President Ronald Reagan began his administration by reversing a trend and appointing a lowkey national security assistant who would return to the pre-Kissinger model. Unfortunately, in an aberration from the designated use of the NSC, Reagan also used the national security system as an operating agency, with far-reaching results. Unfamiliar with and initially uninterested in national security affairs, Reagan, who had no trouble working with a triumvirate of domestic advisers, seemed unable to find the right national security person with whom to work. As a result, he had a record six national security advisers. Richard Allen, the first, was the only one since the origins of the NSC who did not have direct access to the president. Allen answered to Edwin Meese, a former Reagan associate who was now White House general counsel. He failed to gain the confidence of Meese and, despite his low profile, Allen immediately had turf battles with the intrepid secretary of state, Alexander Haig. Allen left office within a year and was followed by William Clark. Clark had no experience or background in national security policy but was close to Reagan, having served as his executive secretary when Reagan was governor of California. Someone who knew the president seemed more likely to be a successful assistant for national security. Clark was familiar with the president's work habits, goals, and governing style. He had complete access to the Oval Office, meanwhile building a strong staff of sixty-one to compensate for his own weakness. He could offer little in the way of substance, however, and resigned in 1983.
Meanwhile, the world had not waited for Reagan to find his way. Iranians, after overthrowing the shah, storming the American embassy, and taking American hostages, finally released the Americans on January 20, 1981, the day of Reagan's inauguration, but became an important anti-American and anti-Western force in the Middle East. In Central America, Reagan faced a revolutionary, left-wing government in Nicaragua. President Carter had not condoned or encouraged this new government but had chosen to accept it. Reagan and his advisers, on the other hand, saw the new Nicaraguan rulers, the Sandinistas, as partners in the Havana-Moscow nexus. Reagan assumed that Nicaragua, like Cuba, would try to export its revolution throughout Latin America. Therefore, Nicaragua was seen as a danger to U.S. interests, and so the administration began to support the military opposition to the Sandinistas, those known as contras.
Congress tied the hands of the president when it prohibited the use of funds to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. Reagan, however, was determined to rid Nicaragua of the Sandinistas and sought a different way to reach the contras. He turned to the one group outside the purview of Congress, the national security adviser and his staff. From 1983 to 1986, national security advisers Robert McFarlane and John Poindexter, who followed McFarlane in 1985, were the chief architects of the disastrous Iran-contra policy. With the help of national security staff assistants who scorned the constitutional issues involved, they devised a plan to send arms to Iran for its war against Iraq. The payment for the arms was then sent to the Nicaraguan contras.
For the first and only time in its history, the NSC became an operational agency. National security adviser McFarlane made secret trips to the Middle East while U.S. marine lieutenant colonel Oliver North, a staff assistant, coordinated the activities against the contras. Trading arms for money, the essence of what became the Iran-Contra scandal, was soon discovered and investigated, discrediting both the president and the participants. The fifth national security adviser, Frank Carlucci, a respected and experienced veteran of the Defense Department, was then called in to clean house. Finally, in 1987 General Colin Powell stepped into the position.
The Reagan interlude illustrates the failure of the NSC system when a president fails to exert leadership within the policy process. Created for battle in the Cold War, no president between Truman and Reagan entered office without a strong commitment to developing a policy process that could cope with the problems presented by the global interests of the Cold War. These presidents, cognizant of the problems posed by international responsibilities, also brought into the White House men and women who could implement their policies. As a result, the glaring deficiencies of the original 1947 legislation were invisible. The act provided the NSC with an ambiguous mandate that ignored the necessity for an adviser and staff as key participants in the making of national security policy.
Taking a cue from President Carter, Reagan included his vice president, George H. W. Bush, in many of the important national security decisions of his administration. As president, Bush—who had been ambassador to the United Nations, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and the American representative to China—reorganized the national security process, as had previous chief executives. His national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, and Scowcroft's deputy, Robert Gates, were at the center of the national security process, chairing the top panels of the senior officers in all the national security agencies and thus setting the agendas.
President Bush continued the use of the Principals Committee, which had been established in 1987 by Reagan. This committee was virtually the original NSC with the addition of the secretary of the Treasury, the chief of staff to the president, and the national security adviser. As was true of the NSC, the chairman of the JCS and the director of the CIA also attended, while others were invited as needed. Both Truman and Eisenhower would have recognized this group, although neither would have acquiesced to any committee of principals that did not include the president, the ultimate "principal." Instead, National Security Presidential Directive-1 noted that both President Bush and his vice president could attend any and all meetings.
Bush, like his predecessors, did not rely upon this system for making foreign policy. He valued secrecy and loyalty and relied on an unusually small set of advisers who shared similar worldviews. Bush's mini-NSC was composed of Scowcroft, Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, and Secretary of State James Baker, who met with the president in the Oval Office. They were occasionally joined by the General Colin L. Powell, now chairman of the JCS, and Gates after his appointment as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency in September 1991. The fact that the Bush administration did not use the NSC did not diminish the role of the national security adviser. In 1991, for example, the president sent Scowcroft to the Middle East and China, not Secretary of State Baker.
Predictably, President William Clinton changed the national security process, this time by adding a broad economic element to the National Security Council. The secretary of the Treasury and the chief of the new White House Economic Council were added to the NSC as well as the ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine K. Albright. The Principals Committee and Deputies Committee were both retained. As usual, there were discussions in the media about relationships between national security principals, in this case Secretary of State Warren Christopher; Defense Secretary Les Aspin; and the national security adviser, Anthony Lake. But the perception of problems within the Clinton administration were partly a product of a disorganized White House and the president's initial lack of interest.
By Clinton's second term, a succession of crises had brought Clinton into the heart of foreign policy and the administration began to change. All the original players, Christopher, Aspin, and Lake, left the administration. Samuel R. Berger, Lake's deputy, became the national security adviser and Albright became the first woman to serve as secretary of state. Albright was a more colorful secretary, but, like Christopher, she apparently was relegated to traditional diplomatic tasks. She never seemed totally without influence, but the heart of the policy process remained within the gates of the White House. National security policy was again dominated by the president's staff, in particular by Sandy Berger, whose office was just steps away from the president's and for whom the president's door was always open.
When George W. Bush took office in January 2001, he quickly nominated a strong and experienced secretary of state, General Colin Powell, and moved on to nominate an equally experienced secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld. Under the Bush plan, the national security adviser would return to the position of facilitator, bringing information to the president and acting as a liaison officer bridging the gap between the State and Defense Departments.