WASHINGTON — "What is highly dangerous," wrote Carl von Clausewitz more than 150 years ago, "is to let any soldier but the commander-in-chief exert an influence in cabinet."
If he was writing that warning today he could have used Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter and Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North as cases in point; revelations of their secret operations have led to the cry that the National Security Council has run amok.
Not quite. Although you'd never know it from most reports, the National Security Council consists of the President, the vice president, the secretary of state and the secretary of defense--with the director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as statutory advisers.
Yet it would appear that none of these NSC members were fully informed as to what was going on, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is, by U.S. law, the principal military adviser to the President; he was reportedly kept deliberately in the dark about the whole affair.
What has run amok is not the National Security Council but a group far more dangerous to the security of the United States--the National Security Council staff. Originally intended only as a collection of clerks to keep track of the papers and deliberations of the council's senior Cabinet officials, the staff has now become more powerful than the council itself. What we are seeing is yet another example of the tyranny of the clerks.
This is nothing new. For thousands of years successive Chinese empires were plagued by the same phenomenon. Time after time the eunuchs who served as court chamberlains and as secretaries to the emperor usurped power and became the de facto government of the empire. Power in a bureaucracy is not a function of rank or position. And, Mao Tse-tung notwithstanding, it usually does not "grow out of the barrel of a gun." Power is a function of access. It was not the crude and coarse men on horseback who were the bane of Chinese imperial government, it was the silken-slippered, smooth-talking eunuchs who whispered in the emperor's ear, who had the power to decide what people came through the emperor's door.
One of the great ironies of the current imbroglio is that for the past several years a great debate has raged in Washington over the organization of America's military. The usual red-herring of civilian control over the military was a key issue, and there was much huffing and puffing over the danger of creating a "German general staff" that might usurp that control. Yet during all the fulminating over reining in the "men on horseback" in the Pentagon, across the river, comfortably ensconced in the basement of the White House and next door in the old Executive Office Building, a real honest-to-God "German general staff" was in full operation.
In the German general staff, a staff officer had the authority to dictate to--and to countermand--the orders of officers much senior in rank. By all accounts, NSC staffer North enjoyed a power that even the Prussian Junkers of imperial Germany would have envied. He claims to have organized the Grenada invasion, planned the intercept of the Achille Lauro hijackers, arranged for the shipment of arms to Iran and was in charge of raising funds for the contras in Nicaragua.
Derisively labeled "Field Marshal North" in the Pentagon, his authority
evidently exceeded not only the Joint Chiefs' but that of all the U.S. generals and admirals put together.
And this ersatz German general staff suffered the same failing as the original model. The traditional fear about such a staff, that military officers in such positions of great power could lead to a coup d'etat , is the wrong fear.
Even in Germany such coups never happened. And in Washington the chances of Poindexter and North leading a military coup were as remote as the likelihood of a coup by the Girl Guides under the command of Joan Baez. Poindexter and North were not insidious instruments of the Pentagon. In fact they had little following within the ranks. Rather than being admired by their professional contemporaries, they were held in contempt as uniformed yuppies on a power and ego trip.
Envy was not the cause of this contempt; many officers saw the covert operations as violations of fundamental military values. A cardinal and unforgivable sin in a serving military officer is lack of loyalty to the men and women who count on the officers to speak out for their interests and to protect their well-being.