WASHINGTON — It was perhaps inevitable that one result of the Iran fiasco would be mounting calls for institutional reform of U.S. foreign policy machinery. Already there are demands for a clear delineation of responsibilities to establish that the secretary of state is the nation's principal manager of and spokesman for foreign policy issues. There are also calls for the appointment of a national security adviser who has more experience in foreign policy than Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter, whose career has been entirely in the military, as well as for a restructuring of the National Security Council.
There are, however, definite limits to what can be done. Because so many executive branch agencies now have a legitimate interest in foreign affairs, it is unlikely that we will ever again have a single pole of authority within the government determining the nation's foreign and security policy--unless that person is the President himself. Henry A. Kissinger attempted to play such a role in the special circumstances of the Nixon presidency: The result was both bold decisions and appalling errors.
In most Administrations, U.S. policy will be the result of shifting Cabinet coalitions. And this is not necessarily a bad arrangement, provided an Administration appoints qualified people to key positions and puts in place a viable system of policy coordination.
In this regard certain concrete steps can enhance the likelihood that an Administration will be able to carry out an effective foreign policy.
Because other Cabinet members with a legitimate interest in foreign policy will not take orders from the secretary of state, in every Administration more power will flow to the White House and the national security adviser than the purists deem desirable. Otherwise there will be no one to arbitrate disputes.
But if a powerful NSC is inevitable, a decline in its quality is not. It is not inevitable, for example, that the National Security Council be as poorly staffed as is now the case. During the transition between the Carter and Reagan Administrations, even secretaries were fired. All institutional memory was lost. If a strong NSC is here to stay, it should be possible to insure that a certain percentage of the staff consists of permanent civil servants. A post of permanent secretary might be created; then, an incoming Administration would at least know the record of the past. Outgoing Administrations could be barred from removing any records unless copies of all important documents are left for those assuming office.
Administrations should move to demilitarize personnel appointments for NSC adviser and staff. The NSC should be forbidden to engage in diplomatic or military operations. For adviser, preference should be given to someone with broad experience in foreign policy who is nearing the peak of his career. Such a person would be less likely than recent incumbents to pursue personal ambitions to the detriment of the national interest and Administration policy.
There are also important reforms that could be taken in the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department. In recent years, Administrations have come to regard the job of CIA director as just another political post awarded to a worthy supporter. Thus Jimmy Carter tried but failed to appoint former Kennedy White House confidant Theodore C. Sorensen, and Ronald Reagan succeeded in appointing his campaign manager, William J. Casey.
This trend is a mistake. The development of sound foreign policy requires that the President receive objective intelligence, untainted by domestic political considerations. Such advice is less likely to come from a man who is as closely tied to the political fortunes of a White House incumbent as Sorensen might have been or Casey is. The CIA director should be a civil servant appointed to a four-year term that comes due between presidential elections.
Proposals to reform the State Department are legion and largely irrelevant. For most attempt to restore an authority that can never be reclaimed: The world has changed and a nation's foreign policy will henceforth involve a broader array of activities than traditional diplomacy. Moreover, it is hardly a recent historical phenomenon for a presidential adviser to have as much or more authority in the field of foreign policy than the secretary of state. Col. Edward M. House in the Wilson Administration was more important that Secretary of State Robert Lancing; Harry Hopkins was more important in the Administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt than Cordell Hull. Kissinger was more important than William P. Rogers and the influence of Zbigniew Brzezinski certainly rivaled that of Cyrus R. Vance in the Carter Administration.