Discipline and decision-making

Print edition : May 21, 2004

NOBODY in or outside the government talks about the National Security Council or the National Security Advisory Board. The Council was set up with much fanfare, as was its Advisory Board, a curious innovation. Any NSC can work only if the men in government believe in disciplined decision-making. This involves a readiness to listen to all the viewpoints and acceptance of the legitimacy of contributions by the services whose work involves national security - diplomatic, military and economic. These are only prime among them.

The NSC's test came on Operation Parakram and an exceptionally well-informed book revealed that on December 18, 2001 "the Prime Minister called the three service chiefs and told them to prepare for a war with Pakistan. On being asked by the Chief of the Army Staff Gen. S. Padmanabhan `what the government expected from the war, (Prime Minister) Vajpayee is understood to have said: `woh baad mein bataayenge' (that will be told later).' Such was the beginning of Operation Parakram, where neither were the political objectives for war defined, nor did the military leadership press too hard to find them" (Operation Parakram: The War by Lt.-Gen. (retd.) V.K. Sood and Pravin Sawhney; Sage; page 62. Emphasis added throughout). Sood is a former Vice-Chief of the Army Staff (vide Frontline, June 6, 2003). Top Army officers later complained to correspondents of "the lack of any clear directive from the political leadership about the objective such a war might achieve" (Outlook, June 3, 2002). In any other democracy, the government would have been asked to account. Heads would have rolled.

The episode reflects vividly the national culture in decision-making. The BJP is not unique in subscribing to it. Its arrant hypocrisy lies in pretending to be different and in trying to deceive the nation that its ways are superior to those of its predecessors, especially the hated Nehru. That Gen. Padmanabhan meekly acquiesced is of a piece with that feudal culture. That the criticism of the Operation followed in driblets after the fiasco became evident belongs to the same habit. The futility of the Operation was evident even at its inception. The fiasco was predictable and was, indeed, predicted.

The Army Chief ought to have insisted on a written directive. In Britain, in 2003, the Army Chief demanded legal opinion on the Iraq war. One did not hear of any role for the National Security Council or its noisy Advisory Board. Sood and Sawhney record that while the Board's Draft National Security Doctrine was rejected by the government, it was ostentatiously consulted on whether or not to cross the Line of Control (LoC) during the Kargil crisis. It "assembled" again on October 16 and heard the Army Chief Gen. V.P. Malik. "Within hours of the meeting, the government announced that Operation Parakram was over" (page 85). The Board had been used and not for the first time, either. Some, at least, of its members, doubtless, enjoyed the experience.

Let alone the NSC, a body like the Inter-State Council, envisaged by the Constitution, itself works fitfully like Johnson's woman's preaching. It is "like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all". (On July 31, 1763, when sexist remarks were not politically incorrect).

No institution can improve ingrained habits and outlooks formed over the centuries. Only a break from the political culture spawned by feudalism can make institutions worthwhile. To ascribe the NSC's failure to the parliamentary system is to betray colossal ignorance of both the `NSC' and the parliamentary system. There is reason to believe that some have made that break and are charting a new course. They will find this inexpensively priced volume a veritable Bible on the United States' National Security Council. It is a tool, not a panacea. Its use has varied according to the ways of the President. But no President can dispense with the advice and assistance of the chiefs of the services and the heads of important Departments. Not all Secretaries of State are pliable like Nixon's William P. Rogers. Carter's Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, resigned to the President's embarrassment.

The President is head of State as well as government but he presides over a polity with multiple centres of power. His Cabinet consists of men who earn more outside the government than as its members. Experience shows, however, that in the name of national security, all the checks and balances can be reduced to naught as was done in 1964 in the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the Gulf War in 1991 and the aggression on Iraq in 1993. In each case falsehood was deployed to cover up abuse of military power; in each case Congress and the press proved compliant. With fewer checks and balances our system is far more pliable as Operation Parakram revealed.

