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Reviewed by:
  • Nixon, Kissinger, and U.S. Foreign Policy Making: The Machinery of Crisis
  • Lloyd C. Gardner
Asaf Siniver , Nixon, Kissinger, and U.S. Foreign Policy Making: The Machinery of Crisis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 252 pp. $80.00.

Richard Nixon vowed that he would reform decision-making so that no bureaucratic consensus could predetermine the president's options. He would demand options from the National Security Council (NSC) beyond simple acceptance or rejection of what the bureaucracy dished up, enabling the president to know what alternatives existed for dealing with any major crisis, and thereby, it was asserted, freeing him from reliance on policy choices found wanting in the past. Although this sounded like an opening-up of the decision-making process, it really denoted the opposite: his determination to keep decisions inside the White House. Asaf Siniver begins his book with a quotation from a Nixon aide, Bryce Harlow, who warned the president-elect that the vast bulk of State Department permanent employees were liberals who believed that Nixon's thin margin of victory would prevent the new administration from making any meaningful change in the working of the system or U.S. foreign policy.

The irony that came with these pronouncements, according to Siniver, is that Nixon and Henry Kissinger actually did design a system that provided the information and input for dealing with crises in an effective way, allowing for debate and the hammering out of alternatives. But the new system was largely ignored as decisions were made by the two principal actors, Nixon and Kissinger, whose personalities proved to be the key factors in the process. Siniver is left to suggest that despite this limitation, the Nixon administration's crisis-management system proved useful as a [End Page 165] foil against which the two men carried out their desired policies. Thus, the success or failure of the redesigned NSC—which Siniver says replaced the flimsy operations of Lyndon Johnson's years—should not be judged on whether the policies that were followed emerged in that body. The role of such machinery, he argues, is not to make the decisions, but to "help" the president make the right decisions.

Other observers might find this a tenuous claim, particularly given the evidence that Siniver then presents when studying four crises: the 1970 Cambodian incursion, the September 1970 Jordanian crisis, the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Kissinger's NSC sought from the outset to centralize information, and therefore possible options, in the hands of Kissinger himself. All memoranda prepared in the NSC were signed by Kissinger, and all memoranda from the Department of State were filtered so that the president would need to read only the national security adviser's conclusions. Kissinger held endless meetings, according to one of his experts, William Quandt, so that the NSC would adopt the Kissinger-Nixon worldview, "and people did begin to say phrases and see things in this way" (p. 48).

The NSC meetings on the Cambodian incursion, however, revealed the true role of the NSC as a deliberative body in the Nixon administration. The president had probably predetermined that he was going into Cambodia, no matter what the experts said. But when Vice President Spiro Agnew suggested that even the plans under consideration pussyfooted around the issue of taking out the entire threat from Cambodia, it sent the president into a tizzy for supposedly being one-upped on the toughness scale. The decision for the incursion led to an almost wholesale departure from the NSC and perhaps marked the turning point in other ways on the march to wiretapping NSC aides and Watergate.

In the Yom Kippur War crisis the impact of Watergate was already being felt as Nixon and Kissinger carried on a duel over how to manage the war to increase U.S. influence by balancing Israel off against the Arab countries while keeping the Soviet Union from gaining any leverage. When the tide of battle seemed to turn against Israel, Nixon received a clear warning that unless Kissinger's stalling tactics on an airlift of arms came to an end the Israelis would turn to their allies in Congress to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1531-3298
Print ISSN
1520-3972
Pages
pp. 165-167
Launched on MUSE
2009-12-04
Open Access
No
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