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Why the NSC Structure Matters – and When it Does Not

J. at Armchair Generalist gets a big hat tip for his post Reforming the National Security Council that pointed to this WaPo article on the interview of National Security Adviser, Gen. James Jones.  The new APNSA opines on the coming of a “strong” NSC process for the Obama administration:

….The result will be a “dramatically different” NSC from that of the Bush administration or any of its predecessors since the forum was established after World War II to advise the president on diplomatic and military matters, according to national security adviser James L. Jones, who described the changes in an interview. “The world that we live in has changed so dramatically in this decade that organizations that were created to meet a certain set of criteria no longer are terribly useful,” he said.

….”The whole concept of what constitutes the membership of the national security community — which, historically has been, let’s face it, the Defense Department, the NSC itself and a little bit of the State Department, to the exclusion perhaps of the Energy Department, Commerce Department and Treasury, all the law enforcement agencies, the Drug Enforcement Administration, all of those things — especially in the moment we’re currently in, has got to embrace a broader membership,” he said

New NSC directorates will deal with such department-spanning 21st-century issues as cybersecurity, energy, climate change, nation-building and infrastructure. Many of the functions of the Homeland Security Council, established as a separate White House entity by President Bush after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, may be subsumed into the expanded NSC, although it is still undetermined whether elements of the HSC will remain as a separate body within the White House.

Presidents rarely get the national security process they want but they usually get what they deserve by default of their own unwillingness to  police their subordinates when they stray from the blueprint laid out in their first NSC-drafted executive order – usually titled PDD-1 or NSDD-1 ( “Presidential Decision Directive”, “National Security Decision Directive”). When a Henry Kissinger, or a Zbigniew Brzezinski or a Dick Cheney “grab power” from whomever is supposed to have it, you can be certain that these coups have implicit presidential approval.

 It is unusual that such a directive has not already been issued by the Obama administration, if the WaPo article is correct. Normally, this is a new president’s first (or one of the first) executive order that the transition team prepares in case the administration begins with a national security crisis. If that has not happened yet it’s a troublesome sign but I will give the Obama administration credit for attempting to create a new structure outside conventional Cold War and statutory arrangements for the NSC. That is long overdue, as is some hard thinking about what role the NSC should play in crafting national strategy and policy.

Presidents need an NSC Adviser and staff to do three things, not all of which are compatible:

1. Be an “honest broker” and coordinator between State, Defense and the IC on behalf of the POTUS ( Scowcroft Model).

2. Critically evaluate the policy options provided to the POTUS by Cabinet bureaucracies and offer creative alternatives (Kissinger Model).

3. Act as the “enforcer” and monitor to make certain presidential policy is being implemented and identify those who are obstacles, free-lancers and bureaucratic sabotuers for reprimand or removal (Sherman Adams/H.R. Haldeman* Model).

* Adams and Haldeman were WH Chiefs of Staff who were the designated and much feared “enforcers” of their administrations. One of Reagan’s numerous APNSAs, Judge Clark, was concerned with enforcing Reagan’s ideological line in foreign policy but he is too obscure a figure and his tenure too short to serve as an effective example.


One is easy. Two are difficult but common enough. Success at three is virtually unknown.

A president who is himself a product of the establishment consensus – a George Bush, Sr. or a Dwight Eisenhower– is looking for a National Security Adviser who is an honest broker and staffs his NSC with military and foreign service officers, with a sprinkling of CIA and DIA veterans. They will expect obedience from State and the Pentagon but as their policy choices coincide with Beltway conventional wisdom, they get it most of the time anyway.

A president who comes to Washington as an “outsider” in some fashion or as a “change agent” – a Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton– will pick a National Security Adviser who will build a staff of what one national security scholar has called a “team of academic superstars” who will aid the president in taking control of American foreign policy. Clashes between the White House and the career bureaucracy will be frequent and increasingly vicious, particularly with State, though in the Bush II administration that role was played by the senior managers of the CIA.

