THE NSC ADVISOR
Process Manager and More
Colin L. Powell
Having served as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, General Colin L.
Powell reflects on his experiences and emphasizes the wide variety of roles that the
adviser is expected to play in the White House—including crisis management.
The history of the National Security Council and the national security advisor is the story of a wide range of personalities playing a wide variety of roles. This observation illustrates the essential truth that the national security advisor and the NSC system exist to help the president manage foreign policy in the manner that the president desires and in the manner that the president instructs.
As National Security Advisor Frank Carlucci's deputy, I arrived with him at the NSC in January 1987, under circumstances that focused keen attention on the proper role and mission of the NSC advisor and the role and mission of his staff. Shortly after taking over, we had the benefit of the Tower Commission's work, to which my successor Brent Scowcroft contributed so importantly. Frank Carlucci and I also brought our own sense of the job from prior experience in the government.
Frank Carlucci was one of the most experienced professionals to assume the role of the national security advisor. He was a career ambassador who had been deputy director of the CIA, deputy secretary of defense, and deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. He was a man of maturity and sound professional judgment. I felt myself privileged to be his deputy. What I brought to the team was experience at OMB, the Department of Defense and, of all places, the Department of Energy.
The general wisdom is that there are two models that apply to the role of the NSC advisor and the operation of the National Security Council staff. Zbigniew Brzezinski describes them as the presidential model and the secretarial model. The presidential model holds that the NSC advisor is a powerful person working with a president who has decided to drive the dayto-day foreign policy of the United States directly from the White House. For that reason he needs a national security advisor with sufficient stature and bureaucratic skill to help him perform that role from the White House. In this model the State Department and other agencies play a distinctly secondary role.
In the secretarial model, the secretary of state is the major foreign policy driver in the administration. Foreign policy remains the responsibility of the president. But in this model he allows the secretary of state and, in turn, the bureaucracy of the State Department to be the principal actors in formulating and executing foreign policy. The president always retains responsibility
Reprinted from "The NSC Advisor: Process Manager and More," The Bureaucrat 18 (Summer 1989): 45–47.
When he wrote this piece, Colin L. Powell was General and Commander, U.S. Forces Command, Ft. McPherson, Georgia, and had
served as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan. He went on to serve as secretary of state in the second Bush Admin-