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National Security in Context: Where Have All the Strategic Thinkers Gone?

“I served in a bigger post-Cold War, post-9/11 national security apparatus [than Henry Kissinger]. As a deputy national security adviser, with responsibilities that included speechwriting and communications, I often focused more on the story America told than the actions we took.” — Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration, New York Times, Nov. 30, 2023.

Few obituaries on Henry Kissinger fully considered his achievements and failures in the context of other national security advisers and the nature of the job, then and now. When Kissinger took office in January 1969, he increased the senior staff from about 20 to 34. His successor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, kept about the same number.  

By the beginning of the 21st century, and more recently, that number grew to more than 300. And roles changed. Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, who succeeded him and later would become George H.W. Bush’s national security adviser, kept the staff relatively small. Their consistent perspective was strategic. Each had developed close relationships with their presidents, whom they considered to be a client. And each recruited staff selected for intelligence, experience and judgment.

As the size of subsequent National Security Council (NSC) staffs exploded, both the roles and the staff members changed. Ben Rhodes made this astonishing admission noted above. In essence, NSCs became “spin doctors” for the administration in power, regardless of political affiliation. And who were the future Kissingers, Brzezinskis and Scowcrofts?

Robert Gates, who would head the CIA and Defense Department, was one. He was a Scowcroft protege, as Scowcroft was Kissinger’s. Former Marine Gen. James Jones — on whose advisory boards I served when he was both Commandant of the Marines and Supreme Allied Commander Europe — had the intellectual and strategic judgment to fill that role, but too many of his staff were political appointees, a bad practice that began in the early 2000s, with other loyalties.

One member of his staff was regarded by President Obama as a younger brother. In meetings, this person often called the president “Barry,” infuriating the general on grounds of decorum and respect. In the White House, it was less about what you had to say than to whom you said it. Many were members of the president’s campaign, eager to spend time in the Oval Office. Jones left after two years, having organized a more disciplined decision-making process in an often chaotic White House.

Former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger attend a National Defense University Foundation event in Washington in 2013.Paul Morigi/WireImage

Kissinger and Brzezinski were men of vision. I knew Dr. Brzezinski well. He had one of the most innovative, creative minds I have ever encountered — and he brooked no fools. One wonders how he might have survived in today’s political and cultural environment where integrity, truth and facts rarely are found.

Scowcroft, because his short stature and impeccably polite behavior camouflaged an intellect equal to his two more famous predecessors, seemed to remain in the background. But that was untrue; he gave both Presidents Ford and Bush the advice they needed. And the proximity with Bush led not only to a great book but, doubtless with George H.W. Bush’s approval, Scowcroft wrote a tough opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal before the launch of George W. Bush’s Iraqi Freedom in 2003, titled, “Don’t Attack Saddam.”

One conclusion is that today’s environment and demands on the NSC for making or recommending policy are so vastly different that it is no surprise the role and size of the staff have profoundly — and irreversibly — changed. The current adviser, Jake Sullivan, is perfect for that role. Bright and competent, Sullivan would never think of becoming like Kissinger, Brzezinski or Scowcroft because that would not work — even though President Biden, as a U.S. senator, worked with each of those men.

A second conclusion is that the ability to think strategically — as certainly those three and Gen. Jones were able to do — is missing today. Why? Politics and shaping public opinion often dominate what passes for strategic thinking. That is why polling data, for all its flaws, are taken more seriously than they should be. This absence of strategic thinking does not guarantee that failure is inevitable. However, ignoring it courts substantial risk.

With his death on Nov. 29, Kissinger has been praised and pilloried in near equal measure. But this question remains: Will we ever see a national security adviser like Kissinger, Brzezinski or Scowcroft again? One can only hope so.

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council. He is the author of “Shock and Awe,” “Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Every War It Starts,” and his latest book, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.”

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