Six Lessons Mr. Donilon Could Learn From Reagan's Six National Security Advisers

If the president and his chief of staff are old Irish buds, no amount of experience or competence is likely to persuade the boss to tell his chief of staff to change the way he does business.
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Having spent the last decade studying the Reagan administration, and the last few years focusing on Reagan's National Security Council, I thought it could be useful for Mr. Donilon to get a quick review (and a few lessons) of where some of his contemporaries failed in what is one of the most difficult jobs in Washington. Since I know the Reagan administration best, I'll stick to the six national security advisers Reagan had in eight years.

Not much of a record has been declassified from Reagan's first national security adviser, Richard V. Allen, who came to the position after serving as a foreign policy adviser to Reagan during the 1980 campaign. Based on the little record that has been declassified, Allen seems to have seen the role of national security adviser as that of an administrator, keeping Reagan up to date on the views from the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the CIA, while keeping his own input to a minimum. Allen was pushed out in the end of 1981 after allegations surfaced that he had accepted a bribe to secure an interview with Nancy Reagan. Lesson #1: If you give anyone a reason to call for your resignation, you'll be out the door before you can say South Succotash Wisconsin.

William "Judge" Clark, a former Supreme Court justice in the state of California (appointed by Governor Reagan), moved from California to Washington with Reagan in 1981. Clark replaced Allen after spending a year at the State Department, where he was primarily keeping an eye on Secretary of State Haig. Clark's appointment served Reagan by allowing him to show his conservative base that the moderates, like Haig, were not going to push him around.

Clark lasted almost 18 months, which probably would have been shorter if not for his close relationship to Reagan. In fact, Clark was believed to be one of only a few people in Washington who could walk into the Oval Office unannounced. Clark also left an extensive record of his time as national security adviser. These files show that Clark was both a close confidant of Reagan and an active participant in foreign policy making decisions. Out of all the memos from the national security adviser to Reagan that I've seen at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Clark's memos are not only the longest and most detailed, but also include many of his own recommendations. It was no surprise to anyone in Washington that Clark was forced out in 1983. This brings me to lesson #2: Know your role, act the part, and whatever you do, don't tread on the secretary of state's turf.

Like President Obama looked within the NSC when deciding to appoint Mr. Donilon, Reagan also promoted from within, making Robert "Bud" McFarlane his third national security adviser. Out of all of Reagan's national security advisers, McFarlane's approach to the position is the only one that I have found to be documented:

"I want to raise a matter which seems to me of considerable importance concerning how the President receives advice from his Cabinet and White House staff," McFarlane opened his August 1, 1985 memo to Chief of Staff Donald Regan, with the subject line reading, "Advice to the President."

There are many models for providing advice to the President and we should pursue the one which the President prefers. The experience of the first term suggests that the President looks to his Cabinet Officers as the primary source of policy advice. On any given issues that advice often involves the views of more than one Cabinet Officer and consequently once recommendations are received from within the White House, they must be faithfully integrated into a single presentation of the issue. In national security affairs, the responsibility for presenting comprehensive policy recommendations has rested with the NSC staff. ... [T]he process is oriented toward order through the submission of a single document ...

It may be that I am wrong... if that is the case... [Reagan] would be better served by another National Security Advisor.

Let me be clear... Cabinet Officers within the national security community should feel free to offer whatever advice they believe appropriate and expect that it will be faithfully transmitted by the NSC staff to the President.

McFarlane held out until December 1985, bringing me to lesson #3: See lesson #2, plus recognize that if the president and his chief of staff are old Irish buds, no amount of experience or competence is likely to persuade the boss to tell his chief of staff to change the way he does business. In other words, avoid power struggles that you aren't going to win.

Reagan again promoted from within the NSC, making John Poindexter the fourth national security adviser in five years. By this time, however, the arms-for-hostages operation with Iranian factions, which originated within the NSC, was well underway. This meant that the NSC had already transformed from a policy-making organization to a policy-making organization with operational capabilities, and that the NSC was unilaterally implementing Reagan's foreign policy. By most accounts, at least, that is exactly what happened when NSC staffer Oliver North diverted the proceeds of the arms sales to the Contras fighting in Latin America. Poindexter "fell on his sword," and to best explain lesson #4 -- it is also your job to save the president from making stupid, embarrassing, dangerous and illegal decisions. I'll just summarize the conclusion of the report of the Congressional Committees Investigation of the Iran-Contra Affair:

In the Iran-Contra Affair, the NSC staff not only combined intelligence and policy functions, but it became operational and conducted covert operations. As the CIA was subjected to greater Congressional scrutiny and regulation, a few administration officials -- including even Director Casey -- came to believe that the CIA could no longer be utilized for daring covert operations. So the NSC staff was enlisted to provide assistance in covert operations that the CIA could not or would not furnish...

The NSC staff was created to provide candid and comprehensive advice to the President. It is the judgment of these Committees that the NSC staff should never again engage in covert operations.

Frank Carlucci and then Colin Powell came in to fill the remaining time as Reagan's fifth and sixth national security advisers. However, Iran-Contra was looming over their heads, meaning that that were under tremendous scrutiny to run a tight ship. Carlucci and Powell had no choice but to accept that their time as national security adviser would be spent making sure the NSC kept a low profile.

As a result of the power vacuum left by the diminished role of the National Security Adviser, NSC and NSPG meetings grew increasingly contentious, with Secretary of State Shultz often cutting the NSC (and the National Security Adviser) off at the knees by having weekly private meetings with Reagan. In those meetings, Shultz would privately tell Reagan what he wanted to do and Reagan would usually go along with his recommendations. The NSC meetings thus suffered as Shultz would at times refuse to discuss his position for fear that Reagan would either change his mind or the discussion would get leaked to the press. Either way, the NSC often failed Reagan by being unable to provide him with "candid and comprehensive advice."

That brings me to lessons #5 and #6. Lesson #5: you absolutely need the president's confidence. This means that you need to establish rules that everyone follows, including the president. And lesson #6: you also should insist that foreign policy decisions are made only during NSC meetings, and private meetings between the president and the various agency heads should be strictly for informational purposes. Otherwise, as was the case in the Reagan administration, the State Department and the White House might end up pursing competing agendas, both with the president's approval.

Jason Saltoun-Ebin is the editor of The Reagan Files: The Untold Story of Reagan's Top-Secret Efforts to Win the Cold War and the creator of the website, He can be reached at

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