The American national security complex has a long list of 21st century defeats to its name. I’ve spent some time over the last few months trying to understand some of these failures. But if any meaningful reform is to occur and competence is to be restored too high office, it is just as important to identify and understand successes. Otherwise there are no targets to reform the system towards.
Or so my thoughts have turned after a few hours spent reading through the Miller Center’s presidential oral history project. For the past few decades, Miller Center scholars have interviewed key administration officials (both at the senior and mid tier level) about ten or so years after the administration leaves power. I am always a bit amazed at the frankness of these former officials, who usually describe their former colleagues and the challenges they faced with far more honesty in these interviews than in their own memoirs.
The other benefit of these interviews is that many officials who do not have memoirs published are interviewed. I spent some time last week poking through a few of this sort from the Bush ’43 administration. One of the most grounded interviewees was Peter Pace, who was rotated in as the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs a week after September 11th, and then was promoted to Chairman in 2005. His entire interview is worth reading, but I found the exchange below, where Pace mulls over the problems with the National Security Council structure, to be especially interesting:
Pace: Plus, when we get to it, when you want to, the National Security Council system only serves the country well in the decision process, not in the execution process. I can say more about that now if you want or—
Bakich: Please do.
Pace: In the workup to a decision, the President has a problem he wants a solution to and he says, “OK, National Security Advisor, give me potential courses of action.” I’ll use military terms. There is a one-star level meeting, a two-star level meeting, a three-star level, and the four-star level of course is the President with the National Security Council.
All during the process of working the potential course of action—and this was true under President Clinton and was true under President Bush. So it is not a political thing, it is a system thing. Everybody from all the agencies is collaborating around a table like this and they’re offering—“I can do this. I can do that. I can’t go there with you because of these things.” The discussions are very open and folks are really honestly trying to do the right thing for the country by giving the President the best options possible. That works really, really well.
You get with the President and usually the President has some questions, so you go back and do some more pushups. You figure out how to answer the President’s questions. Eventually the President makes a decision. The instant the President makes a decision is when the system changes from being really, really good for the country to not serving it as well as it should.
The problem is that nobody below the President has the authority to direct traffic. The military commander in the joint command can give orders. The President can give orders. But once he says this is what I want to do, then the good Americans who are State, Defense, Treasury, go back to their offices, their buildings, and they start operating and executing their piece of the problem.
State’s approach is different from DoD’s approach, is different from Treasury’s approach, and there comes a time when the approaches taken by the various agencies and departments start to have friction because they have different responsibilities. Because nobody below the President has the authority to direct traffic and because only if one of those Secretaries brings it to the President’s attention for him to make a decision—if they don’t do that, which most strong people don’t, then you have friction that goes on below the President’s knowledge.
You can point to things in Iraq with Ambassador [L., III] Paul Bremer, for example. He made decisions because Condi [Condoleezza] Rice and Colin Powell and Don Rumsfeld saw things differently. They were all giving Bremer different advice. He had three bosses, therefore he had no boss, and nobody was bringing the major issues up to the President of the United States who had the ability to direct traffic.
This is off the discussion topic, but if you take [Barry] Goldwater-[William F.] Nichols and all it did for the military based on a 1986 law, and you now fast-forward and you apply all of Goldwater-Nichols to the interagency and if the President were able to say, “This is what I want done. State, you’re the lead.” Or “This is what I want done. Treasury, you’ve got it.” Or “This is what I want done. DoD, you’re the lead.” Those folks then—everybody would understand that the Secretary of whatever is the decision maker.
Just like it happens in the military, if a Marine is in charge of the Joint Command and he is telling the Air Force to do something that the Air Force doesn’t feel right with, the Air Force commander is going to talk to the Marine, but he is also going to go up his Air Force chain of command, and if the Air Force Chief of Staff thinks there is something wrong, he’ll take it into the tank with the Joint Chiefs and talk about it.
