History is much more the product of chaos than of conspiracy. The
external world's vision of internal decision-making in the Govern-
ment assumes too much cohesion and expects too much systematic
planning. The fact of the matter is that, increasingly, policy makers
are overwhelmed by events and information.
New York Times
January 18, 1981
"Domestic policy … can only defeat us," President Kennedy once observed, "foreign policy can kill us." Presidents quickly learn the importance of foreign policy, even if they may have run for election on a domestic policy platform. The world simply refuses to be ignored. In the first two months of his administration, Kennedy was forced to concentrate more on Laos than any other topic. Then came the disaster at the Bay of Pigs in May 1961. For the first President Bush, Iraq soon dominated his every day, leading to the Persian Gulf War. For President Clinton, his tenure was supposed to be about economic prosperity at home; the president said he wanted to focus on the economy "like a laser beam." Instead, the White House was forced to direct that beam toward Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans, the dangerous proliferation of weapons of mass destruction around the world, and the growing threat of international terrorism. The second President Bush started out by concentrating on tax cuts, education, and missile defense—until 9/11, at which point the 'war on terror' and the "axis of evil" (Iraq, Iran, North Korea) took over the White House agenda.
Every international issue of consequence affecting the United States comes to the attention of the NSC principals, whether sitting formally as members of the Council gathered in the Cabinet Room of the White House or in some other less formal configuration, like Kennedy's "ExComm" during the Cuban missile crisis, Johnson's "Tuesday lunch," Carter's "Friday breakfast," or the second Bush's War Cabinet. The president has the responsibility for deciding on the great issues that come before the nation; the purpose of the NSC system is to provide the best information and advice possible to help illuminate the options.
The purpose of this section is to draw back the curtains on a series of NSC meetings, taking the reader inside this hidden domain to see how the Council operates during the making of important foreign policy decisions. These meetings include deliberations over the Cuban missile crisis (1962), the transition from the Cold War to a world of more fragmented state relations