"A visitor once came to the White House and presented an idea to President Kennedy," Charles Frankel recounts in his classic memoir, High on Foggy Bottom. "The President was enthusiastic. 'That's a first-rate idea,' he said. 'Now we must see whether we can get the government to accept it.'"
Every president, regardless of party or ideology, struggles to push his agenda through America's unwieldy -- and increasingly massive -- national security bureaucracy. "To govern is to choose," the old saying goes, but to govern is also to manage, demand, cajole, impose, and wheedle your way to control of "the government." Choosing is the easy part.
I spent eight years at the State Department in President Ronald Reagan's administration and nearly the same length of time in George W. Bush's White House, working in the National Security Council (NSC). In both places, I saw many instances of smooth presidential control, but also many where bureaucratic decisions went against the president's core beliefs. The earliest example for me came in 1982, when Chinese tennis star Hu Na defected to the United States -- and the State Department's China desk immediately took a strong position against granting her political asylum. This idea from "the government" was passed on by the Reaganites at the State Department to the president, who of course rejected it. She was given political asylum.
Bush's second term offers perhaps the best recent case study of a president trapped by a bureaucracy. By 2007, the United States was clearly losing the war in Iraq, but the president simply could not get "the government" -- in this case, his own top generals -- to give him any real options that could reverse the tide. Bush would eventually defeat the bureaucracy by going around the military hierarchy entirely: He and a handful of top aides in the White House put together a bold counterinsurgency plan he then imposed on the Pentagon. It became known as the "surge."
But Bush is hardly alone. Every president must confront powerful rivals for control of the foreign-policy agenda, and the 11 rules presented here are intended to offer a blueprint for how to do so.
Don't underestimate the gravity of this problem. Bureaucracies can be amazingly resistant to outside control. Max Weber detailed their power as far back as 18th-century Prussia: "All the scornful decrees of Frederick the Great concerning the 'abolition of serfdom' were derailed," the German sociologist wrote. "[T]he official mechanism simply ignored them as the occasional ideas of a dilettante." And Frederick the Great was both a charismatic authoritarian leader and an organizational genius. The task is even more difficult for America's elected presidents, who get eight years at best to make their mark on the world. If President Barack Obama fails to master the bureaucracy during his second term, he too will find his agenda thwarted by his natural antagonists in the foreign-policy establishment.