The same thing could happen in the interagency. You could have the Secretary of whatever giving his or her orders. If someone in the Department of Defense thought it was wrong, they could go to the Secretary of Defense, if the Secretary agreed it was wrong, he could take it to the National Security Council. You could then have the same synergistic effect with the interagency that you had with the joint force, but it took 20 years for the joint force to get to where it is today, and it is going to take 20 years for the joint interagency taskforce to get there. It is going to be 20 years from when you start, and we haven’t started.1
Peter Pace, Interview, 19 January, 2016, George W. Bush Oral History Project, Miller Center, University of Virginia,
Pace is not the only one to suggest that the utter breakdown of the NSC process was a root cause of the negligent planning for the Iraq post-war and the catastrophic mismanagement of the early occupation that followed. 2 Nor was this a pure Bush problem: Though President Obama’s national security principals were a far more harmonious bunch, their relative comity only produced marginally better war outcomes. Throughout the Afghanistan surge there was little real coordination outside of interagency discussion circles. Despite the appointment of an ”Af-Pak czar” whose ostensible role was to keep the administration singing the same tune, CENTCOM, the CIA, and the State Department ran three parallel Afghanistan policies . The initiatives and priorities of these three strains often worked at cross purposes with each other.3 Absent direct interference from the president—and Obama made it clear that he would not allow Bush’s legacy wars to define his daily schedule—there were no mechanisms for getting the different departments to pull in the same direction.
Michael Mazarr, Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy (New York: PublicAffairs, 2019).
Steve Coll, Directorate S : The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan (New York: Penguin, 2018).
it is interesting to see how the second termer’s under Bush ’43 occasionally managed to overcome these problems. The most important example came in 2008, when they pull-offed the most significant victory of post Cold War diplomacy: the US India nuclear deal. The deal was the crowning capstone of a revolution in Indian-US relations that occurred during Bush’s tenure. Bush was determined to pull India from it’s traditional position of implicit distrust and occasional open hostility towards American strategy into a new alignment with American goals. U.S.-Indian partnership seemed like the natural course for the two countries–but the nuclear sanction system put in place three decades earlier kept the relationship at a standstill. Dismantling this system was a Heruclean task. Former State Department official Evan Feigenbaum explains why in another Miller Center oral history interview:
There were three main steps that the U.S. needed to get through. The first was, we needed to go to the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors to get an exception to full-scope safeguards for India, because India was not party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Then we needed to go to the Nuclear Suppliers Group. There are 35 members of the IAEA Board of Governors, 45 members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. And then, if we could pull off those two holes-in-one, we needed to amend the Atomic Energy Act to provide an exception for India. The Indians wanted that amended through legislation that would place no additional requirements or conditions on India, and they were worried about termination clauses too. So they wanted a clean exception in the NSG and they wanted a clean piece of legislation in the United States.
Obviously the first was not to the liking of many countries, and the second was not to the liking of many Members of Congress. And under the Hyde Act, we also had to certify that the Indians had satisfied about a half dozen conditions that the law laid out, which meant that they would also have to take additional steps on things like harmonizing their export controls with Missile Technology Control Regime guidelines.4
Evan Feigenbaum, interview, 30 November, 2020, George W. Bush Oral History Project, Miller Center, University of Virginia.
Feigenbaum is perhaps most familiar to readers of The Scholar’s Stage as the man responsible for the phrase “responsible stakeholder.” I have written harsh things about this phrase; I doubt historians will view the legacy of the Bush team’s China policy in a much better light than they will view its policies in the Near East. But Bush—and Feigenbaum’s—accomplishments on the India front were of a different class. However harshly I look on the “responsible stakeholder” phase of U.S.-China relations, I will gladly give Feigenbaum the honor he deserves for his role in the U.S.-India nuclear deal. No diplomatic feat this century equals it! Each one of the steps needed to accomplish the deal was required making the impossible become possible. How did an administration storied for its foreign policy failures succeed so brilliantly here?
Let’s return to Feigenbaum:
I essentially went to my bosses and said, “I really want the ball,” basically, “give me the ball,” and they did. A decision was made that State would have the lead, and within State, Boucher proposed that we stand up a team of all of the relevant bureaus, plus our interagency colleagues, to work through all the things that had to be done for the negotiating process at each phase, and I would chair it as the day-to-day chair…
We had a group that I was the cochair of that included all of the major players with stakes in this, the South Asia and India side, but also the nonproliferation and the legal side, and the NSC and the Department of Energy….
