The White House cabal
October 25, 2005
By Lawrence B. Wilkerson, LAWRENCE B. WILKERSON served as chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell from 2002 to 2005.
IN PRESIDENT BUSH'S first term, some of the most important decisions about U.S. national security — including vital decisions about postwar Iraq — were made by a secretive, little-known cabal. It was made up of a very small group of people led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
When I first discussed this group in a speech last week at the New America Foundation in Washington, my comments caused a significant stir because I had been chief of staff to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell between 2002 and 2005.
But it's absolutely true. I believe that the decisions of this cabal were sometimes made with the full and witting support of the president and sometimes with something less. More often than not, then-national security advisor Condoleezza Rice was simply steamrolled by this cabal.
Its insular and secret workings were efficient and swift — not unlike the decision-making one would associate more with a dictatorship than a democracy. This furtive process was camouflaged neatly by the dysfunction and inefficiency of the formal decision-making process, where decisions, if they were reached at all, had to wend their way through the bureaucracy, with its dissenters, obstructionists and "guardians of the turf."
But the secret process was ultimately a failure. It produced a series of disastrous decisions and virtually ensured that the agencies charged with implementing them would not or could not execute them well.
I watched these dual decision-making processes operate for four years at the State Department. As chief of staff for 27 months, I had a door adjoining the secretary of State's office. I read virtually every document he read. I read the intelligence briefings and spoke daily with people from all across government.
I knew that what I was observing was not what Congress intended when it passed the 1947 National Security Act. The law created the National Security Council — consisting of the president, vice president and the secretaries of State and Defense — to make sure the nation's vital national security decisions were thoroughly vetted. The NSC has often been expanded, depending on the president in office, to include the CIA director, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Treasury secretary and others, and it has accumulated a staff of sometimes more than 100 people.
But many of the most crucial decisions from 2001 to 2005 were not made within the traditional NSC process.
Scholars and knowledgeable critics of the U.S. decision-making process may rightly say, so what? Haven't all of our presidents in the last half-century failed to conform to the usual process at one time or another? Isn't it the president's prerogative to make decisions with whomever he pleases? Moreover, can he not ignore whomever he pleases? Why should we care that President Bush gave over much of the critical decision-making to his vice president and his secretary of Defense?
Both as a former academic and as a person who has been in the ring with the bull, I believe that there are two reasons we should care. First, such departures from the process have in the past led us into a host of disasters, including the last years of the Vietnam War, the national embarrassment of Watergate (and the first resignation of a president in our history), the Iran-Contra scandal and now the ruinous foreign policy of George W. Bush.
But a second and far more important reason is that the nature of both governance and crisis has changed in the modern age.
From managing the environment to securing sufficient energy resources, from dealing with trafficking in human beings to performing peacekeeping missions abroad, governing is vastly more complicated than ever before in human history.
Further, the crises the U.S. government confronts today are so multifaceted, so complex, so fast-breaking — and almost always with such incredible potential for regional and global ripple effects — that to depart from the systematic decision-making process laid out in the 1947 statute invites disaster.
Discounting the professional experience available within the federal bureaucracy — and ignoring entirely the inevitable but often frustrating dissent that often arises therein — makes for quick and painless decisions. But when government agencies are confronted with decisions in which they did not participate and with which they frequently disagree, their implementation of those decisions is fractured, uncoordinated and inefficient. This is particularly the case if the bureaucracies called upon to execute the decisions are in strong competition with one another over scarce money, talented people, "turf" or power.
It takes firm leadership to preside over the bureaucracy. But it also takes a willingness to listen to dissenting opinions. It requires leaders who can analyze, synthesize, ponder and decide.
The administration's performance during its first four years would have been even worse without Powell's damage control. At least once a week, it seemed, Powell trooped over to the Oval Office and cleaned all the dog poop off the carpet. He held a youthful, inexperienced president's hand. He told him everything would be all right because he, the secretary of State, would fix it. And he did — everything from a serious crisis with China when a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft was struck by a Chinese F-8 fighter jet in April 2001, to the secretary's constant reassurances to European leaders following the bitter breach in relations over the Iraq war. It wasn't enough, of course, but it helped.
Today, we have a president whose approval rating is 38% and a vice president who speaks only to Rush Limbaugh and assembled military forces. We have a secretary of Defense presiding over the death-by-a-thousand-cuts of our overstretched armed forces (no surprise to ignored dissenters such as former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki or former Army Secretary Thomas White).
It's a disaster. Given the choice, I'd choose a frustrating bureaucracy over an efficient cabal every time