Choosing a National Security Advisor; Beware of the Chinese Menu; Part 1

A new national security advisor offers the opportunities of same-old-same-old, incremental improvement, ideological certainty, or out-of-the-box thinking. Two prior office holders are particularly noteworthy: Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger. (I had the pleasure of competing against Brzezinski in the “Forecasting World Events” competition, when I beat his score at forecasting.) Brzezinski’s achievements  exceed those of any other save Kissinger.

With Kissinger in a class of his own, others of high ability are not marked by achievement for the reason stated by Lefty Gomez: “I’d rather be lucky than good.” Kissinger and Brzezinski  served when world order was in the process of transition,  full of opportunity. But since Louis Pasteur said “Chance favors the prepared mind” , I’d rather be lucky and good. Of the 27 who have filled this role, there are doubtless some whose brilliance was shadowed by the problems of their times.

We had a recent lesson about believing versus adapting, and of being a slave to an idea.  Our power structures — universities and think tanks — are set up to favor the student whose mind can be blueprinted by his Ph.D advisor, and those who want to advance within the power structure. It’s a valuable leg up to have mentors, and hard to have them if you insist on going your own way.

Things to figure out about the applicant:

  • Is the applicant’s mind a xerox copy of one of the famous think tanks, or the intellectual establishment, or the “party line?”
  • Does he have any ideas of his own? Small, like greasing the wheels, big, like an architect? Or does he quote policy to you?
  • Give the guy a simple problem, and ask for a sketch of a solution, on the spot. Is it idealistic, realistic, cynical? Is it a Chinese menu of choices everybody knows?
  • You  don’t like the idea. Does he fold up, try to sell it to you, or start a dialog?
  • If the applicant is “respected”, try to figure out why. The applicant may be an excellent xerox copy, be a good administrator, have winning ways, and be useless for the job.
  • If you find someone who is a brilliant, out-of-the box thinker, and copacetic, bend over backwards to excuse the things you thought were important, like “Nobody ever heard of him.” This is a battle of the brains.

I’ll continue shortly.

If you want the Best of the Best of the Best, this test will get you started.


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