Summary of chap. 24 Donald Rumsfeld : « Known and unknown, a memoir », 2011, Penguin

29 juin, 2017 | Commentaires fermés sur Summary of chap. 24 Donald Rumsfeld : « Known and unknown, a memoir », 2011, Penguin

After a strategic failure the question is always the same : how the decision was produced ? Less than 10 years after the decision to invade Iraq and to topple Saddam regim, some elements of the answer are to be found in the Secretary of Defense D. Rumsfeld memoir. Actually, the chap 24 about the National Security Council function is highlighted a decision process feature : consensus building at the heart of the debate. This property is a trademark of the american decision process particularly interesting in the field of security, especially if you considered president Trump decision making style ! So, I provide a summary of this chapter.


The national security issues are intertwined. It is a mix of diplomatic and military means as well as economic and international law agreements. It is the main feature of the national security field. This difference with domestic policy issues where subjects are managed by each government branch is an organizational challenge. Indeed, the decision maker should be informed about all the facets of a national security item in order to choose the best option regarding his strategic goals. In addition, the decision implementation required an efficient management of all government resources. National security issues are a strategic challenge for any government which rest on specialized departments. The function of a national security apparatus is to present a large spectrum of informed and relevant options to the president, to coordinate the necessary assets and to control their implementation.

This challenge rose at the end of WWII and it was adressed with the merging of the Naval and Army departments into the Pentagon, the creation of the CIA and the National Security Council (NSC) especially to coordinate all these resources to confront efficiently the Soviets on the global operation theater of the Cold War. The National Security Act of 1947 framed these institutional changes and it acknowledged the need for the president to assess rationaly all the options before a strategic choice. The NSC is the place where all views are deliberated by the president and cabinet members before he makes up his mind. Hence, the NSC function and national security adviser role is to openly and fairly present all options to the president and to follow the selected one. Actually, the options and suggestions are brainstormed in the Principals Committee without the president and they are reviewed in the NSC meeting. The NSC function is to tackle the organizational challenge of the national security complex issues.

The NSC staff is in charge of the NSC and Principal processes which take place in the situation room.


It is a set of tasks such as discussing position papers, supporting options, tacking notes, recording and following decisions. The management is centered on planning the meeting, ensuring all participants are present, setting the agenda and disseminating meeting minutes. The two main difficulties were meeting last minute change and more disturbing for the process, the meeting conclusions fuzziness. Decisions were not recorded explicitly, hence each bureaucracy feel free to interpret meeting conclusions as they preferred which result in incoherent actions on the field.

The statute members are the president, the vice president, the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, there are also non statute members like the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff and the director of national intelligence.

The president is chairing the meeting, he leads the discussion and asks questions to cabinet members, then he makes up his mind and gives guidances. During president W Bush mandate, vice president Cheney used to keep his opinion for himself during NSC meeting and work out a direct relation with the president to provide his advices.

The national security advisor is in charge of the decision process, he has daily access to the president and he chaired the Principals Committee in order to :

  • identify where decision from the president is needed
  • organize interagencies exchanges
  • follow president decision implementation

More precisely, the national security advisor S. Rice was looking to bridge differencies among agencies by taking some pieces from each proposition and tried to combine them into a win-win proposition to the president who faced a consensus. The fundamental differencies would stay behind the scene unadressed by the president. As a consequence, the bureaucracies continued the discussion in the public sphere through the press with the help of low level officials frustrations. Without president arbitration the several departments of the national security system believed they could continue to support their own views.


Following secretary of defense D. Rumsfeld, the secretary of state is also a key player to articulate the president decision with the state department bureaucracy to fully implement president guidance. The issue for the secretary of state is either he imposes the president will upon diplomats, mainly by shortcoming their power ; the Kissinger way of doing things or he supports the senior officials views and he tries to bring and defend their views to the NSC meeting. The consequence would be the impossibility for the national security apparatus to adapt to the reality perceived by the people and its representant, the president. On the contrary, the officials in the meeting room are presents only to challenge the president and cabinet members views, they cannot undermined the president political legitimacy to make decision. The issue is the ability to adapt the foreign policy to a new environment appraisal produced by the president. Because new threats are constantly rising below a veil of ignorance, there is a competition between president views and government bureaucracies on the threats evaluation and the most adequate means to respond.

In conclusion, D. Rumsfeld assessed the president decision making couldn’t fully express because the NSC was consensus oriented which closed the knowledge framework of the president and its ability to cut the fog. Without clear decision each department could promote his own agenda. If the NSC purpose is to tackle the national security issues complexity ; the recommanded approach by secretary of defense D. Rumsfeld is to  prioritize goals explicitly so anyone could know its purpose and what is a benefit and a cost at stake. By replacing the decision making with a consensus building approach, the national security advisor S. Rice and secretary of state C. Powell open the road for bureaucraies « disharmony » which increases the american foreign policy idealistic ambition and reduces its efficiency on the field !