Last week, the White House announced that national security adviser Condoleezza Rice had been given the new responsibility of managing the struggling effort to rebuild Iraq. In the words of one official, Rice would "crack the whip, frankly."
The announcement was met by puzzlement throughout the foreign policy community: Isn't that what the national security adviser is supposed to do in the first place?
Rice has proved to be a poised and articulate defender of President Bush's policies. But her management of the National Security Council -- the principal coordinator and enforcer of presidential decision making -- has come under fire from former and current administration officials and a range of foreign policy experts.
From the start, the administration has been riven by ideological disputes on foreign policy. But both neoconservative hawks and mainstream Republican foreign-policy realists say many of the administration's foreign policy headaches are directly related to the interagency process Rice oversees.
A senior State Department official -- voicing an opinion that few in the government disputed -- said: "If you want a one-word description of the NSC since January 21, 2001: dysfunctional."
Rice declined to be interviewed for this article. But Stephen E. Biegun, a former NSC executive secretary who left in January to become national security affairs adviser to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), dismissed many of the complaints as "blame-shifting." "The State Department and Defense Department don't need Condi Rice to solve their problems," he said. "They are at the table to solve those problems."
Henry A. Kissinger, former national security adviser and secretary of state, said, "In my experience, the losing side in an argument in the governmental process tends to blame the security adviser. The fact that all of them are complaining simultaneously is not a bad sign."
This article is based on more than four dozen interviews, conducted over several months, with officials in senior positions at the State Department, the White House, the Defense Department and Congress, with former government officials and with foreign policy experts. Almost none would agree to be quoted by name, including former officials, because the national security adviser holds such a powerful position, and many expect to continue dealing with Rice after she leaves the administration. Even the White House would not authorize anyone to speak on the record about Rice's tenure.
The 1947 legislation that established the NSC envisioned a body that would advise the president on the integration of domestic, foreign and military policies, and foster interagency cooperation. In practice, the national security adviser's impact has largely depended on personal chemistry with the president and the president's interests and desires.
Bush is personally close to Rice. She spends countless hours at his side -- in the White House, at Camp David and on his ranch in Crawford, Tex. -- forging a bond that has transcended the statutory position of national security adviser.
But the president also values dynamic debate among his foreign policy advisers, administration officials said. In Rice's case, she must try not only to manage two powerful Cabinet members with sharply different views -- Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld -- but also to deal with a player distinctive to the Bush administration: a vice president, Richard B. Cheney, who weighs in on every major foreign policy question.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser for President Jimmy Carter, said those two factors have "greatly complicated the problems she faces" in trying to manage an unusually difficult set of foreign policy issues.
Ivo Daalder, who for five years has run a Brookings Institution-University of Maryland study project on the NSC, said Rice is "closer to the president than any other national security adviser has ever been, including Kissinger to Nixon." But, at the same time, he said, "There's never been a time when the vice president has played such a dominant, powerful role inside the national security policymaking process."
Daalder, who served on President Bill Clinton's NSC staff, viewed last week's announcement as evidence that Rice is trying "to take control of a process that was in some sense running away from her -- which was clear in the Iraqi reconstruction process, but also the foreign policy process writ large."
Four Key Roles
Rice has focused more on her role as a presidential adviser and less on using the NSC to set policy. Bush prefers to assign specific tasks to different agencies to carry out his decisions, turning, for example, to Rumsfeld and saying, "Don, you take the lead on this."
When new staff members join the NSC, Rice outlines four key roles for her staff: preparing the president for meetings and phone calls; ensuring that presidential foreign policy initiatives are carried out; coordinating policy on matters that do not fall logically to a particular agency; and trying to interest different agencies in ideas developed at the NSC.
Rice's position on most issues is a mystery to many people within the administration, and she prefers to keep it that way. In meetings with Bush's principal foreign policy advisers, she usually does not tip her hand, saving her advice for the president when he asks her in private.
If she states a position, she will announce to the gathering that she is stepping out of her role as national security adviser. Indeed, she generally will avoid driving an issue to a particular conclusion unless Bush has privately directed her to float a concept and see how other key players react to it.
"Condi has a somewhat idealized and noble view of how the interagency process should work: You should get the best out of everybody involved and in the end forge it into an effective policy," Biegun said, adding that it is important to remember that "the president makes the decisions. It's not Condi who makes the decisions. It's not Powell who makes the decisions. It's not Rumsfeld who makes the decisions."
Rice's reputation was damaged in July, when she acknowledged that she had not entirely read the most authoritative assessment of prewar intelligence on Iraq's weapons programs. She also said the White House was unaware of CIA doubts about an allegation that Iraq had sought uranium in Africa, although her staff had received two CIA memos and a call from CIA Director George J. Tenet on the subject.
But the complaints about her skills at managing foreign policy are in many ways more serious, and have not received much of a public airing.
Many officials with firsthand knowledge of White House decision making contend that Rice is weak at forging those decisions, sometimes attempting to meld incompatible approaches that later fail. She is also perceived as not resolving enough issues before they reach the president and doing a poor job of making sure his wishes are carried out.
