Presidents must do more than decide foreign-policy
issues, Elliott Abrams contends ("The Prince of
the White House," March/April 2013). They must also "manage, demand,
cajole, impose, and wheedle" the national security bureaucracy in order to get
their way, advice Abrams distills into 11 -- sometimes conflicting -- Machiavellian
rules for today's "prince" in the Oval Office.
Presidents can either encourage or discourage
dissenting opinions, and Abrams's argument is at its strongest when he asserts
that the president must let advisors "fight it out" so that he can evaluate
alternatives and avoid a false consensus. In making this point, however, Abrams
echoes the inaccurate claims of President Dwight Eisenhower's Democratic
critics, who asserted that Ike required consensus from his advisors and
unquestioningly acted on their advice. In reality, Ike's experience as supreme
allied commander led him to demand that his aides "debate and argue with each
other" in front of him before he made important decisions, he later said.
was not trapped by his advisors' consensus when in 1954 he rightly rejected the
National Security Council (NSC) Planning Board's recommendation to intervene in
Vietnam in support of the French. On the flip side, President George W. Bush
did not solicit contrary views before issuing his 2002 orders suspending
the Geneva Conventions and encouraging the use of enhanced interrogation
techniques. Insisting on hearing dissenting opinions on these issues might have
saved him from defeats in the Supreme Court several years later. I would even
argue that employing a deliberative, Eisenhower-like process with the NSC might have saved the United States
from the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, the 1965 escalation of the Vietnam War, the
1980s Iran-Contra affair, or the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Abrams's skepticism toward dissent goes deeper. When Defense Secretary Clark
Clifford brought together a group of doves to advise President Lyndon B.
Johnson on Vietnam in 1968, Abrams interprets this as disloyalty to the president. But right or wrong, the doves
told the president what he needed to hear, rather than what he wanted to hear.
In any case, LBJ ignored their advice,
as was his prerogative. Friction between the White House staff (the "real"
team, as Abrams calls it) and cabinet officials ("rivals for power") is
inevitable, and Abrams is right to note that cabinet members must be responsive
not just to presidents but also to Congress, interest groups, and their own
agencies. But presidents need to listen to cabinet officers; their departments
have long institutional memories, and, after all, they implement presidential
Abrams also overstates his case
when he advises presidents to dismiss all career NSC officials immediately
upon taking office. "These people need to go, and fast," he writes, noting that
holdover counterterrorism aide Richard Clarke criticized the Bush
administration after leaving it. But when Clarke warned Bush about terrorist
attacks prior to 9/11 -- like LBJ's dovish advisors -- Clarke was telling
the president what he needed to hear. After all, loyalty is not a reliable
proxy for competence. Abrams has some good advice for presidents, but it is not
self-evident when they should take it.
JAMES P. PFIFFNER
Professor of Public Policy
George Mason University
Elliott Abrams replies:
I appreciate James Pfiffner's careful reading of my article. Where he
and I may part company is the question of hunting up dissenting advice.
I suggested that a president must hear dissenting
advice when it exists in his cabinet or national security agencies more
generally. It should not be kept from him through some process of
homogenization, nor obviously should it be suppressed. But I do not think there
is an obligation to seek out contrary views when they do not exist or exist
only in newspaper editorials or academic circles.
Pfiffner argues that presidents put themselves at a
disadvantage when they do not seek dissenting advice before making important
decisions and criticizes President George W. Bush (under whom I worked) because
he "did not solicit contrary views" on some occasions and was not "insisting on
hearing dissenting opinions." This goes too far. If no national security
officials or agencies offer a dissent and the Justice Department confirms the
legality of the contemplated action, the president should not chase after
As for listening to cabinet officers rather than
ignoring them -- sure. But taking their advice is something else again. That
depends on the president's estimation of just how smart, competent, loyal, and
reliable that cabinet officer is. As we all know, in every cabinet the range is