We met every single day between July and October around the conference table in the front office of the South and Central Asia Bureau, and we would go around and discuss what had to be done. What did we need the Indians to do? What did we need to do with all of the multinational players? What were the legal hurdles? And we tried to plan ahead throughout so that we were always two to three steps ahead of where we needed to be the following week. We went through this at every phase: the IAEA phase, the NSG phase, and then the congressional phase. We’d sit around the table. I was in the chair, and I would hand out taskings that were agreed. Every day I would send around an email to this group of 25 or 30 people that had the homework and a summary of conclusions assignments for action, and would say, “Legal Advisor, we need language for the Indians on their commitments to X.” “Nonproliferation, Stratford’s got to give us the language that Bill Burns can give Shivshankar Menon,” who was then the Foreign Secretary, “on X, Y, and Z.” And so on….
My first role was to chair that team, and then my second role was to be the day-to-day point of contact with the Indian side on all of the things that the Indians needed to do, and sharing with the Indians our visibility and their visibility into where the 34 other members of the IAEA Board of Governors, and then the 44 non-American members of the NSG, sat on this….
It was just remarkable, the way the United States and India worked as one team. I would call up Naveen, and Naveen would say, “We want you to know here’s what we’re hearing about the Irish. Here’s what we’re hearing about the New Zealanders. We talked to the French; here’s what we’re hearing about the French. What are you hearing about the French?” We would be comparing notes with India on third parties and third players and coordinating the diplomacy all throughout this multimonth period.
We really created a whole of U.S. government approach to working other countries bilaterally, but in a multilateral context, and the Indians were doing the same. We’d say, “Hey, we’re not hearing good things about where the Irish are positioned. Maybe you ought to send your Ambassador in Dublin in to talk to them, or you ought to haul their Ambassador in Delhi in.” It developed habits of cooperation between the United States and India diplomatically that I don’t think had ever really existed before.5
A precondition to this diplomatic triumph was the centralization of implementation authority in the hands of one individual—Feigenbaum himself. importantly, Feigenbaum did not just have authority to coordinate policy creation. He was empowered to give just about anyone in the bureaucracy their necessary marching orders:
…We then had to go to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which was much more challenging [because in the NSG every single country must agree in changes to the rules for those changes to go in effect]. There was a lot of opposition, frankly, in the NSG, because in the NSG you had countries that did not share our equities with India… Austria, Switzerland, Norway, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Ireland. Those six.
Those six were really the obstreperous six. And there are four things that are interesting there. One, is that in the last half of his second term this was a huge priority for President Bush. It was meant to be transformational diplomacy. It was a legacy item. The U.S.-India relationship was hugely important to him. So for us, the team on the ground—Bill Burns, John Rood, me, and some of our other colleagues, Geoff Pyatt, the others—the word from the President and Condi and Steve Hadley was basically, “You get this done, come hell or high water. Don’t come back until this is done.” That’s important, because the entire interagency, the President himself, they were all behind it.
We essentially put the full weight of the United States government behind this. For several days in the month of September 2008 my job was to direct traffic as we bullied small European countries into submission by deploying the full power of the United States—cajoling, threatening, in various ways—and everybody was behind that. That’s the first piece of the story….
So [John Root, the chief negotiator in the NSG] was in one room fighting off these conditionality clauses, and my role was—I was the guy with the phone. As the guy with the phone, John would come say to me, “The Austrians are a real problem. We’ve got to get somebody on it.” John was this incredible, tough negotiator; he just dug in and stayed there.