Administration officials said the situation has left many problems unresolved, especially at lower levels, and led to frequent policy shifts. Decisions are made and then altered or reversed, and feuding advisers have been emboldened to keep pressing their case or to even ignore policy guidance in the hope of achieving final victory.
In Rice , "you've never really had a national security adviser who's ready to discipline the process, to drive decisions to conclusions and, once decisions are made, to enforce them," said one former senior NSC staff member. In particular, he said, "she will never discipline Don Rumsfeld" when he undercuts decisions that have been made. "Never any sanctions. Never any discipline. He never paid a price."
In one sign that Rice is trying to address the problem, she recently appointed Robert Blackwill, a mentor and former ambassador to India, to run a new committee that will seek to plan the administration's response to possible crises and help the NSC reach consensus on a huge backlog of unresolved policy questions.
As the administration enters an election year, the situation has become worse, several officials said, because everyone understands that no one will be fired no matter how far they stray from policy.
These managerial questions have been especially acute on the administration's policy toward the three countries identified by Bush as the "axis of evil": Iraq, Iran and North Korea. In each case, officials said, the NSC has been unable to bridge gaps in ideology and establish a clear and consistent policy.
From the start, top administration officials have waged a bitter battle over policy toward North Korea. Powell has led a group seeking to engage with the secretive and isolated communist government; Rumsfeld and Cheney believe talk is useless and have sought to destabilize and ultimately topple the government. Neither side has gained the upper hand, resulting in a policy stalemate that has left allies and North Korea perplexed.
The two factions, convinced they had the backing of the president, have pursued contradictory policies, often scheming to undermine each other. Insiders said that Rice rarely kept on top of the intramural bickering, though she seemed to lean more toward the Rumsfeld/Cheney group, and at times recommended policies to the president that he later rejected.
The debate sharpened after North Korea acknowledged a year ago it has a secret nuclear program.
North Korea demanded talks with the United States, but the administration insisted that other nations be at the table. When China agreed in April to act as a host of the talks, some State Department officials quietly hatched a plan to have Powell give instructions directly to the head of the U.S. delegation, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, that would allow him to speak to the North Koreans.
When Kelly briefed members of the Rumsfeld/Cheney faction -- which opposed the talks -- they moved quickly to thwart him. Within four hours, State received instructions from Rice that specifically forbade Kelly from speaking directly to the North Koreans, officials said.
The North Koreans, stunned that they would not get a one-on-one meeting, refused to attend the planned second and third day of the meetings, held in Beijing, and the talks were generally viewed as a failure. To win a new round of talks, the administration reversed itself and agreed to bilateral discussions during a six-nation conference held in August.
Similarly, the administration has veered between talking to Iran on issues of mutual interest, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, and appearing to foster a revolt against the ruling clerics by street demonstrators. "Iran is an emblematic example of how this administration, when it is so deeply divided, just can't produce a coherent policy," said one NSC participant in interagency debates.
More than two years ago, the NSC began drafting a presidential directive on Iran that would officially set the policy. But the draft has gone through several competing versions and has yet to be approved by Bush's senior advisers. Rice has scheduled a number of "final" meetings to approve the draft, but consensus was never reached and the president never signed the document.
Thus, as the administration faces a showdown with Iran over its nuclear programs and needs its help in Iraq, administration officials can point only to a brief statement issued by the president in July 2002 as defining the administration's policy toward Iran.
"All too often what you've had in the last two years is diametrically opposed views between OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] and others, and then no decisions being made. A lot of stuff gets papered over," said a State Department veteran.
Rice's hands-off approach is most evident in the aftermath of the war with Iraq. Administration officials felt that the postwar effort in Afghanistan -- a diverse collection of nations doing assigned tasks -- had been inefficient and ineffectual. So the Pentagon was given the primary responsibility for rebuilding Iraq.
Yet, after former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and his armies vanished in early April, signs quickly emerged that the Bush administration had not completely prepared for the aftermath. The early relief and reconstruction effort, assigned by Bush to the Pentagon in January, stumbled over such basics as staffing, transportation and communications. U.S. authorities sent inconsistent messages about Iraq's political future and proved unable to provide a clear vision to Iraqis or Congress of what the Bush White House intended.
"The NSC is not performing its traditional role, as adjudicator between agencies," said a State Department official, who described "a very scattershot approach to staffing and management. You never knew quite what you were supposed to be doing and with whom."
A U.S. official who served in Iraq said the NSC failed to make decisions about Iraq's postwar reconstruction and governance until long after the war ended. Decisions that some agencies thought had been settled were unexpectedly reopened or reinterpreted by the Pentagon, he said.
Even members of Rice's staff expressed frustration. The NSC and State Department staffers were stunned to learn, for example, that the Pentagon, with the approval of the vice president, had flown controversial Iraqi exile leader Ahmed Chalabi into southern Iraq after Bush had opposed giving Chalabi special treatment.
Some of Powell's key lieutenants, who had gone along with the president's decision to give the Pentagon the principal postwar role, were frustrated first by the Defense Department's refusal to include them -- and then Rice's unwillingness to intercede.
"Everything went back to Washington, where it became tangled up in the bureaucratic food fights," said the official who served in Iraq. "Absolutely everything."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
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