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All the President’s NSCs

Rei Tang, who I had the pleasure of meeting and breaking bread with at the last Boyd & Beyond Conference, is guest-posting at Rethinking Security on a topic dear to my heart, presidential national security decision making. Mr. Tang nailed it here and I give his post a very strong endorsement as a “must-read”:

Guest Post: Essence of Decision (Part I of III)

“Maximize the President’s optionality.” Spoken in bureaucratese, this is what Thomas Donilon wanted to do as he took over the role of President Barack Obama’s national security adviser. Like most bland things in national security, this phrase is loaded. Graham Allison compares Donilon to Robert F. Kennedy who protected President John F. Kennedy’s options during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It speaks to how the president sees his relationship to the executive branch, his inclinations and limits. It speaks to how the president chooses and trusts his advisers and officers.

For a confident new president who respected national security pragmatists like Jim Jones, Joe Biden, Robert Gates, Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and Dennis Blair, making national security policy should have been straightforward. Obama and, former NATO supreme allied commander and marine commandant, General Jones created an open and orderly national security policy process—layers of interagency committees teeing up options to the National Security Council. Every department and agency would have a chance to say something. This would lead to good policy. But it ran into problems. In the NSC staff, now the “national security staff,” those who had been through the campaign with Obama had their access to the president downgraded. In the Afghanistan surge decision, the Department of the Defense and the military had boxed in the president. The more open the process, the more policy became stuck in the bureaucracy. In crisis decision-making, which takes up an extraordinary amount of bandwidth and which is politically delicate, bureaucracy can’t be allowed. 

The president came to find out this is not what he wanted. As the president gained experience, what he did want shows in the people who survived and thrived in the administration. They understand politics. Donilon, Panetta, Biden, and McDonough have worked on campaigns and understand the imperative of mitigating Obama’s political problems on national security. They’ve not only put in place the national security policy structure, but they control it—the information, the direction. They’ve expanded the president’s space to make careful, deliberate decisions. And to have “no leaks.”

Read the rest here.

It is interesting that in coming into office, President Obama, a deliberative and elite academic lawyer by education and temperament, set up a formal, Sherman Adams-ish NSC process befitting President Eisenhower and instead gravitated to a looser, more “politicized-personalized” model favored by Presidents Kennedy and (to a lesser extent) Nixon. This evolution suited Mr. Obama’s much grubbier, bareknuckles experience from his early days as a cog in Chicago’s Democratic Daley Machine, where politics is king and the ur-Rules are “Don’t back no losers” and “We don’t want nobody that nobody sent”.

A president always gets the NSC he wants but very seldom the NSC his office deserves. A corollary to this is that a totally dysfunctional NSC is no bar to having foreign policy success. During the Nixon administration, when Henry Kissinger was National Security Adviser, the machiavellian NSC decision process with the various principals was less in need of an orderly manager than a competent psychiatrist ( and this was, at times, seriously considered!); yet the co-dependent partnership between Nixon and Kissinger yielded numerous strokes of brilliance and strategic coup d’oeil in foreign policy.

The statutory requirements of the NSC are skeletal, which permits every POTUS flesh out the system he desires by selection of personnel and the initial executive orders issued to guide the business and interagency work of the NSC.  A president who feels uncomfortable with picking qualified “outsiders” -i.e. academic stars (Kissinger, Brzezinski) will have an NSC that is going to rely heavily upon foreign service officers, military officers and IC personnel “on loan” or after retirement from their perspective departments and agencies.  This will not be an NSC that will be apt to challenge bureaucratic conventional wisdom when preparing option papers,  but at it’s best this kind of NSC can be an honest broker and competent enforcer of presidential decisions because the staff is wise to bureaucratic tricks to stymie or delay administration policy. Eisenhower and Bush I were extremely comfortable with NSCs staffed by “professionals” and demanded very close working relationships with and between principals (SECSTATE, SECDEFENSE etc.).

An NSC dominated by gifted outsiders and political loyalists offers the opportunity for more creative and effective exercise of presidential prerogatives in foreign policy.  The president will have more options and a more critically thorough vetting of policy proposals from State, Defense and the IC.  As a result, because the NSC is trying to be both policy advocate as well as referee, the interagency friction and malicious leaking against bureaucratic rivals is apt to be very high – as was seen during the Nixon, Carter and Reagan administrations ( the last administration saw six NSC advisers in eight years, a factor of instability that added to the friction).

In either case, presidents sometimes attempt to “operationalize” policy that is particularly important to them from the NSC, which is not really designed or budgeted for such tasks. This has had mixed results, historically, with successes like the China Opening, bringing into custody the Achille Lauro highjackers and the operation to kill Osama bin Laden as well as political debacles like Iran-Contra or the secret invasion of Cambodia. The need to work through other bureaucracies makes the NSC doing “end runs” risky and vulnerable to hostile leaks and critical Congressional reaction (particularly if oversight had been circumvented).

To understand a president’s NSC is to comprehend how the administration really works.


Brown, Cody. The National Security Council: A Legal History of the President’s Most Powerful Advisers. Project on National Security Reform/Center for the Study of the Presidency. 1020 19th Street, NW, Suite 250. Washington, DC. 2008.

Cramer, Drew & Mullins, Grant. “Lessons Learned from Prior Attempts at National Security Reform“. The Project on National Security Reform, Overarching Issues Working Group, College of William & Mary

Daalder, Ivo H. In the Shadow of the Oval Office: Profiles of the National Security Advisers and the Presidents They Served–From JFK to George W. Bush. Simon & Schuster, New York, NY. 2009

Federation of Atomic Scientists. “History of the National Security Council 1947-1997”. http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/NSChistory.htm

Dalleck, Robert. Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power. Harper Perennial. New York, NY. 2007

Gates, Robert. From the Shadows. Simon & Schuster. New York, NY. 1996.

Kissinger, Henry. White House Years. Simon & Schuster. New York, NY. 2011.

Menges, Constantine. Inside the National Security Council. Touchstone Books. 1989.

One Response to “All the President’s NSCs”

  1. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi Zen, Excellent addition! Rei has written a insightful piece. This is sentence stands out:
    In crisis decision-making, which takes up an extraordinary amount of bandwidth and which is politically delicate, bureaucracy can’t be allowed. 
    Achieving this is increasingly difficult, as bureaucracy (and/or groupthink) seems to be an ever growing phenomena.
    Further, your concluding sentence is  spot-on; the NSC is one place where executive discretion is pretty broad, so the “how they do it” is a good reflection of executive judgement/priorities.

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