Some presidents have a dysfunctional NSC process – a category that includes John F. KennedyRonald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush – where the inmates take over the asylum and free-lancing by deputy assistant secretaries reigns supreme. Both Kennedy and Clinton strongly resisted a formal NSC decision making structure for their administration that would inhibit their ability to “pop in” to offices, chat up whomever and issue snap decisions. While this stance flowed from their desire to keep their options open and remain free of “handling” by their own staffers, it ultimately led to chaos and dangerously amateurish improvising during crisis moments.  Reagan and Bush II by contrast had formal structures in place but undermined them overtly ( Reagan in NSDD-2) or covertly ( Bush in letting his Vice-President operate a shadow mini-me NSC of his own). In Reagan’s case, this was aggravated by an unwillingness to fire anyone, no matter how much the rat-bastard deserved it, and a general distaste for confrontation.

Unless a president supports his NSC adviser down the line, the bureaucracies will do as they please to the point of making his administration’s top officials into laughingstocks. While you might not know it from the State Department’s current broken down condition, it was historically amongst the very worst offenders in this regard ( though both the Pentagon and Langley could rise to the occasion), regularly abusing the interagency process and blatantly defying presidential instructions. Give Foggy Bottom strategic planning, USAID or Public Diplomacy and they will let these nascent “competitors” wither on the vine.

The problem largely is that the State Department is filled with bright and talented but fairly insular individuals who imagine themselves more capable and informed and ultimately deserving of authority than the guy actually sitting in the Oval Office who was elected by the American people or any of his appointees. They need a strong hand at SecState and consistent follow-up by the NSC; and if given these conditions, State can perform amazing feats of diplomacy for a president. Absent that, State can create great friction for an administration.

The Obama administration is setting itself up for a very “strong” NSC process. Jones and Chief of Staff Emanuel are a potent combination and Defense, State and the CIA all have been given major political heavyweights as principals. Moreover, Jones appears to be in sync with Robert Gates as to the need for imaginative “new thinking” in national security affairs ( maybe we should send him this). However all the potential on paper in the world, at this stage of the game, means nothing.

It ultimately comes down to the President of the United States. What does he want ?

4 Responses to “Why the NSC Structure Matters – and When it Does Not”

  1. Adrian Says:

    "It ultimately comes down to the President of the United States. What does he want ?"And how bad does he want it, compared to his domestic agenda?  Will Jones or someone else be left to run the show?

  2. deichmans Says:

    Great post — you nail it with the indictment of Foggy Bottom’s insularity.

    While I work for the DoD, and therefore my opinion is suspect and potentially biased :-), I have been professionally involved with three Cabinet departments: DoD, DoS and DoE.  Of these, only DoD has a corporate culture that openly welcomes new faces and new ideas.

    By contrast, DoE and DoS professionals tend to "grow roots" — I’ve met DoE professionals who, while very bright and capable, do not have the "world view" that is enforced through mandatory rotational assignments.  Ever hear of a senior military leader staying in the same job for a decade or longer? (O.K., ADM Rickover is the rare exception….)

    Look at the DoS operating model.  The Foreign Service Officers are the elite caste (GSers in DoS — the job I turned down after college in order to become a civilian physicist for the Navy in San Diego — are low on totem pole).  FSOs aspire to charge d’affairs positions, and ultimately to Ambassadorships.  The Ambassadors, however, do not exercise the sovereignty and independence of a DoD Combatant Commander — they are simply appendages plugged back in to Foggy Bottom.

    This "star topology" — like any centralized decisionmaking apparatus — creates an environment contrary to innovation and creativity.  The hydra has just one head (as opposed to more than a dozen in the Pentagon, which brings a different kind of baggage).

    The biggest challenge for Gen(ret) Jones is not just getting State and Defense and the IC in line (DoD will be easy, as will an IC led by Jones’s contemporary Combatant Commander Denny Blair, who had PACOM when Jones led EUCOM).  It will be balancing three very different corporate cultures and aligning them for a unified purpose.

  3. Lexington Green Says:

    "What does he want ?"
    I hope he knows what he wants.
    I see little basis for that hope. 

  4. zen Says:

    Adrian and Lex – I think Obama will keep othes out front on FP for at least the next two years, except for high profile credit moments such as summits, crisis speeches, etc.
    Thanks Shane! I think you have expounded well on the cultural differences – I had not really considered the DoE but they have been low profile but critical national security players long before becoming a Cabinet department, when the NRC grew out of the Manhattan Project and postwar decisions by Truman to remove nuclear bomb building activities from the control of the U.S. military brass.

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