The inner circles of the U.S. national security community -- members of the National Security Council (NSC), a select number of their deputies, and a few close advisors to the president -- represent what is probably the most powerful committee in the history of the world, one with more resources, more power, more license to act, and more ability to project force further and swifter than any other convened by king, emperor, or president.
At the same time, the political party controlling that committee has a grip on power in Washington unprecedented in recent history. For the first time in nearly eight decades, the Republican Party has won control of the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives in two consecutive elections. Yet, despite this political monopoly, the elites who exert the most influence on this little-understood, shadowy committee are being buffeted and pulled apart by forces from within.
An increasingly bitter philosophical debate pits the supporters of the policies of former President George H.W. Bush and many of his one-time team of foreign-policy experts, led by former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, against those who back views embraced by President George W. Bush and his team, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. What Scowcroft calls the "traditionalists" of the Bush 41 team are pitted against the "transformationalists" of the Bush 43 team, pragmatists vs. neocons, internationalists vs. unilateralists, the people who oversaw the end of the Cold War against those who oversaw the beginning of the War on Terror. Of course, the irony is that many of these people were not too long ago seen as parts of a whole. All are or once were close. What happened?
Partisan critics have offered theories, many of which distort the facts or speak for key players in ways that suit their own arguments. However, as the transition from the first to the second term of the Bush administration takes hold, many of its current and former members and others inside the Republican Party foreign-policy establishment are beginning to open up and speak their minds about the character of the key players and their relationships within these inner circles. More revealing and more credible than partisan critics, the picture they paint is useful not only for what it tells us about the operations of the administration during its first term but also for what should be expected from the next four years.
THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT CONDI
The NSC was established in 1947 as a coordinating mechanism to ensure the president received the benefit of the views of the principal members of his national security team -- a reaction to President Franklin Roosevelt's close-held, ad hoc management style. Its staff was tiny and uninfluential. The NSC's clout grew modestly during its first couple of decades, but it then emerged as a unique power center during the 1970s under the leadership of national security advisors who shaped it into a modern institution: Henry Kissinger, Scowcroft, and Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Since that era, the NSC's power has ebbed and flowed, but the trend has been in its favor with recent national security advisors eclipsing the influence of their counterparts in the State and Defense Departments. As part of the executive office of the president, the NSC operates with unusual freedom compared to most cabinet agencies. Neither the national security advisor nor any other member of the NSC staff is confirmed by the Senate. As such, the NSC as an entity is not subject to congressional oversight, even though it now performs many of the policymaking functions once reserved for the State Department. Indeed, it has become a preserve for those activities that an administration wishes to conduct beyond congressional scrutiny, as the country learned to its collective discomfort with the revelations of the "operational" NSC of Adm. John Poindexter and Col. Oliver North during the Reagan years.
The NSC's power has expanded since the end of the Cold War, as critical constraints on its operations have been removed or reduced. Virtually every major decision made during the first 45 years of the NSC's existence was influenced by calculating what the Soviet reaction would be. Today, the United States operates as a sole superpower unburdened by such considerations. Policymakers no longer must be concerned with the consequences of their actions beyond how their domestic audience responds -- and even that constraint diminished with the national mindset that developed in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Such was the political landscape that characterized Condoleezza Rice's tenure as national security advisor. In that vital role, she was closer to the president she served than any of her 16 predecessors. By her own account, she often spent as many as six or seven hours a day at the president's side. But she was also an unofficial member of the Bush family, with her own cabin at Camp David, coming as a regular guest to Sunday dinners, and relaxing with the president and his family on vacations.