President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker in the Oval Office, February 22, 1991
Rick Wilking / REUTERS

A few days after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, President George H. W. Bush surprised even his closest foreign policy advisers. Walking from the presidential helicopter toward the White House, Bush paused to tell assembled reporters on the South Lawn: “This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.”

The dramatic and definitive declaration caught many in Washington, including on Bush’s own team, off guard. According to Bush’s biographer Jon Meacham, minutes later in the Oval Office, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft asked the president, “Where’d you get that?” Bush replied, “That’s mine.”

The ad lib was a rare moment for Bush. The president, who died last week at 94, has been lauded by Ivo H. Daalder and I. M. Destler (“The Foreign Policy Genius of George H. W. Bush,” December 4) and others not just for the national security decisions he made but for the process in which he made them. One of Bush’s lasting legacies is the system of meetings and committees, known in Washington as the “interagency,” that helped him respond to world events and remains the heart of regular order in Washington today, even under President Donald Trump, who defies both words.

As Bush and Scowcroft’s system turns 30 years old next month, it is worth considering whether their interagency is still the right fit for a world and a government that have changed dramatically. In the decades since Bush told reporters what he really thought of Iraq’s aggression, U.S. officials have tangled over which were the best policies to lead the post–Cold War world, prosecute the war on terror, and stay ahead in a new era of great power competition. Today, with Trump at the table and amid growing public doubts about a “deep state,” it remains to be seen whether the Bush-Scowcroft interagency will outlive its fourth decade.

SIMPATICO

The Bush-Scowcroft interagency process was the product of a time of broad agreement in the Washington foreign policy establishment. After the interpersonal squabbling of the Nixon, Carter, and Reagan foreign policy teams, and the fallout from the Iran-Contra Affair, in which rogue Reagan National Security Council (NSC) staffers took policy into their own hands and nearly brought down a presidency in the fallout, policymakers agreed about the need for a better way to make decisions.

The Bush-Scowcroft interagency process was the product of a time of broad agreement in the Washington foreign policy establishment.

During walks around Camp David before the 1989 inauguration, Bush and Scowcroft made a plan for integrating the country’s national security policy. In his first National Security Directive, issued on January 30, 1989, Bush established two committees: the Principals Committee (PC), chaired by Scowcroft, which brought together cabinet-level officials such as James Baker, the secretary of state, and Dick Cheney, the defense secretary; and the Deputies Committee (DC), which included policy deputies at various agencies and was led by Robert Gates, then the deputy national security adviser. Because both committees ran out of the White House, Scowcroft, Gates, and the rest of the NSC staff were ensured prominence.

The new system worked, but not always the way it was designed to. Bush, like presidents before him, avoided the large and leak-prone NSC. He preferred to handle sensitive business in the smaller, clubbier Gang of Eight—an informal, closed-door group composed of representatives from the White House (Scowcroft, Vice President Dan Quayle, Chief of Staff John Sununu) and the agencies (Baker, Cheney, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell). At the deputies level, Gates ran a similarly select “small group” that was charged with managing complicated challenges such as the Gulf War.

The new system worked, but not always the way it was designed to.

The trust and accord Bush’s team had developed over decades of working in Washington together allowed for this White House control, and for changes to policy and process, such as the one Bush made on the South Lawn, to occur without acrimony or breakdown of the system. As Cheney explained to me in an interview for my forthcoming book on the history of the NSC staff, they were a “very simpatico” group. Even disagreements within the Gang of Eight over the use of force against Iraq, which were stronger and more persistent than is widely understood, were bridgeable because of that trust.

LEARNED HELPLESSNESS

Since Bush, every president has issued a decision memorandum shortly after inauguration announcing how he has wanted to run national security. Commanders-in-chief have given these memos different names (Barack Obama signed Presidential Policy Directives, and Trump uses National Security Presidential Memoranda), but they have mostly replicated the Bush-Scowcroft blueprint. When the process is altered even slightly, Washington gets nervous—as Trump discovered in the outcry over his appointment of controversial political adviser Steve Bannon to the PC.

Yet as Daalder and Destler make clear, the system has never again been in hands as sure or simpatico as those of Bush and Scowcroft. Bill Clinton struggled mightily, for more than two years and in a countless series of interagency meetings, to respond to the bloodshed in the Balkans. Finally his national security adviser and NSC staff took control of the policy behind the scenes. George W. Bush’s fractious NSC disagreed frequently during the global war on terror, perhaps never as profoundly as after the White House developed its own plan for the surge of troops the president ordered to Iraq in 2007. Obama’s and Trump’s teams have both had contentious internal debates over Afghanistan, amid press leaks in Washington and setbacks on the frontlines.

In each of these cases, disagreements have caused the Bush-Scowcroft interagency process to stall. Because division drives indecision, the system’s typical remedy has been more process: more PCs and DCs, more policy reviews, and more option papers. Yet as anyone who has ever sat around a conference room table knows well, without a basic level of agreement or some savvy leadership, another meeting does not always help.

When the process fails, the White House, and in particular the NSC staff, typically takes the lead in finding a path forward. To meet this responsibility, the staff has grown to almost four times the size of Bush and Scowcroft’s initial team. Nearly 200 men and women, most of whom are unknown and unaccountable to the American people, play a large role in crafting and implementing foreign policy.

One result has been a fraying of the trust in Washington that is so essential to the Bush-Scowcroft system’s effectiveness. Many at the Pentagon and State Department have grown sick of being micromanaged and have come to view the NSC staff with scorn and even hostility. Even more, the journalist Ronan Farrow, in his book War on Peace, quoted one recent ambassador complaining that the growth of the NSC staff’s power has resulted in “something like learned helplessness” among a diplomatic corps, military, and intelligence community that have come to expect White House control and hesitate to take initiative without explicit approval.

DEEP STATE

Despite these downsides, most in Washington would argue that the Bush-Scowcroft interagency system is better than nothing. In the 1940s, Ferdinand Eberstadt, a World War II planner working in business in New York and one of the early designers of the NSC, admitted in an early system proposal that it was impossible to come up with a single plan that made sense for all of the nation’s interests and traditions. The same is true today: the Bush-Scowcroft interagency process has not been perfect, but it has played a necessary role in coordinating national security players and policy—a role that might not be fully appreciated until it is gone.

And yet the system may be ill-prepared to handle some of today’s most worrying developments. If Bush and Scowcroft could have imagined that a president like Trump would be chairing the NSC, they probably would not have so empowered the presidency. And they undoubtedly did not anticipate that, stoked in part by Trump, significant portions of the American public would grow leery enough of a “deep state”—a knot of faceless and unelected government and military officials secretly manipulating policy for their own ends—that they would question the motives of those unknown advisers briefing the president and participating in DC and PC sessions.

For now, Bush and Scowcroft’s regular order chugs on in Washington. A schedule full of committee meetings may provide some comfort at a moment of uncertainty in the world order and an unconventional president in Washington. But when a crisis inevitably arises, it is unlikely that the interagency system—led by Trump, in an increasingly distrustful and fractious Washington, and amid public doubts about the loyalty of those in government—will work as well as Bush and Scowcroft designed it to, or as well as those celebrating their legacy this week wish it would.

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  • JOHN GANS is the director of communications and research at Perry World House, the University of Pennsylvania’s global policy institute.
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