untenable.

Ideally, the task of the national security adviser is to ensure that no policy fails for reasons that could have been foreseen but were not and that no opportunity is missed for lack of foresight. The security adviser takes care that the president is given all relevant options and that the execution of policy reflects the spirit of the original decision. Departments tend to equate internal morale with the adoption of their own recommendations and are prone to interpret decisions in the sense closest to their proposals. The security adviser's role in insisting — if necessary — on additional or more complete options or on more precision in execution is therefore not universally embraced.

The security adviser inevitably has the advantage of propinquity. His or her office is 50 feet from the president's; the secretary of state is 10 minutes away. That difference seems to ensure special access for the security adviser. Then, institutionally, the security adviser works almost exclusively on problems of concern to the president. The secretary of state has many clients around the world requiring attention, sometimes not of overwhelming presidential interest. The secretary also travels frequently, while the security adviser is almost always within reach of the president. His special relationship to the president requires a delicacy in conduct not always achieved by security advisers, including myself.

The continuation in office of Robert Gates as secretary of defense is an important balancing element in that process. Alone among the key players, he is at the end, not the beginning, of his policy contribution. Having agreed to stay on in a transitional role, he cannot be interested in the jockeying that accompanies all new administrations. The incoming administration must have appointed him with the awareness that he would not reverse his previous convictions. He must make the difficult adjustment from one administration to another — a tribute to the nonpartisan nature of the conduct of his office in the Bush administration. He is a guarantor of continuity but also the shepherd of necessary innovation.

Process is no substitute for substance, of course. But even with this caveat, the new national security team encourages the hope that America is moving beyond its divisions to its opportunities.

The writer was national security adviser to President Richard M. Nixon and secretary of state under Presidents Nixon and Gerald R. Ford.

© 2008 Tribune Media Services Inc.