By Ramin Bryan Karbasi

Edited by Namitha Sadanand, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist

As a student of Political Science, one is exposed to a wide array of literature ranging anywhere from the classic works of Aristotle to scholarly works by graduate students and academics seeking to entrench themselves into the annals of Political and International History. Amy Zegart, author of Flawed by Design: The Evolution of the CIA, JCS, and NSC, fits the latter mold. An American academic and Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute, Zegart sets out to observe the institutional histories, structures, and transformation of three of the most important governmental bodies in the United States: the Central Intelligence Agency, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the National Security Council. It is, however, the third chapter that best captures the work of each body. To that end, the chapter also serves as the primary point of review for this piece.

The respectively ‘distinct’ institutional interests of the State Department, the U.S. Congress, and the National Security Council were presented with considerable detail in Zegart’s third chapter entitled “Evolution of the National Security Council: ‘From King’s Ministers to Palace Guard’”. Throughout the chapter, Zegart consistently notes the fact that much of these institutions’ interests ultimately determine the manner in which they not only conduct themselves, but also the degree to which they directly (or indirectly, in some cases) affect national security policy.

With respect to the State Department in particular, Zegart sheds a largely bureaucratic light upon its officials and their undertakings. As bureaucrats, they seek to fulfill much of their agenda and interests as opposed to the President’s personal agenda and interests. This distinction led to the catalyzing of tensions fairly early on in the implementation of the National Security Council. As Zegart notes, both the Department of Defense and the Department of State attempted to take command of the council foreign policy process. However, what both Departments possessed in ample amounts of incentives, they lacked in necessary and sufficient capabilities. The Departments lacked the institutional power to mount any significant and influential defenses, and consequently faltered in their attempts to circumvent the rising influence of the National Security Council.

Specifically referring to the State Department, Zegart emphasizes the fact that “from William Rogers’s fight against the Nixon-Kissinger back channels to Cyrus Vance’s ill-fated effort to block the attempted rescue of American hostages in Iran”, the careers of many postwar secretaries has come with the added caveat of waging a seemingly futile battle to garner foreign policy preeminence – a seemingly unfortunate theme. Perhaps Secretary of State George Shultz epitomized the struggle best when, in his memoirs, he remarked rather candidly that he “would have to struggle incessantly to do [his] job.” What resulted from much of this tension was the persisting dominance of the National Security Council due to the fact that unlike the State Department, the National Security Council’s staff had very strong inclinations to act solely on the President’s behalf. The effect is clear and profound: the President either initially or gradually (as in the case of former Presidents Carter and Reagan) comes to trust his National Security Council staff far more than the State Department and its ‘distant’ officials.

Where the State Department is criticized for its ‘selfish’ interests, Congress is altogether deemed ineffectual and irrelevant. This is best exemplified by Zegart’s observation that during the establishment of the National Security Council, Congress played a marginally significant role in determining much of its outcome – with the exception of the provision of the Senate Armed Services Committee formalizing “presidential involvement by making the president a statutory member who, when present, would preside over council meetings.” Further, Zegart goes on to note that Congress “served less as an active player in the unification conflict than as the stage on which it was played out.” This notion of Congress serving the sole purpose of a ‘stage’ gives substantial credence to the fact that both the Jackson Committee (1959) and Iran-Contra Affair Hearings (1986-1987) were more of a ‘show’ for entertainment than a path to shifts in the National Security Council and its institutional conduct. The result of this fairly absent and ineffectual interest within the past 60 or so years, respectively, has led to increased favor on the President’s part for the National Security Council due to the fact that it has come to be an influential, powerful, and independent advisory channel through which the President can achieve his (or her, if ever there may be the day) personal aims with little or no Congressional limitations on the scope of power. One can reasonably infer, then, that this realization on the President’s part is appealing in that he/she no longer has to work within the parameters of Congressional power and influence to fulfill his/her own personal agenda and goals.

Finally, the National Security Council itself is perhaps the most favored political and policy-making institution available to the President – both historically and currently. From the earliest days of the Staff Secretary and National Security Advisor of former President Eisenhower’s administration, to President Obama’s own National Security Advisor and board, the National Security Council solely serves the interests of the President and accommodates his/her foreign policy views. This role of the National Security Council – namely the National Security Advisor – is best portrayed through McGeorge Bundy’s assertion that they “were not in business of having an NSC corporate view. [They] were in the business of . . . . helping the president do his business.” The implication of this assertion is resounding in that it promulgates the very notion that the National Security Council serves solely the President – so much so that many members of the National Security Council have even come to identify the entity as the President’s staff. Further, the popularization of many informal meetings such as former President Johnson’s Tuesday Lunches, former President Carter’s Friday Breakfasts, etc. coupled with the literal move of some of the National Security Council’s chief members to the White House has only served to cement the increasing sphere of influence on the institution. Where some institutions such as the historically coveted State Department have been shutout, the NSC has quite literally ‘bunked up’ with the President solely due to the fact that the ‘informal’ staff is made up of his/her most trusted, revered, and valued colleagues –  those who truly seek only the President’s best interests, whether they are in varied and controversial foreign policy endeavors or associated with domestic popularity polls and re-election campaigns.

Ultimately, Zegart’s book is an insightful and refreshing take on an otherwise exhausted topic. The issues of United States governmental bodies and their shortcomings are well-documented. However, their respective evolution, and the implications of such progressions, is not. This is where Zegart, and her work, shines. It is also the basis upon which I, a seasoned student of Political Science and International Studies, recommend this pioneering work for anyone seeking to garner an in-depth perspective on the nature of three of the most significant and influential United States governmental institutions.

Ramin is currently a Senior Honors student at Southern Methodist University, where he majors in Political Science and Sociology. An avid student of comparative politics and economics, Ramin hopes to one day pursue post-graduate International Development studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. As such, and acknowledging the works of Mr. Nayef Al-Rodhan, he best describes himself as a symbiotic realist. A self-ascribed Francophile, Ramin also enjoys reading works of French existential literature in his spare time.

Posted by The Indian Economist | For the Curious Mind