- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2009

PRESIDENTIAL COMMAND: Power, Leadership, and the Making of Foreign Policy from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush
By Peter W. Rodman
Knopf, $27.95, 351 pages

Christopher Wren, the great British architect, is buried in the crypt at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. His epitaph reads: “Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice—Reader, if you seek his memorial, look around you.” The same can be said for “Presidential Command,” Peter W. Rodman’s posthumous book about leadership, power and the making of foreign policy. Mr. Rodman, who died in the summer of 2008 at the age of 64, has left us an invaluable legacy: a volume of case studies from the presidencies of Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, G.H.W. Bush, Clinton and G.W. Bush that illustrates, in Mr. Rodman’s words, “how presidents have responded to one of their greatest tests how they establish their control and policy direction of the sprawling bureaucracy that is the U.S. government.”

Let me say at the outset that Mr. Rodman was a friend of mine. We met during the Ford administration when he worked for Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. I knew him for more than three decades, both in and out of government. He was a man of vigorous intellect, keen insight and delightful wit. That being said, this is a book President Obama’s White House staff should be ordering by the pallet-load as a guide about what works, and what doesn’t, when it comes to making successful and effective national security policy.

Mr. Rodman’s perspective was unique. He was plucked at the age of 26 by his Harvard mentor, Henry Kissinger, to work as an assistant to Mr. Kissinger in the Nixon White House. Subsequently, he held high-ranking policy positions in the Ford, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush administrations in the White House, at the State Department and the Pentagon. He saw first-hand what worked — and more important what didn’t — when it came to making the huge and all-too-often immoveable bureaucratic cultures at the departments of State and Defense bend to presidential will and implement presidential national security policy, or dig in their heels and impede presidential objectives through inaction, sniping and leaks.

The problem isn’t new. As President Truman wrote in his memoirs, “Every president in history has been faced with this problem: how to prevent career men from circumventing presidential policy.” Henry Kissinger phrased the problem this way: “If the president wants options, the [career diplomats] offer him three. Option 1 is nuclear war; Option 2 is surrender; Option 3 looks strangely like existing policy.” The object lessons of how presidents from Nixon through G.W. Bush dealt with, ignored or sidestepped these “career men” (and women) is the core of Mr. Rodman’s book.

Some — Richard Nixon is the best example — ended up “conducting operational policy more and more from the White House.” The reason? Because the State Department regularly tried to sabotage Nixon’s goals. Details of Nixon’s initial contacts with Beijing, made in 1969 and 1970 through American and Chinese ambassadors in Warsaw, were shared by the State Department “with at least ten foreign governments. … From then on, the contacts were kept secret from the Department of State.” State’s policy rationale behind its institutional opposition was that any contact with China might, ahem, actually provoke the Soviet Union. And the striped-pants set at Foggy Bottom didn’t want to do that.

Ronald Reagan faced a similar problem in the run-up to his famous “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech in Berlin. The State Department was steadfastly against the line. So, “to my eternal shame,” Mr. Rodman confesses, was he. But there was a valuable lesson to be learned. “The whole affair,” he writes, “is a vivid example of a president’s possessing a strategic and moral insight that escapes his experts.”

There are also lessons to be learned from presidential character flaws and other lapses. Mr. Rodman also points out that Mr. Reagan — much like George W. Bush — often confused his staff by searching for a consensus, instead of stating a clear policy goal and demanding that it be achieved. “When there are deep disagreements among cabinet secretaries,” Mr. Rodman writes, “these only the president can resolve. And… even where there is consensus, it can be the lowest common denominator — a papered-over compromise that conceals the president’s real choices. This was Richard Nixon’s insight. It is not an accident that (George W.) Bush’s surge of forces in Iraq — the decision that may prove to save his legacy — did not originate in any bureaucratic consensus.”

Another ever-expanding impediment to presidential command is congressional micromanagement. The system of checks and balances, Mr. Rodman contends, has gone awry. “In 1964, the House and Senate foreign affairs committees began publishing a handy joint compilation called Legislation on Foreign Relations. The 1964 volume was… about 450 pages. By 1985… three volumes totaling more than 4000 pages. The most recent complete set comprises five volumes… totaling over 9500 pages.” The president, Mr. Rodman seems to be saying, must now contend not only with a naturally recalcitrant federal bureaucracy, but with 535 wannabe secretaries of state and defense.

Mr. Rodman also considers the factor of presidential image. Jimmy Carter, he writes, “entered office seeking to restore presidential authority by relegitimating it, which he aimed to do by displays of personal humility — walking up Pennsylvania Avenue during his inaugural parade, carrying his own luggage on and off Air Force One, wearing cardigans on television… and so forth…. The perverse irony of Carter’s quest, however, is that his shedding of the trappings of presidential authority came at a time when that authority needed strengthening, not weakening.”

The most important findings Mr. Rodman comes to is that in order to ensure their policy goals, presidents must constantly remain engaged. “Where presidents did not engage personally, consistently, and forcefully, they often lost control. We saw this especially in the cases of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.… All three had their successes when they did impose their will — Reagan on broad policy toward the Soviet Union; Clinton on Russia; Bush on the surge in Iraq. But when they hung back, for whatever reasons, their administrations fell prey to feuding among senior subordinates and/or the problems of departments and agencies unresponsive to presidential wishes (Reagan in Lebanon; Clinton’s early policies in Japan, China, and Bosnia; Bush in North Korea and Iraq).

Moreover, “A president needs not only the ‘power to persuade’ but also a variety of political tools to reinforce his powers of persuasion — political appointees in the departments who are attuned to his wishes, and cabinet officers for whom the presidential agenda is the top priority.” In other words, presidents must above all, lead.

In broad strokes, Mr. Rodman’s bottom line is similar to the succinct philosophy of Roy Henry Boehm, the maverick mustang Navy lieutenant who in 1961 was largely responsible for implementing what became the Navy’s SEAL program. Lieut. Boehm, the first Officer in Charge of SEAL Team 2 and America’s first SEAL, used to insist that “All leadership can be defined in two words.” Those words, said Lt. Boehm, are “Follow me!”

John Weisman’s current novels, “SOAR,” “Jack in the Box” and “Direct Action,” are all available as Avon paperbacks. He can be reached at [email protected]

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide