The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power

By David J. Rothkopf

PublicAffairs. 554 pp. $29.95

On "The Tonight Show," Jay Leno likes to wander the streets of Los Angeles stumping ordinary citizens who can't identify such basic features of American government as, say, the Bill of Rights. For his new book on the National Security Council, David Rothkopf tried something similar, polling passersby in Bethesda, Md., and downtown Washington about what the council was, with similarly embarrassing results. Most of his respondents drew a blank or confused the NSC with the National Security Agency, the U.S. intelligence organization that intercepts and analyzes electronic messages. The NSC, in fact, is two different things: the Cabinet-rank committee of national security officials (such as the secretaries of state and defense) when chaired by the president, and the group of White House staffers working for the national security adviser (the official who's charged with coordinating the wildly complex, multi-agency system whereby the U.S. government makes its decisions about foreign policy and the national defense).

The NSC's central role in crafting U.S. policy is widely unrecognized by the public, which makes the arrival of Rothkopf's book cheering. (Alas, it's saddled with a gaffe on the cover, which features a handsome photo of what seems to be a Bush administration Cabinet meeting, not an NSC meeting; Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, who does not sit in on national security deliberations, is visible at the Cabinet Room table.)

Inside that unfortunate cover is a loosely told compendium of good yarns. Running the World is baggy, addicted to block quotes that screech the narrative to a halt and marred by the odd clunker of a phrase (such as calling Gerald Ford's House career "stellar and effective"). Still, Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Commerce Department official, does give free and chatty rein to some of the most memorable personalities in the foreign policy world. The national security adviser gang is all here: the icy, imperious McGeorge Bundy; Brent Scowcroft, perhaps the most successful holder of the job, the low-key embodiment of Republican realpolitik and competence who was at the helm as the Soviet Union imploded; the pallid Anthony Lake, weighed down by principle and feckless in practice as Bosnia and Rwanda burned; the garrulous, indefatigable, disorganized and powerful Sandy Berger, a fine foreign policy amanuensis for the freewheeling President Bill Clinton; and above all, Henry Kissinger, the shrewd accumulator of power and ruthless bureaucratic infighter who forever transformed the job of national security adviser. With relish, Rothkopf recounts old feuds among the foreign policy principals: the Buddha-like Dean Rusk watching his State Department lose ground to an NSC staff that New Frontier wags started calling "Bundy's State Department"; Zbigniew Brzezinski and Cyrus Vance brawling during the Iran hostage crisis; the legendary Reagan-era combat and contempt between Secretary of State George Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger; the sharp-elbowed, bullying, wheedling Kissinger against all comers.

But this gossipy book, with its fascination with the titans of past administrations (including a parlor game titled "Two Degrees of Henry Kissinger"), sometimes dwells on process and personality at the expense of policy. For instance, in the post-Sept. 11 era, it has become glaringly apparent that the NSC had turned itself over the years into a sort of foreign policy council, concerned largely with events overseas rather than with a broader definition of national security to include the domestic vulnerabilities that al Qaeda exploited. But Running the World spends scant time explaining how the NSC narrowed its mission. The book is also a tad too kind to Rothkopf's old Clinton administration colleagues (he writes of "Lake's great contributions to the NSC process," few of which spring readily to mind) and far too reliant on secondary sources. Rothkopf has done an impressive number of interviews and a reasonable job scouring the existing corpus of scholarship and memoirs, but for a book that aspires to be a comprehensive history, his footnotes betray little evidence of serious time in the archives -- even on administrations like John F. Kennedy's and Lyndon B. Johnson's, where a wealth of primary documentation is available for historians.

Rothkopf's interest in process may be most valuable when his long book wends its way to the present and the decision-making apparatus of the Bush administration. The current national security adviser -- Stephen J. Hadley, Condoleezza Rice's former NSC deputy, who moved up a rung when she left the White House staff to become secretary of state -- is a soft-spoken, owlish, millionaire lawyer, a careful administrator known more for his discretion and appreciation for a clean inbox than for a Kissingerian delight in grand strategy. (The cruel current State Department joke is that the more high-profile Rice now has two deputies: Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick and Hadley.) Since 2001, Hadley and Rice have had to deal with an anomaly in the NSC structure: the insertion of the most powerful vice presidential staff in U.S. history into the delicate interagency policymaking process. Vice President Cheney's assertive, influential aides now form what Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a first-term State Department aide, calls a "mini-NSC." In the current administration's first term, that placed what Rothkopf considers "a thumb on the scales" of the bureaucratic balance -- often lifting the views of Donald Rumsfeld's raw-power Pentagon above those of Colin Powell's balance-of-power State Department.

All NSCs are somewhat different, of course; the structure oscillates to suit the needs and preferences of each president and each national security adviser. What we have not recently seen is someone who helped build the apparatus go on to work inside its confines. Rice, the first national security adviser since Kissinger to become secretary of state, helped create this unusual system in the administration's first term; as secretary of state in the second, she and her department will have to work within it. If she finds the bureaucratic clout of the Office of the Vice President and the Defense Department frustrating, she may ruefully conclude that she has few people other than herself to blame. *

Warren Bass is a senior editor of Book World and the author of "Support Any Friend: Kennedy's Middle East and the Making of the U.S.-Israel Alliance."

National Security Council meeting on June 29, 2005, in the White House