The NSC is a useful body but it is no check on deliberate abuse of power. If its limitations are borne in mind, one can understand how it has worked in the U.S. in the last nearly 60 years to the public good.

The NSC is a product of the Cold War era. It was set up by a law, the National Security Act, 1947; not, as in India, by an executive order. Its main function is to advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign and military policies relating to national security so as to enable the military services as well as other departments and agencies of the U.S. government to cooperate more effectively in matters involving national security.

The Act defines the Council's duties in precise terms: "(1) to assess and appraise the objectives, commitments and risks of the United States in relation to our actual and potential military power, in the interest of national security, for the purpose of making recommendations to the President in connection therewith; and (2) to consider policies on matters of common interest to the departments and agencies of the government concerned with the national security, and to make recommendations to the President in connection therewith."

Its members are the President, the Vice-President, the Secretaries of State and Defence and, when the President so wishes, the Director of Central Intelligence, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the President's assistant for National Security Affairs. The Council has its own staff headed by a civilian executive secretary appointed by the President.

The Act was passed after much deliberation spread over a couple of years. It was in a sense the brainchild of James V. Forrestal, then Secretary of the Navy and later Secretary of Defence. In a letter of June 14, 1945, Forrestal asked Ferdinand Eberstadt, former Chairman of the Army-Navy Munitions Board, whether unification of the Departments of War and Navy would improve national security. He posed other related questions. One of them, significantly, was what form of post-war organisation would "enable the military services and other government departments and agencies to carry out their responsibilities in providing for the national security". There was no mistaking that Forrestal was determined not to let diplomats alone shape national policy.

Eberstadt responded in a 200-page report on September 25, 1945, with a brilliant summary of the experiences during the war and a conclusion that went straight to the heart of the matter: "These ills cannot be cured by one single administrative change such as unification of the armed services. They require integration of the whole organisational structure of the government in the service of national security." He devoted a whole chapter in spelling out this theme. It was appropriately entitled: "The Military Services Are Only Part of the National Machinery of Peace or War." He recommended several inter-related bodies - a National Security Council, a National Security Resources Board (NSRB), a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and a Military Education and Training Board. His NSC was to be "a policy forming and advisory body". Its chairman was to have "ready access" to the President and the power to forge a consensus among the military services.

This process or reorganisation was described later by Secretary of State Dean Acheson as "just a bit less formidable than that described in the first chapter of Genesis". Forrestal was determined on disciplining the decision-making process. He had thoroughly disapproved of Franklin D. Roosevelt's informal, easy style. The NSC was dubbed by many as "Forrestal's Revenge".

Truman distrusted the infant lest it "constrain" him. Ironically, it was during his presidency that the NSC as well as the State Department's Policy Planning Staff worked best. It produced, in 1950, the famous policy paper, NSC-68, which formulated in 66 pages the doctrine of containment of the Soviet Union.

His successor Eisenhower added a planning board and an operations coordination board, yet complained that the process was too formalistic. It was ignored during the crises in Suez (1956) and in Lebanon (1958). Kennedy found it unwieldy and pruned it. He set up the NSC's Executive Committee, "Ex Com", which handled the Cuban Missile crisis in October 1962. Its minutes were published and reflect disciplined decision-making at its best. But that was not quite the norm Kennedy followed. Lyndon Johnson preferred to decide at lunch on Tuesdays.

In 1968 Nixon appointed Henry Kissinger as his adviser on National Security Affairs and set a precedent for consigning the Secretary of State to a back seat. Strong Secretaries of State like George Shultz and James Baker III had no problem managing the NSA Advisers of their times. They made policy. No words need be wasted to describe the equation between the pliable Colin Powell and the ambitious Condoleezza Rice.

This volume, published in 2004, is remarkably up to date. Karl Inderfurth was Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs (1997-2001) and served early on the staff of Carter's NSC. Loch Johnson is an academic who has written a lot on intelligence. They have edited a volume of texts (including the Act of 1947) and analyses on the NSC's origins, its early years, its transformation profiles of NSA Advisers, its role in the post-Cold War era, the issues raised by its work and suggestions for its reforms. Even material related to purely American situations is instructive as analogy.

