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History of the United States National Security Council 1977-1981

Carter Administration, 1977-1981

Carter began his term determined to eliminate the abuses he ascribed to the Kissinger NSC under Nixon and Ford. He believed that Kissinger had amassed too much power during his tenure as NSC Adviser and Secretary of State, and effectively shielded his Presidents from competing viewpoints within the foreign policy establishment. Carter resolved to maintain his access to a broad spectrum of information by more fully engaging his Cabinet officers in the decision-making process. He envisaged the role of the National Security Council to be one of policy coordination and research, and reorganized the NSC structure to ensure that the NSC Adviser would be only one of many players in the foreign policy process. Carter chose Zbigniew Brzezinski for the position of National Security Adviser because he wanted an assertive intellectual at his side to provide him with day-to-day advice and guidance on foreign policy decisions.

Initially, Carter reduced the NSC staff by one-half and decreased the number of standing NSC committees from eight to two. All issues referred to the NSC were reviewed by one of the two new committees, either the Policy Review Committee (PRC) or the Special Coordinating Committee (SCC). The PRC focused on specific issues that fell largely within the jurisdiction of one department. Its chairmanship rotated to whichever department head had primary responsibility for the issue, most often the Department of State, and committee membership was frequently expanded as circumstances warranted.

Unlike the Policy Review Committee, the Special Coordinating Committee was always chaired by the NSC Adviser. Carter believed that by making the NSC Adviser chairman of only one of the two committees, he would prevent the NSC from being the overwhelming influence on foreign policy decisions. The SCC was charged with considering issues that cut across several departments, including oversight of intelligence activities, arms control evaluation, and crisis management. Much of the SCC's time during the Carter years was spent on SALT issues.

President Carter changed the name of the documents in the decision-making process, although the mechanics of NSC review differed little from that of previous administrations. The Presidential Review Memorandum (PRM) replaced the National Security Study Memorandum (NSSM), and the Presidential Directive (PD) supplanted the National Security Decision Memorandum (NSDM). PRMs identified topics to be researched by the NSC, defined the problem to be analyzed, set a deadline for the completion of the study, and assigned responsibility for it to one of the two NSC committees. If the selected committee were the Policy Review Committee, a member was designated to serve as study chairman. The study chairman assigned an ad hoc working group to complete the study, which was ultimately reviewed by the responsible committee (either the PRC or SCC). When the committee was satisfied that the study had incorporated meaningful options and supporting arguments, the study's conclusions went to the President in a 2- or 3-page memorandum, which in turn formed the basis for a Presidential Directive.

The actual operation of the NSC under Carter was less structured than under previous Presidents. The Council held few formal meetings, convening only 10 times, compared with 125 meetings during the 8 years of the Nixon and Ford administrations. Instead, Carter used frequent, informal meetings as a decision-making device, typically his Friday breakfasts, usually attended by the Vice President, the Secretaries of State and Defense, the NSC Adviser, and the chief domestic adviser. The President counted on the free flow of ideas, unencumbered by a formal setting, to increase the chances of an informed decision.

Critics have contended that the Carter NSC staff was deficient in certain respects. The NSC's emphasis on providing advice was effected at the expense of some of its other functions, particularly its responsibility to monitor implementation of the President's policies. Also, the President's and some of his principals' commitment to arms control skewed the formation and execution of a broad range of foreign policy options on national security questions. Without any clearly-developed foreign policy principles beyond a commitment to arms control, he often changed his mind, depending on the advice he was receiving at the time.

Carter's preference for informality and openness increased the diversity of views he received and complicated the decision-making process. Every Friday, for example, the President breakfasted with Vice President Mondale, Secretary of State Vance, Secretary of Defense Brown, Brzezinski, and several White House advisers. No agendas were prepared and no formal records were kept of these meetings, sometimes resulting in differing interpretations of the decisions actually agreed upon. This problem led to one of the most embarrassing episodes of the Carter administration in which the United States had to retract a UN vote involving Israel and Jerusalem. Brzezinski was careful, in managing his own weekly luncheons with Secretaries Vance and Brown in preparation for NSC discussions, to maintain a complete set of careful notes. Brzezinski also sent weekly reports to the President on major foreign policy undertakings and problems, with recommendations for courses of action. President Carter enjoyed these reports and frequently annotated them with his own views. Brzezinski and the NSC used these Presidential notes (159 of them) as the basis for NSC actions.

