The latest evidence of creeping totalitarianism — or, at least, of poor judgment — seized on by critics of President Trump is Mr. Trump’s elevation of a political adviser, Stephen Bannon, to the National Security Council.
A New York Times editorial called the move “unprecedented,” accusing Mr. Trump of “politicizing the process for national security decisions.” A Times news article described the change as “startling.” It quoted senior officials from the administrations of George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama condemning the idea of allowing foreign policy to be, as Mr. Bush’s chief of staff Joshua Bolten put it, “tainted by any political decisions.”
There is, though, at least one important precedent for formally involving political aides in foreign policy. It happens to be one of the most successful examples of national security crisis management in American history — President Kennedy’s leadership in October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Kennedy felt that he had been led astray in the opening months of his presidency by the professional national security establishment. He blamed it for the humiliating defeat, in April 1961, of the American-backed Cuban rebels who attacked Castro’s communist regime at the Bay of Pigs.
Having been burned by taking advice from too narrow a group of national security advisers on the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy corrected his course in the Cuban Missile Crisis. He made sure to include as part of the formal deliberative process not only CIA, State Department, and Defense Department officials, but also White House political aides, Ted Sorensen and Ken O’Donnell.
Sorensen and O’Donnell were included in the “Ex Comm,” the executive committee of the National Security Council. As Robert Kennedy recalled it in his book “Thirteen Days,” that Ex Comm group met almost continuously in the Cabinet Room for the duration of the crisis. In the book, Robert Kennedy stressed “the importance of raising probing questions to military recommendations,” mentioning O’Donnell and Sorensen, in particular, for their contribution of being “skeptical.”
If Kennedy had relied only on the foreign policy and military “professionals,” he might have been maneuvered into nuclear war, or another Bay of Pigs-style debacle. Instead, the crisis was resolved peacefully. The Soviet Union’s removal of its missiles from Cuba appeared to the world as a significant Cold War victory for the United States.
That win was achieved not by isolating national decision-making from politics but, rather, by including political aides in the national security deliberations. Those civilian non-specialist advisers prevented groupthink and helped craft a resolution that met the public desire for avoiding war without caving in to the Soviets.
As Sorensen put it in his 2008 book “Counselor”: “The White House is inherently a political institution. That is why I have not joined those, in subsequent years, who lamented that any particular president was playing politics with foreign policy … Of course he is playing politics — the president in a democracy is required to play politics with every issue, if this country is to be governed with the consent of the governed.”
Trump’s critics will point out that Bannon is no Sorensen. Fair enough.
But complaining about the personality or views of the president’s political adviser is different than insisting on the flawed principle that no political adviser should play a formal role in national security decision-making. If that errant idea triumphs, it will deprive Trump and presidents who come after him of precisely the kind of valuable counsel and perspective that helped JFK guide the nation so deftly through the long dark hours of Cold War nuclear brinksmanship.
Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of “JFK: Conservative.” His column appears Sunday.