In itself the NSC was no threat to professional diplomats in the State Department, unless the NSA Adviser was a Kissinger with his contempt for the "bureaucracy". He received diplomats, conducted negotiations and went on diplomatic missions. This raised a host of issues, which remain unresolved to this day. At the heart of the problem lies the role of professionalism in modern times and the equation between politicians and professionals. They represent two cultures. Professional diplomats, like civil servants, are uninformed, and even uninterested, in the state of public opinion. The politician is obsessed by it. He is the one to make policy; but he must not neglect the diplomatic aspects, which the professional is trained to bear in mind and to advise him thereon. The diplomat who presumes to make policy is a public nuisance; if not, indeed, a menace. Policy-making involves a lot more than diplomatic skills; it requires creativity and vision, which do not come easily to civil servants, diplomats or other. Above all, it requires a sure grasp of the domestic political factor.

Ideally, in a parliamentary system it is at a body like the NSC that the debate should be first conducted and then transferred to another body, the Cabinet. In the U.S., President George Bush Sr streamlined the NSC as the editors record. "On January 30, 1989, President Bush issued National Security Directive I (NSD-I), establishing his new NSC system. Compared with past arrangements, it was streamlined. The formal Council would be supported by two key NSC subgroups - a Principals Committee and a Deputies Committee. The former would include the Secretaries of State and Defence, the Director of Central Intelligence, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the President's Chief of Staff and the National Security Adviser, who would serve as chairman. Other officials, such as the Secretary of the Treasury and the Attorney-General, would be invited as needed. This committee, according to Brent Scowcroft, National Security Adviser to Bush, was the major organisation change he wanted to make in the operation of the NSC, based on his past experience as a National Security Adviser. In A World Transformed, which he co-authored with President Bush, Scowcroft says, `I was eager to add a `principals' committee' which would be the NSC without the President and the Vice-President. I thought this could help clarify issues and positions among the principals before the issues were taken to the President. It could save him considerable time, and time, I believed, was his most valuable commodity.'

"The Deputies Committee would be chaired by the Deputy National Security Adviser and would include the second- or third-ranking official from each of the departments or agencies represented on the Principals Committee. According to NSD-1, its task was to `ensure that all papers to be discussed by the NSC... fully analyse the issues, fairly and adequately set out the facts, consider a full range of views and options, and satisfactorily assess the prospects, risks and implications of each'. As a result of a supplement to the directive, signed by Scowcroft in October 1989, the Deputies Committee took on another formal assignment: crisis management. The `DC' as the committee was called, would spend a great deal of its time during the Bush Administration fulfilling this responsibility."

But institutions set up on paper are shaped by men. There was a collegial spirit among them, which is lacking in his son, George W. Bush's NSC in which Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld make little effort to conceal their contempt for Colin Powell.

On February 13, 2001, George W. Bush issued a National Security Presidential Directive. It affirmed Rice's primacy for directing the word of the Council and along with her deputy, chairing the two principal NSC subgroups - the Principals and the Deputies committees.

Bush convened a meeting of the NSC immediately after his return to the White House after 9/11. Vincent A. Auger's essay on the NSC system after the Cold War is informative. However, it is Amy B. Zegart's book Flawed by Design which accurately pinpoints the three hallmarks of the present system in contrast to the NSC of earlier years. First, the Adviser has come to wield much powers; with him, or her, the NSC's staff has also acquired clout; and the formal NSC as an institution has declined. In her view: "these hallmarks reveal a modern NSC system that has steadily drawn foreign policy-making power away from the Cabinet departments and into the White House... The palace guard has, indeed, eclipsed the King's ministers." The NSC's decline reflects the decline of the presidency itself. A competent self-assured leader dreads no advice and scorns no institution.

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor