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The Neutral/Honest Broker Role in Foreign-Policy Decision Making: A Reassessment


  • AUTHOR's NOTE: I would like to thank Meena Bose, Alexander Moens, and James P. Pfiffner for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article. I would also like to thank Kevin Mulcahy for updating, for this article, his typology of NSC advisers.

John P. Burke is professor of political science at the University of Vermont. His most recent book is Becoming President: The Bush Transition, 2000-2003.


This article examines the impact of the “neutral” or “honest” broker role in presidential decision making, particularly as applied to the job of National Security Council adviser. It provides further evidence of the positive and continuing contribution of the role to effective decision making, which has been expressed both in theory (Alexander George's formulation of the related concept of the “managerial custodian” in the 1970s) and in practice (the broker role of the Eisenhower-era NSC special assistants). At the same time, it considers the feasibility of additional tasks such as policy advocacy, public visibility, political watchdog, and operational assignments, which have been embraced, to varying degrees, by more recent NSC advisers but were largely absent in the Eisenhower era and rejected by George as appropriate to the custodian role. The article also examines the applicability of the broker role in light of differing presidential decision-making needs, different advisory structures, and the issue of bureaucratic leverage and personal influence. Attention to the broker role remains relevant not only in understanding classic decision failures (the expansion of troop commitments in Vietnam in 1965) and successes (Indochina in 1954) but in gaining perspective on more recent decisions, such as Iran-Contra during the Reagan years and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and issues surrounding its postwar reconstruction in the George W. Bush presidency.