To the Hon. Edmund S. Muskie, secretary of state-designate:
I know you are getting lots of advice, and I hesitate to burden you with more, but you will not succeed or be happy as secretary of state unless you clearly and promptly establish your authority.
Soon after Cyrus Vance was appointed secretary, I made two suggestions. The first was that he should prepare specific ground rules defining his relations with the president's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and have them approved in writing by both Brzezinski and the president. Those rules should affirm the primacy of the secretary's role in shaping, expounding and administering American foreign policy, advising the president on that policy, directing the foreign policy establishment and conducting all relations with foreign governments. They should specifically provide that, without the secretary's knowledge and express approval, neither the national security adviser nor any other White House aide should receive or call in foreign ambassadors or representatives, negotiate with foreign governments, undertake diplomatic missions, send "back-channel" (CIA channel) telegrams not seen by the State Department, make public speeches or television appearances, hold press conferences or press interviews or, without first telling the secretary, send memoranda to the president opposing the secretary's views. The ground rules should make clear, in essence, that the national security adviser should behave as was orignally contemplated when the National Security Council was created, displaying that "passion for anonymity" that President Roosevelt expected of his White House assistants.
Since former secretary Vance is a man of exceptional decency and tolerance, with a benign view of his fellow man and little taste for bureaucratic infighting, he dismissed my suggestion with the comment that Brzezinski was an old friend with whom he would have no problems. I was not reasured when, a few days later, the national security adviser announced that he had hired his own public relations officer.
My second piece of advice was that the new secretary avoid the kissinger precedent of flying around the world trying to handle all major negotiations personally. Not only would he find that a noisy and ineffective way to conduct diplomacy, but it would deflect his attention from other major problems, put the emphasis on local tactics at the expenses of world strategy and require his absence from Washington for frequent and extended periods. During such periods the critical function of advising the president would pass be default to the national security adviser, who saw the president every day and was located only a few feet from the Oval Office.
I found validation for both pieces of advice when, in December 1978, I was asked to confer on the evolving revolution in Iran. Both Secretary Vance and the assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs were then traveling in the Middle East in furtherance of an Egyptian-Israeli settlement. During their absence, the national security adviser had totally preempted the handling of America's Iranian policy. He was systematically excluding the State Department not only from participation in the making and execution of that policy but even from knowledge as to what was going on, heavily depending for his own information on telephone conversations with Ardeshir Zahedi, the Iranian ambassador to the United States and the shah's ex-son-in-law, who was in Tehran trying to rally support for the shah. Reports from the United States ambassador, William H. Sullivan, a seasoned professional, were discounted on the ostensible grounds -- presumably a quotation from Zahedi -- that Sullivan "did not have the shah's confidence."
I cite this incident to show that there are well documented reasons why you should define your role at the outset while your bargaining leverage is higher than is likely to be the case as time wears on. No doubt you will be tempted to dismiss this suggestion, as Secretary Vance did, in deference to the current atmosphere of good feelings; but if you are to avoid ambiguity and future unpleasantness, you must insist on a ratified charter. Not only is that essential to rectify the present unhappy confusion of authority; it could even discourage the lamentable practice inherited from the Nixon administration of installing a conspiratorial professor in the White House to compete with the secretary and ultimately bring him down. Both Secretaries Rogers and Vance were victims of this practice. Not only does it make it impossible to shape and administer a coherent foreign policy, but, when our policy is announced and interpreted by a cacophony of voices, the world is befuddled and worried.
You are taking office at a critical moment when the administration is rattled and flailing about. Not only did the abortive rescue effort indicate a high degree of desperation, but the threats we are making to Iran are ominously reminiscent of a pattern of escalation that mired us down in Vietnam. We are, says the president, imposing economic sanctions, but if those do not work -- and everyone knows they will not -- we shall use some form of military means, which presumably means mining the harbors or a naval blockade. When those do not work -- and they will not -- what then? Will we bomb Qom or invade Iran? By that time we shall probably have got the hostages killed and driven Iran much closer to Moscow.
Do think this over carefully. We are all counting on you.