My role was to get Steve Hadley, Condi Rice, President Bush, John Negroponte, Bill Burns, and others to persuade or coerce other countries. I had this remarkable experience where—not to put too fine a point on it, because it was the President’s high priority—for a couple of days it felt like everybody kind of worked for me, in an entirely metaphorical sense of course, because I could call up Joe Macmanus or Brian Gunderson, who were Condi’s exec and chief of staff, and say, “I need Condi in the next 30 minutes to call Foreign Minister X, and she’d better do it because if she doesn’t do it, they’re walking out of the room and they’ll never come back,” and she would do it. I was kind of directing traffic. Bill was working on the Swiss and the Austrians. It was a remarkable team effort, but also for me, as a young Deputy Assistant Secretary-level diplomat, you could mobilize the principals in support of this.
After the first day it didn’t look like we were going to get anywhere on this. I remember at three o’clock in the morning sitting in a van. Bill had flown off to Turkey or somewhere at this point, so it was just me and John and a few others. I don’t know if I’m droning on too long, but we called Condi. “Condi,” John said, “I don’t think it’s happening.” Condi basically said, “Get back in there, and don’t show your face in Washington again until you have a deal.” [laughter] John looked at me and said, “OK, here we go.” The strategy was to peel off a couple of them so that the last few would be isolated. The Norwegians and the Dutch went first. Then we somehow got the Irish. Hadley, I think, got President Bush to call Prime Minister [Brian B.] Cowen, who was the Taoiseach, and the Irish came aboard.
Long story short, the Austrians and the Kiwis were the last. The New Zealand story is interesting. There’s a huge time difference with New Zealand, and the New Zealand representative at one point said she was going home, she was going to leave, so she walked out. You need, in the NSG, a full consensus of all 45 to get an exception. If I recall this correctly—Bill Burns told this story at my farewell party—I tried to get Condi to call up the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark, who I found out from the DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] in Wellington was out on the campaign trail somewhere in the middle of New Zealand. Condi was not available. She was actually in Libya, with [Muammar] Gaddafi, I think maybe even in his tent. I called Macmanus and tried to pull her out of the tent. She was either in the tent or she was in a meeting, but she wasn’t available. So then I called Bill Burns, pretty desperate to stop the New Zealand walkout at that point, and tried to see if maybe he could pull her out of the tent or wherever she was. But that didn’t work either.
So then I called up the NSC, Mark Webber, and said, “Steve’s got to do it!” He said something to me like, “Well, why does Steve always have to do it? Why can’t Condi do it?” But Mark calls me back and says, OK, Steve will try to call Helen Clark, and then while Steve was trying to reach Helen Clark—I think I’m remembering this correctly—I get a call back from Joe Macmanus through the Ops Center, saying, “Condi can call.” They were both trying to call Helen Clark at the same time. That’s what it was like. It was this incredibly frenetic period of diplomacy.6
It is interesting that Feigenbaum describes his role as “directing traffic,” the exact words Pace uses to describe what the national security state needs more of to succeed. Feigenbaum was fortunate in several ways: he had a president immensely invested in the success of his project and attentive to the details of its progress; most of his traffic directing involved different sub-components of the State Department, the NSC, and the Department of Energy, meaning that he didn’t have to worry about stepping on toes over at DoD or in the IC. It is not clear if this sort of bespoke “czar for two months” method would have worked as well if either of those deep state leviathans had been dragged into the arena.
Pace thinks that Feigenbaum-style traffic directing should be authorized by law and formally institutionalized. A less formal version of this might already be happening. One of the themes of John Gans’s White House Warriors is that the NSC is slowly being forced into the role of implementer in chief.7 As Gans sees it, the problems that Pace identifies are real: they have forced one Presidential team after another to adopt expedients that vary from their legal authority as coordinators. The clearest sign of this change can be seen in ballooning NSC size—in his memoir, diplomat William Burns contrasts the 60-man NSC he worked for under Colin Powell with the 300+ staffers working for Susan Rice’s NSC three decades later. 8
John Gans, White House Warriors: How the National Security Council Transformed the American Way of War (Liverlight: 2019).
But it is a trend moving somewhere on autopilot. The failures of our withdrawal from Afghanistan show what happens when this jury rigged, top-heavy system tries to implement policy on tight timelines. Perhaps we have inflicted enough damage on ourselves to prompt reform thinking in Washington. It may be time for us to take Pace’s call for an interagency Goldwater-Nicholas more seriously.