The neutral/honest broker role in foreign-policy decision making: a reassessment.

Author:Burke, John P.

Analysis of presidential decision making, particularly in the area of foreign and national security policy, has been a well-mined area of research. Much attention has focused on a range of variables thought to have some causal impact on and explanatory value for understanding presidential decision making: the organization and structure of decision-making processes, the impact of presidential personality, management, and leadership style, the development and effects of a White House-centered institutional presidency, the presence of bureaucratic politics and group dynamics, and the consequences of rational actors operating within institutionally defined parameters, to list just a few. However, with some important exceptions, (1) relatively little attention has focused on how the particular roles of participants in presidential decision-making processes are defined and operate.

The Case for the Broker Role

Most notable has been the lack of attention to the place of the broker role in presidential decision making and the contributions that it might make to its effectiveness. It is an issue that received much scrutiny and debate over thirty years ago in Alexander George's discussion of the "managerial custodian" (a particular variant of the role) in a lengthy article in the American Political Science Review (George 1972a), one that merited a comment by I. M. Destler (1972) and a rejoinder by George (1972b) and then was further explicated in his work Presidential Decisionmaking in Foreign Policy (George 1980). According to George, six tasks are required of the role of the managerial custodian:

  1. Balancing actor resources within the policymaking system;

  2. Strengthening weaker advocates;

  3. Bringing in new advisers to argue for unpopular options;

  4. Setting up new channels of information so that the president and other advisers are not dependent upon a single channel;

  5. Arranging for independent evaluation of decisional premises and options, when necessary; and

  6. Monitoring the workings of the policymaking process to identify possibly dangerous malfunctions and instituting appropriate corrective action. (1980, 195-96)

    Although George places the managerial custodian role within a larger theory of effective structure and organization ("multiple advocacy"), the role is interesting in its own right and some parts of it may be applicable in a wider array of organizational and decision-making settings. Perhaps more significant is George's argument that it can contribute to--but not necessarily guarantee--effective presidential decision making (George 1980, 201-06; Porter 1980, 214-15).

    The broker role has also become a common self-definition (or part thereof) of many who have occupied the position of national security adviser, as well as a point of reference for journalistic observers and political pundits. For example, the introduction to the oral history project of the Brookings Institution on the role of the National Security Council adviser (which included a roundtable and interviews with nine former national security advisers) observes that "since the Kennedy administration, the assistant to the president for national security affairs (a.k.a. 'the national security adviser') has played two roles: manager ('honest broker') of the day-to-day policy process and substantive policy adviser" (Daalder and Destler 1999, 1). (2)

    As a part of political vocabulary and practice, moreover, the neutral/honest broker role has been applied to other White House positions, most notably that of the chief of staff. At the time his appointment as chief of staff was announced during the 1988 transition to office of George H. W. Bush, for example, John Sununu saw as one of his responsibilities "to be an honest broker and present the views on the various sides of the issue." (3) Once in office, however, Sununu quickly acquired the reputation of a policy advocate and a heavy-handed operative with a tough, even intimidating style (Burke 2000, 16669). In selecting a chief of staff during his 2000 transition, George W. Bush (perhaps based on his father's eventual experience with Sununu) also had the broker role in mind. According to Clay Johnson, the executive director of the transition,

    [Bush] did not want someone to be chief of staff who was over-territorial, or was a control freak, or felt like they had to control the content or the recommendations that flowed to the president. He wanted somebody who was more a facilitator, an orchestrator, and a tie breaker; as they say an honest broker.... The president's knowledge about the way he likes to work led him to choose Andy Card. (4) What Is the Neutral/Honest Broker Role?

    Particular definitions and usages of the role vary. At a minimum, it might encompass the narrow notion of a policy administrator of the sort that the NSC executive secretary played during the latter years of the Truman administration before the position of NSC adviser was created under Eisenhower) The national security adviser, as administrator, "has a low level of responsibility with regard to both implementation and policy making"; duties are restricted to "briefing the president on the international situation, representing departmental proposals and viewpoints, scheduling matters for presidential decisions, and monitoring NSC directives" (Crabb and Mulcahy 1991, 177). Neutrality rather than policy advocacy is stressed, but brokerage is also fairly limited: representing and monitoring.

    In other usages, the role is more robustly defined, and, in fact, depending upon how those definitions are fleshed out, there appear to be some differences in the meaning of the terms "neutral broker" and "honest broker." The NSC advisers in the Eisenhower administration, for example, were more attentive to the quality, character, and components of the decision process and, especially, its deliberative forums than were their Truman counterparts. At the same time, they did not serve as policy advocates in their own right, or very rarely did (Cutler 1965, 315). Policy neutrality, but with a more enhanced emphasis on and proactivity toward ensuring the quality and coherence of the decision process, was the order of the day. Arguably, George's managerial custodian represents a more robust definition of this process-directed and quality-attentive definition of the role. As Roger Porter, applying George's theory of multiple advocacy and the custodian role to the Economic Policy Board of the Ford presidency, observes,

    The honest broker [Porter's term for the custodial role] and his staff are not intermediaries between departmental advocates and the president, like a centralized management staff, but they do more than simply insure due process. They promote a genuine competition of ideas, identifying viewpoints not adequately represented or that require qualification, determining when the process is not producing a sufficiently broad range of options, and augmenting the resources of one side or the other so that a balanced presentation results. In short, they insure due process and quality control. (Porter 1980, 26) Beginning in the 1960s and basically continuing to the present, policy advocacy on the part of the NSC adviser began to come to the fore, reaching its apogee under Henry Kissinger during the Nixon presidency (Destler 1980b, 579-80). For NSC advisers during this period, varying degrees of policy advice were tendered--ranging from outright advocacy as a member of the president's inner circle (and even beyond) to more private, one-on-one counsel. But many NSC advisers both recognized and struggled with the need to have the views of others fairly presented. Here the sense of brokerage, coupled as it was with some measure of policy advocacy, was less about the quality of the broader decision process and more about making sure all relevant views were represented; that is, honest rather than neutral brokerage. (6)

    There can be significant variation, moreover, in how that notion of honest broker is more concretely defined. According to Colin Powell, who served as NSC adviser under President Reagan, the goal is "to get it all out":

    The cabinet officers always are carrying the hopes, aspirations, and views of the bureaucracies that they represent, and very often these forces, principally the State and Defense Departments, are in opposition or disagree on a particular issue. It is the role of the national security adviser to get it all out--all the agendas, all the facts, all the opinions, all of the gray and white and black areas written down. (Daalder and Destler 1999, 51) For Anthony Lake, President Clinton's NSC adviser during his first term, being an honest broker is to avoid "surprises" and to "drive the process":

    First, you have to give your views ... but you also have to make sure that the others know what the views are so there are no surprises.... Second, you have to drive the process, and you have to understand that only the NSC can do that.... Increasingly foreign policy issues involve cross-cutting issues, economic, military, etc., so only the national security adviser can do it. (Daalder and Destler 1999, 5) For Samuel Berger, President Clinton's NSC adviser during his second term, the role has dual meaning:

    There are two different senses in which the term "honest broker" is applicable here. One is honest broker in terms of conveying the opinions of your colleagues to the president. And the other is honest broker between your colleagues. (Daalder and Destler 1999, 76) Why the Broker Role Matters

    Concern for the broker role is consequential for two reasons: evidence suggesting its positive contribution to presidential decision making and evidence indicating how that decision making might suffer in its absence. Although there has not been extensive analysis of the role per se, there have been several case studies indicating the positive value of its presence and the costs of its absence. According to Meena Bose, George's...

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