THE LESSONS OF THE IRAN–CONTRA AFFAIR
FOR NATIONAL SECURITY POLICY MAKING
Cecil V. Crabb, Jr.
Kevin V. Mulcahy
The authors present a useful classification of roles played by national security advisers:
administrator, coordinator, counselor, agent, and, lastly, an extreme form of the agent
role: the insurgent.
Events in the last two years of the Reagan administration associated with the Iran-Contra affair dramatized certain problems in the making of national security policy. In particular, the roles of the assistant for national security affairs (ANSA) and the National Security Council staff in the policy-making process have come under close scrutiny. For all the importance of the ANSA and his staff in the conduct of American foreign affairs, the nature of this position and the patterns of presidential management of the policy-making process have received comparatively little attention. For example, how might the president, the secretaries of state and defense, the director of central intelligence, and the assistant for national security affairs structure their institutional relations? What is the appropriate mechanism for managing the policymaking process?
The Iran-Contra hearings suggested a number of lessons to be learned about the conduct of national security affairs. These lessons involved the responsibilities of the president as chief diplomat and commander in chief vis-à-vis the rights of Congress to collaborate in foreign relations, and the claiming of a privileged status with regard to national security concerns in contrast to the expectation that international covenants will be openly arrived at and politically reviewed. The lessons that concern us are admittedly more limited in scope. Specifically, we focus on the peculiar nature of the NSC as a decision-making body, examine the unique position of the president in the management of national security, and analyze in detail the roles that assistants for national security affairs have come to play in the policy-making process.
SYSTEM: A TYPOLOGY
The administrative history of the Office of the Assistant for National Security since 1947 suggests the elements of a typology, admittedly one of several that might be constructed, that is useful in better understanding the general problem of policy making with regard to national security. We have used certain designations— administrator, coordinator, counselor, agent—to describe different roles that past national security assistants have played and that constitute a repertory available to future assistants. Of course, the particular role to be played by an ANSA is always a presidential prerogative. The Iran-Contra affair also suggests an aberrant role—the ANSA as insurgent—that serves as a warning as to what can happen when a national security policy-making system gets out of control.
Reprinted from American National Security: A Presidential Perspective (Pacific Grove, California: Brooks/Cole, 1991), 175–92.
Professors Cecil V. Crabb, Jr., and Kevin V. Mulcahy teach political science at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.