At the outset of the administration, Brzezinski successfully persuaded Carter to make the National Security Adviser chairman of the SCC. This meant that Brzezinski was given oversight responsibility for the SALT negotiations, which became an important focus of the Carter administration's foreign policy. Brzezinski's coordination of the arms control process also gave him major input into the administration's policy toward the Soviet Union. Thus from the beginning, Brzezinski made sure that the new NSC institutional relationships would assure him a major voice in the shaping of foreign policy. While he knew that Carter would not want him to be another Kissinger, Brzezenski also felt confident that the President did not want Secretary of State Vance to become another Dulles and would want his own input on key foreign policy decisions.

Vance voiced his displeasure with this arrangement, which threatened to diminish the role of the Department of State on arms control. The SCC, however, functioned fairly smoothly on arms control. Following Vance's visit to Moscow in March 1977 to present new arms control proposals, which the Soviet leadership abruptly rejected, the SCC developed and refined arms control proposals for U.S. negotiators at the SALT talks in Geneva. President Carter carefully monitored the work of the SCC, which met with increasing frequency from 1977 to 1979. The President's personal commitment to SALT II ultimately overcame fundamental differences between the National Security Adviser and the Secretary of State. Brzezinski wanted to link arms control to other security issues, such as the administration's commitment to the development of the MX missile and normalization of relations with the People's Republic of China. Vance, however, did not want SALT linked to other Soviet activity. When the SALT II negotiations with the Soviet Union verged on success, an NSC working group, including a Department of State representative, formulated the subject areas for an agenda at the Vienna Summit (June 1979), at which Carter and Brezhnev signed the SALT II Treaty and discussed other bilateral and Third World issues.

Brzezinski's power gradually expanded into the operational area during the Carter Presidency. He increasingly assumed the role of a Presidential emissary. In 1978, for example, Brzezinski traveled to Beijing to normalize U.S.-China relations. Like Kissinger before him, Brzezinski maintained his own personal relationship with Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin. Brzezinski had NSC staffers monitor State Department cable traffic through the Situation Room and call back to the Department if the President preferred to revise or take issue with outgoing Department instructions. He also appointed his own press spokesman, and his frequent press briefings and appearances on television interview shows made him a prominent public figure although perhaps not nearly as much as Kissinger had been under Nixon.

In other areas the NSC system did not work effectively. The reasons stemmed less from inherent institutional defects than from strong policy differences within the administration and President Carter's inability to discipline his advisers and forge a more coherent response to the crises of the last few years of his Presidency. The Soviet military invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 further damaged the Vance(Brzezinski relationship. Vance felt that Brzezinski's linkage of SALT to other Soviet activities and the MX, together with the growing domestic criticisms in the United States of the SALT II Accord, convinced Brezhnev to decide on military intervention in Afghanistan. Brzezinski, however, later recounted that he advanced proposals to maintain Afghanistan's "independence" but was frustrated by the Department of State's opposition. An NSC working group on Afghanistan wrote several reports on the deteriorating situation in 1979, but President Carter ignored them until the Soviet intervention destroyed his illusions. Only then did he decide to abandon SALT II ratification and pursue the anti-Soviet policies that Brzezinski proposed.

The Iranian revolution provided the coup de grace to the disintegrating Vance(Brzezinski relationship. As the upheaval developed, the two advanced fundamentally different positions. Brzezinski wanted to control the revolution and increasingly suggested military action to prevent Khomeini from coming to power, while Vance wanted to come to terms with the new Khomeini regime. As a consequence Carter failed to develop a coherent approach to the Iranian situation. Brzezinski continued, however, to promote his views, which the President eventually accepted. Vance's resignation following the unsuccessful mission undertaken over his objections to rescue the American hostages in March 1980 was the final result of the deep disagreement between Brzezinki and Vance.

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