The NSC's Sesame Street Generation
March 12, 2006 | By Dafna Linzer
They headed off to college as the Berlin Wall was coming down, were inspired by globalization and came of age with international terrorism. Freed from a constant nuclear standoff as a dominant fact of international life, members of Generation X no longer fear war or upheaval in the global status quo.
Understand them—and where they came from—and suddenly President Bush’s Middle East forays, grand democratic experiments and go-it-alone strategies take on a different look.
That’s because nearly a dozen thirtysomething aides, breastfed on “Sesame Street” and babysat by “The Brady Bunch,” are now shaping those strategies in unexpected ways as senior advisers at the National Security Council, the White House’s powerful inner chamber of foreign policy aides with routine access to Bush. This small group of conservative Gen Xers—members of an age cohort once all but written off as stand-for-nothing underachievers—is the first set of American policymakers truly at home in a unipolar world.
Their adulthood has never included a fellow superpower or the need to reach accommodation with an enemy—a Cold War concept none of the NSC’s Gen-X crowd can get their heads around. Instead, their history begins with Sept. 11, 2001. It is the measuring stick they use when discussing their generation’s challenge and the sole lens through which they envision the future. “We all built careers in the post-Cold War world,” said Meghan O’Sullivan, who at 36 is the deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan. “You have to think about what are the defining features of the age we live in. For me, that’s American primacy, globalization, terrorism and WMD, which is why we do what we do. This wasn’t applicable during the Cold War.”
Growing up in a time of unprecedented wealth, they saw capitalism as inescapably tied both to freedom and democracy. In a world where everything seemed achievable, it was just a matter of setting the right priorities. They figured, at a young age, that Mideast oil was of great importance, that the really bad guys didn’t come from Russia and that for all the nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal, the country could still be hurt, held hostage or prevented from striking back.
Is it any wonder that some of the generation’s best conservative minds serve a president who has staked his legacy on transforming the Middle East by force of arms?
“Gen Xers have a worldview that starts with the Middle East as opposed to a worldview of a 70-year-old that starts with France, Germany, England and then Japan,” said William Strauss, a generational historian who co-authored a definitive look at the rise of Generation X—a term coined by Douglas Coupland for his 1991 book “Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture.”
The NSC, established under the 1947 National Security Act, has long been a home for rising stars. Condoleezza Rice was a top Soviet expert at the council in her thirties when Bush’s father was president. But rarely has the world-experience gap between the young policy guns and the president they serve been as wide as it is today. Generation X has never lived without pop culture and economic prosperity. It missed great moments of national triumph such as the victory of World War II as well as the ignominious defeats of the Vietnam era. Conflict, for Gen X, was the swift 1991 Persian Gulf War, which they watched like a television show.
At the NSC, staffers said the gap is most noticeable when their boss, National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley, recounts his years as an arms control negotiator during the Cold War. “We’re like ‘Arms control, what’s that?’” said Michael Allen, Hadley’s special assistant for legislative affairs.
“I often hear about arms control from the old-timers, but it’s so different now. It’s about all the places we don’t have embassies now and it’s very rare, it seems, that [Congress] is lobbying the executive branch to engage. Most of the times it’s isolate, how can we isolate a country even more?” said Allen, a lawyer who grew up in Mobile, Ala. and could easily win an Owen Wilson look-alike contest. Don’t ask the 32-year-old Allen about the era of bipartisanship; he never experienced it.
At the same time, the Gen-X crowd—those born between 1961 and 1981—and their boomer elders in the Bush White House share some remarkable similarities. Neither appears to have been personally touched by Vietnam: The Gen Xers are too young, and the boomers at the top of this administration didn’t serve there.
