A German General Staff in the White House Basement

<i> Col. Harry G. Summers Jr., a Vietnam combat veteran, is the senior military correspondent for U.S. News & World Report. </i>

“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.

Being ordered to execute a policy that might jeopardize the lives of those entrusted to your care is one thing; sponsoring and promoting such policies is quite another. How could a naval officer, one of whose sailors was brutally beaten to death by Iranian-sponsored terrorists during the TWA hijacking, sponsor a policy of providing arms to the very people who engineered that murder? How could a Marine officer promote a policy of giving arms to those behind the murder of hundreds of his comrades-in-arms in the bombing of the Marine barracks at Beirut?

More, how could they provide the arms that might be used to kill members of the U.S. Central Command, whose mission it is to intervene if the Iranians threaten to overrun the Persian Gulf states? One cannot help but think that if Poindexter’s son, or North’s--or the President’s--had been a tank gunner in one of the Army or Marine units now slated to intervene in the Persian Gulf, there might have been second thoughts about selling TOW anti-tank missiles to Iran.

Like the Chinese eunuchs who were strangled by their silken girdles when their power got out of hand, Poindexter and North have now been returned to the tender mercies of the Pentagon. But Poindexter and North were not rogue elephants, and their removal does not eliminate the root causes of the problem.


Clausewitz’s warnings against the influence of the military in affairs of state were based on practical politics, not coups. His concern--and the real reason the German general staff (which ignored his advice) was such a disaster in two world wars--was that the general staff’s “purely military advice” was too narrow.

The real problems, even in wartime, are always political, and most military officers have an educated incapacity for politics. Military officers, quite properly, are action-oriented and have little patience for diplomatic maneuvering, political horse-trading and compromise. So did most of the NSC staffers, civilian as well as military, over the last four administrations.

That action-orientation is one source of their influence. Unlike the bureaucracy, they can get things done, rapidly. More important, again unlike the bureaucracy, they have the President’s ear. That’s the reason a “German general staff” grew up in the basement of the White House, and that’s the reason the clerks will continue to run the show unless some fundamental changes are made.

One fundamental change should be to give the NSC itself, rather than its staff, direct and immediate access to the President. At one time the State Department, the War Department and the Navy Department were all located next door to the White House in what is now the old Executive Office Building, only a short stroll away from the Oval Office. That’s where they ought to be, again.

Disband the NSC staff now occupying those quarters and replace it with the principals of the NSC--the vice president (who already has an office there), the secretaries of State and Defense, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. While that would separate those worthies from their staffs--not an insurmountable problem given today’s instantaneous communications--it would be far preferable to the current system of separating the President from his principal advisers.

And what would have happened if President Reagan had followed Clausewitz’s advice and not let any soldier but the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his principal military adviser, exert influence in Cabinet? In retrospect, the 1985 remarks by Gen. John W. Vessey, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs, just before his retirement, seem particularly apt.

“Just as on the wartime battlefield,” Vessey emphasized, “on this peacetime battlefield of international geopolitical military operations and day-to-day politics you have to think through second- and third-order effects.” Would that the President had been listening to Gen. Vessey rather than to Lt. Col. North, for it is precisely those “second- and third-order effects” that now jeopardize the Reagan presidency and America’s standing in the world.