“Diplomacy is utterly useless where there is no force behind it.”
—Theodore Roosevelt

From the elevation of arms control to the opening of talks with the PLO, the course of American foreign policy in recent years has led some to wonder why Ronald Reagan was once considered such a contrast to Jimmy Carter. The cycle is best seen in Central America. In 1980, the question was whether El Salvador could survive a Communist insurgency. The Reagan Doctrine’s support of the contras shifted the strategic balance. The question then became could Nicaragua survive an anticommunist insurgency. But these days, leftist demonstrators once again chant, “Nicaragua is now free. El Salvador soon will be.” Soviet aid flows to the Sandinistas (and on to guerrillas, terrorists, and drug runners throughout the region), while the contras starve.

Reagan’s defenders blame the Democratic Congress. The Boland amendments and Speaker Wright’s plots with the Sandinistas come readily to mind. Yet the most powerful enemies of President Reagan’s policies were within the executive branch at the Department of State. Reagan tolerated George Schultz as secretary of state, a man who in championing the appeasement policies of the Foreign Service worked tirelessly to subvert the President’s policies—and in the last two years, succeeded.

This is the message of Constantine Menges and Carnes Lord. Both men served on the National Security Council staff (Menges, 1983-86; Lord, 1981-83). The NSC is supposed to keep the President in control of foreign policy. However, in the struggle between the NSC and the State Department, the NSC is short of resources unless the President stays involved in the process and imparts to the NSC his authority to deal with the bureaucracy. Reagan did not do this. Given the record of George Bush and James Baker during this period, matters are unlikely to improve.

The Menges and Lord books are complementary. Menges relates with details that make the blood boil the constant intrigues hatched by the State Department, while Lord does an organizational analysis, proposing reforms throughout the foreign policy apparatus to increase presidential authority.

Menges had senior NSC staff responsibility for Latin America. He had been a Latin America CIA specialist (1981-83). He firmly believes that if the Sandinistas are not removed, Mexico will eventually fall and the US will face the unaccustomed danger of a large, Soviet-armed enemy on its own border.

Menges recounts seven major attempts between 1981 and 1986 by State to substitute its own program for Reagan’s. State wanted a negotiated settlement that would ratify Communist control of Nicaragua and provide US economic aid in exchange for a Sandinista promise not to pursue revolutionary activity elsewhere. State opposed any attempt to remove the Sandinista regime or require it to adopt democracy as being contrary to this formula. Of course, without pressure there was no reason for the Sandinistas to make concessions.

That the State formula was contrary to Reagan’s program was revealed whenever the President discovered what State was doing. The President always said “no” (often displaying considerable anger), ordered State plans halted, and sent personal assurances to friendly Central American governments. Yet he left the conspirators in place to try again, and they quickly learned to operate behind the President’s back—and to block all attempts to inform the President what was happening. This is the most shocking part of the story.

A few of the many examples: in early 1983, when Jeane Kirkpatrick made a tour of Central America with a letter from Reagan outlining his policy, Thomas Enders, assistant secretary of state for Latin America, sent a letter to all area ambassadors to ignore Kirkpatrick because a new policy, the State formula, was about to be adopted. In 1985, Schultz tried to persuade all Latin American ambassadors appointed by Reagan to resign, so that they could be replaced by career Foreign Service officers chosen by himself. Ambassadors involved had to resort to notes passed through Ed Meese and commercial telegrams to get word to Reagan. Repeatedly, State officials would hold secret talks with the Sandinistas and draw up complete peace treaties without ever showing the documents to the President. Even when these efforts were blocked, word would spread around the region, breeding fear of an impending sell-out. Without American leadership and support, no one can be expected to risk a confrontation with the Soviet-Cuban-Nicaraguan axis.

Robert McFarlane, as head of the NSC, was co-opted by Schultz to block formal NSC interference. Messages from ambassadors, the NSC staff. Republican congressmen, Defense Secretary Weinberger, and even the heads of foreign governments were lost or delayed if sent by normal bureaucratic channels. Michael Deaver, who wanted to build a new Reagan image as a “man of peace,” also worked with Schultz to advance State proposals. And whenever the Sandinistas provoked an outcry on Capitol Hill by invading Honduras or crushing dissent, a cabal swung into action to delay any votes on contra aid until the crisis had passed. State officials would trot out a new “peace process” development that the Democrats would use as an excuse for doing nothing. Eventually, Kirkpatrick, Weinberger, Bill Casey at CIA, and even Menges left government. The NSC was “disgraced” by the Iran-contra affair. Meanwhile, Schultz and the State careerists plodded on, finally gaining victory with the 1987 Arias Plan that sold out the contras for empty promises and a Nobel Prize.

Though Menges concentrates on Central America, he also observes how State worked for similar negotiated settlements of other issues: a desire to trade SDI for limits on Soviet offensive weapons; a cutoff in aid to anticommunist forces in Angola and Afghanistan for promises of future Cuban and Soviet withdrawals but continuing Communist regimes (both plans advanced in the settlements rushed through in 1988); the constant attempts to buy Soviet goodwill through expanded trade financed on credit.

