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What’s in a Name? A Valentine for the National Security Council Staff.

What’s in a Name? A Valentine for the National Security Council Staff.

On a Valentine’s Day bereft of roses, one is reminded of Shakespeare’s question, "What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet " — or, more in Shadow Government‘s bailiwick, would a National Security Council (NSC) staff smell as good as a National Security Staff (NSS)? National Security Advisor Susan Rice thinks the NSC staff would be sweeter than the NSS, and I am inclined to agree with her. 

Rice’s predecessor, Tom Donilon, thought otherwise and, when he was deputy national security advisor, helped arrange for the staff to have a new name — the National Security Staff — which would reflect the blending of the decades-old NSC staff with the more recent Homeland Security Council staff. While the idea of working more closely together was a good one, the mechanism of the symbolic name change was somewhat unfortunate.

Many of the costs were minor — some transaction costs and some confusion — but in general the Beltway responded the way it always responds when a new bit of jargon is introduced: People scrambled to show that they were "in" and "current," so took to using it freely, if not merrily.

However, the benefits seemed even more minor. After all, you don’t create a seamless staff by giving it a single name; you create it by having a clear, uncomplicated chain of command. You don’t get better coordination across disparate units through labels; you get it through streamlining, close daily contact, and joint projects.

Team Obama seems to have come to this same conclusion, for after announcing in 2009 that the name change was needed to foster better cooperation, the White House this week boasted that the staffs could go back to their old, differentiated names, precisely because of "the very successful merger of the two organizations." In a cheery and breezy blog post, the NSC staff spokesperson announced, "Given that the merger has done just that, and we are well aligned and organized to meet complex 21st century threats with the re-organization, we can revert to our historic and well recognized name, while maintaining a strong sense of cohesiveness and unity in supporting the President and the principals on his national security team."

Perhaps, but one suspects that something else was also weighing in the balance. Weeks ago, Rice signaled that she was working to go back to the old name, and this move was highlighted in a flattering piece crafted to show how Rice was breaking with the more contentious and turbulent tenure of her predecessor. The move would be a gesture to the staff, who did not like the new name and who needed bucking up since morale had suffered under Donilon’s tenure.

I did not like the NSS nomenclature, though for admittedly parochial reasons. I thought it created needless confusion with another well-established NSS acronym, the National Security Strategy, which I worked on as an NSC staffer in both the Bush and Clinton eras. And like other alums, I did not appreciate having my title viewed as anachronistic and obsolete. (Perhaps I am overly sensitive to this sort of thing since my alma mater, Lehigh University, changed its mascot from Engineers to Mountain Hawks!) 

But even a crusty alum like me recognizes that performance matters more than labels, so while I applaud the name reversal, I am more interested in what Rice will do to reverse other trends. Rice has a daunting task ahead of her in restoring staff morale when the principal lines of strategy that her staff is working on are in trouble. One of the lingering effects of the debate over Robert Gates’s controversial memoir is the renewed attention it placed on the familiar complaint of the White House’s micromanagement and mismanagement of the foreign-policy process. Even President Barack Obama is admitting that his Syria strategy is failing. And when the president has to warn a friendly ally on a state visit, then it is fair to say that the Iran policy is going wobbly too.

This is a challenging time to head the NSC staff. Changing the name will not make that job any harder, but it won’t make it much easier either.