Book Review: 'In the Shadow of the Oval Office: Profiles of the National Security Advisers and the Presidents They Served -- From JFK to George W. Bush' By Ivo H. Daalder and I.M. Destler

By David Ignatius
Sunday, March 1, 2009

In the Shadow of the Oval Office: Profiles of the National Security Advisers and the Presidents They Served -- From JFK to George W. Bush

By Ivo H. Daalder and I.M. Destler

Simon & Schuster; 386 pp.

National security advisers come in different flavors, and for the past few weeks Washington has been trying to get a taste of James L. Jones, President Obama's pick for the job. Will he be the low-key Brent Scowcroft type, or the flamboyant and controlling Henry Kissinger type, or maybe the in-between Sandy Berger type?

Jones's relationship with new Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will go a long way toward answering that question. It could be all sweetness and light -- with the ex-Marine general and former first lady walking hand in hand down foreign-policy lane -- or it could degenerate into one of those ritual NSC-State Department battles, the striped-pants version of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

To recall how a "team of rivals" can come to blows, consider these spectacular face-offs: McGeorge Bundy vs. Dean Rusk under President John F. Kennedy; Kissinger vs. William Rogers in the Nixon years; Zbigniew Brzezinski vs. Cyrus Vance during the Carter administration. The bloodiest of all (for the nation, if not the principals) might have been Condoleezza Rice's effort to referee the triple-tag-team match among Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.

Scowcroft, who was national security adviser under presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush, had a rare talent for anonymity. He was a Jeeves-the-butler of foreign policy, steering the process gently and letting others take credit. But as Jones is already discovering, this is the hardest job in Washington. It requires a combination of decisiveness and invisibility. As Scowcroft once observed, the national security adviser "should be seen occasionally, heard even less." At the same time, the adviser must also enforce discipline and coherence.

Jones has indicated that he wants to be a Scowcroft-style "honest broker" and avoid the turf wars of the past. Sounds great, but all recent national security advisers have said much the same thing. Almost by definition, this is a realm of big egos and big ideas; the stakes are huge, and as so many national security advisers have found, the issues are worth the battle.

Jones has already made more news than the Scowcroft method would prescribe. He declared in a Feb. 8 interview that he intends to lead a "dramatically different" National Security Council from that of the Bush administration. According to The Post's Karen DeYoung, Jones plans to expand the NSC's scope to include "such department-spanning 21st century issues as cybersecurity, energy, climate change, nation-building and infrastructure."

Such changes would be a dizzying expansion of the adviser's authority: The number of Cabinet members on the council itself would increase, and so, inevitably, would the staff that serves under Jones. It's a move that, in the hands of a less amiable gentleman than the retired general, would be described as a power grab. Whether this NSC reorganization goes down easily depends on Jones's boss, the president. If Obama likes it, Jones's skills as a facilitator should take care of the rest.

As Jones frames his job, he should peruse the excellent new history of the national security adviser's position, "In the Shadow of the Oval Office." The authors, Ivo Daalder and I.M. Destler, combine an insider's focus on process with a scholar's distance and perspective: Daalder served on President Bill Clinton's NSC staff before joining the Brookings Institution, while Destler, a longtime academic expert on the NSC, is a professor at the University of Maryland.

The book shows all the ways that national-security policy can go wrong, with the best of intentions. And it illustrates how the adviser's role has waxed and waned since the position was created in 1961. Strong, outspoken advisers like Kissinger have been followed by quiet, discreet ones like Scowcroft. Administrations where Cabinet secretaries have been dominant (and discordant), as was the case with Ronald Reagan, have been followed by tighter White House control, as during the Clinton years. The size of the NSC staff has gone up and down like a teeter-totter, with each new adviser reacting to the excesses of his predecessor. That history suggests that after relatively weak advisers under Bush, we're due for a Kissingerian putsch. But so far, Jones seems to have a lighter touch.

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