The Vietnam war was waning just as O’Sullivan was becoming cognizant of the world, a kid in suburban Boston. Today, she is charged with guiding President Bush’s strategy on Iraq after already having served as a senior adviser in Baghdad shaping the interim Iraqi government. O’Sullivan, a striking redhead who once interned for the late Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (N.Y.), spent her twenties devising radical new tools for dealing with “rogue states” and is widely credited with helping to develop the concept of “smart sanctions”—a twist on economic pressures that aimed at hobbling regimes, rather than the people they rule over.
For many of the generals with whom O’Sullivan consults in her current job, the painful experience of Vietnam permeates their thinking on Iraq. Not for O’Sullivan. “We are the first post-Vietnam generation, without the baggage of Vietnam, which doesn’t mean we don’t try to learn some of the lessons from there about counterinsurgency and so forth, but it’s not my first frame of reference and I think that’s a good thing,” said O’Sullivan.
Same goes for Afghanistan, where she and her team guide policy as the United States seeks to stabilize the friendly government of President Hamid Karzai installed after the fall of the Taliban. “If your frame of reference is the Soviet invasion and how they got bogged down, then I think you’d be very modest about what could be achieved in Afghanistan,” O’Sullivan said. “That’s not how I see it. I see an end of Taliban rule and a nascent democracy.”
Her National Security Council colleague, John D. Rood, is two years older and the president’s senior adviser on countering nuclear threats. That includes searching for ways to roll back the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea.
The earliest news event he recalls understanding was the Iran hostage crisis; not the storming of the embassy, but the added tragedy that followed. For the 11-year-old Rood, a child of divorce growing up in a middle-class section of Phoenix, the botched rescue attempt so troubled him that he asked a teacher to find out whether there were other U.S. forces in the region who could be sent in to save the hostages. “I recall reading some of the articles and not understanding. They said we had a large number of aircraft in the region that could have provided support and we just abandoned it,” Rood said.
Much of Rood’s job includes dealing with Cold War leftovers such as the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a decades-old arms control agreement between Washington and Moscow, which Rood spent his first year in the White House dismantling. “We had all sorts of quotes from critics that the sky would fall if we left the ABM treaty, and no one even mentions this anymore because nothing happened—it went away with a whimper. Not being encumbered with all this baggage from the Cold War is a huge advantage.”
But for Juan Zarate, deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism strategy, the Cold War hung over his childhood home in very personal ways. The son of a Mexican father and Cuban mother, the fear of communism was ever present. At Harvard, he wrote his thesis on the effects of U.S. foreign policy on democracy in Latin America—a region that has all but been ignored by Bush. But in law school, he focused on international law and security issues and wrote his third-year paper on the use of private military contractors in war. He has known nothing since but the threat of terrorism and war. He joined the criminal division of the Justice Department in 1998, just as it was taking on the largest terrorism investigation of the decade, the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
His deputy, Michelle Malvesti, became a terrorism analyst on a lark that same year with the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency. Now Zarate, 34 and Malvesti, 35, coordinate the administration’s plan for fighting what Bush calls the “war on terrorism.”
Michele Davis, an economist, and Frederick L. Jones II, a foreign service officer, handle communications and media for the NSC—jobs that begin at 5 a.m. and often end after midnight. They have worked only in a world that operates on a 24-hour news cycle—fielding calls from Brazil, and setting up interviews in Pakistan—an experience their predecessors and bosses do not share.
John Simon, 38, left a classic Gen-X job as a management consultant to become the NSC’s senior director for relief, stabilization, and development. Now he is awaiting confirmation to the post of vice president of the Overseas Private Investment Corp., a U.S. agency that helps American businesses invest overseas. William Inboden, a 33-year-old historian charged with planning for the future, is exploring the next generation of alliances and partnerships that will serve U.S. interests for the 21st century.
For Zarate, Sept. 11 presented the challenge of his generation, more than just the challenge of the administration he serves. “Maybe in 20 or 30 years, folks will look back on us and say these guys were the young pioneers, we’ll be the Kissingeresque-type folks,” he said. “Hopefully, if we do our jobs right.”