John Cans, White House Warriors: How the National Security Council Transformed the American Way of War (Liveright, 2019), 272 pp., $28.95.
For all its fascinating anecdotes, deep archival research and the author's impressive access to the elite ranks of the national security establishment, John Gans' White House Warriors: How the National Security Council Transformed the American Way of War disappoints. For one thing, its thesis is elusive. There is some discussion, here and there, of the importance of the White House national security advisor being an "honest broker" when interagency disputes roil the Executive Branch; here, as in all related studies, Brent Scow-croft (1975-77, 1989-93) is upheld as the "gold standard" for the job. Yet Gans ultimately scoffs at the idea that National Security Council (NSC) chiefs should reduce themselves to "opinion-less eunuchs" and concedes that "honest brokering... was never as easy in practice as it was in the prose of scholars."
Then there is Gans' assertion that "the NSC has exerted more influence over presidential decisions than any single institution or individual over the last seventy years." If physical proximity to the chief executive is synonymous with influence, an article of faith inside the Beltway, then Gans may be right; theoretically, NSC staffers control the flow of ideas and decisionmaking vehicles--policy studies, memoranda, implementation orders--in and out of the Oval Office.
But the purview of NSC is limited, by definition, to national security matters. Surely the presidency encompasses a broader range of decisionmaking than that; it is far from true that every consequential presidential decision relates to national security. Loudly declaring "read my lips: no new taxes" was a decision that George H.W Bush made, and by many accounts, the one that contributed decisively to his fall from power.
We are also obligated to recognize categories of presidential decisionmaking that extend beyond policy considerations altogether: choices rooted instead in everything from capitulation to human frailty, often unconscious, to elaborate calculations of what will play in Iowa. For these kinds of presidential decisions, should we accept Gans' accordance of primacy to the NSC? Does he count the news media as an institution? It was not, after all, the influence of NSC staff that Lyndon Johnson bowed to when, recognizing the country no longer supported his Vietnam policy, the thirty-sixth president...