Menges calls this last point the “shallow economic determinism” shared by the departments of State and Commerce. Menges does not pursue this point as far as he should. It is a powerful ploy for co-opting otherwise “conservative” businessmen and intellectuals. The conservative movement has relied so much on classical liberal rhetoric in its defense of capitalism that it no longer gives due regard to the larger context of this philosophy. Thus the State Department had no problem embracing and promoting Reagan’s “free trade” policy, as it is based on the same liberal view of a world of peace and harmony, and denies that other nations might be trying to gain an advantage.

Menges argues that the State Department, though wrong, thinks it is doing the right thing, and Lord speaks of a difference in “culture” at State, but neither explores the philosophical roots of the problem. State’s house creed is liberalism. The often cited difference between “classical” and “modern” liberalism is irrelevant here, because continuity exists in liberal thought on international relations stretching back to the Enlightenment. The basic notion is that peace is the norm, conflict an aberration. The purpose of diplomacy is not to advance national interests, but only to clear up misunderstandings before they get out of hand (as Stanley Hoffman posed it, “world order” should be chosen over American “primacy”). It is thus important never to overreact (or even react at all). An occasional corrupt or insane ruler may cause problems, but there are no basic or permanent causes for animosity between peoples. All conflicts of interest can be settled by compromise. Reason will out. The idea that ambition or ideology can pit entire civilizations against each other in an ongoing struggle is totally unacceptable.

What else explains the airy belief that “talks” will bring peace between Israel and the PLO? What is there to talk about except a “Palestinian state” that would pose a mortal threat to Israel? That Schultz’s “land for peace” formula looked ominously like the 1938 Munich solution for Czechoslovakia is not surprising, since a primary characteristic of the liberal world view is the endless repetition of errors. This is because each issue is seen as a discreet problem to be settled. If just this one thing can be put behind us, they say, then normal relations (peace) will be restored. They refuse to consider that in regard to some regimes and movements, the only realistic definition of normal relations is unrelenting war. It is this liberal attitude that has made the “salami tactic” so popular with adversaries.

It is also the attitude that makes the development of strategy so difficult in the United States. By definition, strategy is the long-range formulation of plans. It thus assumes long-term conflicts or at least a series of challenges to which the nation must respond. The fundamental world view of the strategist is at odds with the liberal philosophy. For the liberal, the development of a US strategy to enhance its position in the world is immoral, while to believe that the US has any enemies with their own strategies is to succumb to right-wing paranoia. But the strategist must operate on the belief that the world is as it has always been, marked by nations and empires striving to control their surroundings so as to increase their wealth and power. This is why the staffs of the NSC, CIA, and Defense Department, which are continuously engaged in this global struggle, found themselves allied against the State Department. It was not just bureaucratic turf,’ but basic views about how the world works that were at odds.

This is also why Carnes Lord’s plans for converting the NSC into a true strategic planning agency will arouse instant opposition. The lack of an integrated planning agency has symbolized America’s unwillingness to accept international conflict as a norm. A stronger NSC may be attacked by liberals as the onset of “Prussianism,” but once their underlying philosophy is rejected, so can be their criticism.

Lord would reduce State to an operational role, simply carrying out the strategy determined by the NSC in accordance with presidential wishes (just as Defense would do with military matters). Within the NSC framework, State is only one voice among many contending with Defense, CIA, the JCS, and the NSC staff (the NSC advisor would be elevated to cabinet rank). Rather than a mere coordinating group, the NSC would exercise real authority over the operational bureaucracy to ensure that the President’s strategic decisions were being followed. Lord would also reorganize the top positions at State to better conform to posts at Defense, the military theater commands, and alliance networks.

Lord would also create new posts across the bureaucracy to work on political-military issues, particularly subconventional warfare (terrorism and insurgency). And ambassadors would play a larger role as presidential agents.

One of Lord’s best ideas was mentioned only in passing: the creation of a new high-level civil service separate from the Foreign Service, one that would cut across the entire. foreign policy-defense-intelligence establishment. A gap should be created between the State Department careerists and policymaking positions, a gap that could only be crossed by those who had acquired wider experience. The Foreign Service careerists claim that they are the “professionals,” whereas political appointees are amateurs. While the careerists may possess a great deal of factual knowledge, this is not the same as the imagination needed by strategists. Nor is the environment at State likely to generate such imagination. There are a great many more people whose experience in government, business, the military, and academic and private research better suits them for strategic policymaking.

While conservatives have mistrusted the State Department since Yalta, Lord notes that “conservatism remains profoundly ambivalent concerning the presidency.” But with the GOP winning five of six presidential elections since 1968, and the electoral vote balance continuing to shift in its favor, a stronger Chief Executive is the best hope for national renewal. Clearly the White House needs strengthening, as it has not been able to act decisively in recent years to prevent the erosion of America’s position in the world.

The Founding Fathers created the presidency because Congress had shown itself unable to handle foreign affairs. The President was to be “energetic” and exhibit “decision, activity, secrecy and dispatch,” according to Alexander Hamilton. But to prevail over Congress, the President must first get his own executive branch in order. For that he needs “hands on” involvement. An NSC that can develop plans, monitor bureaucratic performance, and discipline noncompliance would be a powerful asset. This means that conservatives are going to have to think more seriously about the structure and use of centralized governmental authority than they have done in the past. 


[Inside the National Security Council, by Constantine C. Menges (New York: Simon & Schuster) 418 pp., $19.95]

[The Presidency and the Management of National Security, by Carries Lord (New York: Free Press) 207 pp., $22.50]