Robert F. Ellsworth reflects on the ideological infighting-particularly the rise of neoconservatives-that raged during the presidency of Gerald Ford, under whom he served as Deputy Secretary of Defense.In an interview with National Interest online editor, Ximena Ortiz, Ellsworth describes the maneuvering of neoconservatives and the figures that countered their influence. Ford passed away this week at the age of 93.
Ambassador Ellsworth is Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors of The Nixon Center and President of The National Interest, Inc. He was Chairman of Bob Dole's Presidential Campaign in 1988, Ambassador to NATO under President Nixon and worked in the Pentagon under Donald Rumsfeld as Deputy Secretary of Defense (and received the National Security Medal) during the Ford administration. Now a life-science venture capitalist in San Diego, he was a three-term Republican Congressman from Kansas. He served at sea in the U.S. Navy in World War II and the Korean War.
NIo: Given your tenure and relationship with President Ford, please give us your perspective on the origins of the rise of the neoconservatives under Ford-an issue which has particular resonance today. Of course you had Rumsfeld as chief of staff, Cheney as his deputy. Also significant was the role of "Team B", which served as a parallel entity to the CIA and assessed Soviet strategy and objectives at that time. Associated with Team B were figures that have been recently quite relevant, such as Wolfowitz and Perle. Please sketch out the ideological and power dynamics at play within the administration. How, in your view, did the neoconservatives maneuver and to what degree were they a separate, identifiable entity and to what extent were they integrated more broadly within the administration?
RE: [They] were clearly identifiable as an entity and they were not just Republicans, they were also Scoop Jackson Democrats. And as a matter of fact, that was, I would say, mostly the political origins: Scoop Jackson Democrats. Richard Perle had been a long-time staff person on Scoop Jackson's-Senator Jackson from the state of Washington-staff. They were clearly identifiable as an entity and Rumsfeld was very supportive of the neocons at that time within the Ford Administration and their effect on the Ford Administration.
Kissinger was not. But Ford was a tough, smart, old professional politician, and he played politics on the matter, not ideology. Ford was not an ideologue. But he did give them a certain amount of respect and allowed them to influence some of his decisions.
NIo: So do you think the fact that he was not an ideologue, do you think that is what made him perhaps less receptive to their influence then say President Bush? What would you say was the element that allowed President Ford to take into consideration the neoconservative view and weigh it, but not be so completely swayed by it?
RE: Well the answer to that is that he was a long-time Congressional power politician, and he would view their efforts through the lens of what kind of an effect it would have on his relations with senators and congressmen. He would just be interested in their political clout as he would assess it, and he was a tough, shrewd politician who knew how to do that.
So they didn't have much influence, they had some, but not much.
NIo: And so you witnessed Kissinger, in his role as Secretary of State, push back against the recommendations of the neoconservatives? Would you say he did that effectively? Did Kissinger successfully tailor his own suggestions to appeal to Ford, to counter the neoconservative line?
RE: Kissinger as the Secretary of State and Scowcroft as the National Security Adviser aligned together pretty well. Rumsfeld, on the other hand, was in favor of the neoconservatives at that time, and so it was a power struggle. Rumsfeld prevailed to some extent and forced Kissinger to recommend to Ford, for example, that Ford stop using the word "détente" in talking about relations with the Soviet Union, because Rumsfeld felt the use of détente had become toxic in internal Republican Party politics.
NIo: And presumably Ford heeded that advice more on a political than ideological level. Did he perhaps recognize the political caginess of not using the word, but was not as thoroughly swayed in broader strategy terms?
RE: He was swayed both in terms of the rhetoric, by not using détente, and in recognizing that, as a real world grownup person, if you change your rhetoric you also have to change or accept a change in your basic strategy, so he did both. He changed both.
NIo: In your view, why did the prominent neoconservatives involved in policy during the Ford and other administrations not learn from their mistaken evaluations about Soviet capabilities and strategies? It seemed like they made the same mistakes again with Iraq. Why did they not apply and learn from their mistakes?
RE: Well I don't know that anybody knows the answer to that. I mean, it's obvious that they were passionately committed to the intellectual proposition that the world should be governed by-I think the basic concept is that militaristic policy works and succeeds. And of course, to some extent military power is essential in international relations and global affairs, but it's only an instrument, it's not an end in itself. But they didn't understand that and they still don't.
NIo: How do you think President Ford would view the neoconservative role with more current issues, such as the Iraq War?
RE: I hesitate to speak for former President Ford on that because he's gone and I don't know, I never discussed it with him. I discussed several things with him. He talked to me about six weeks ago and he didn't want to discuss those things because he said, "I've retired from politics and so I don't comment on those things anymore."
I don't know what he thought. I'm sure he would think that our position, our situation in Iraq is a catastrophe, no doubt about that.
NIo: Any other insights on the power dynamics with the neoconservatives, anything that we haven't discussed?
RE: It's interesting right now that the issue with neoconservatives is that they have almost all unanimously turned against the Bush Administration and accused it of incompetence in managing the war and making poor policy decisions and having a poor policy process. The irony of it is that many of them were directly involved in the policy process of deciding to go to war, and in managing the war, and in planning or not planning the war, so it's very ironic that they were quite enthusiastic about going into Iraq but were completely taken by surprise by the things that have happened.