- By Derek CholletDerek Chollet served in the Barack Obama administration for six years in senior positions at the White House, State Department, and Pentagon, most recently as the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. Currently the executive vice president at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, his books include The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World, America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11 (co-written with James Goldgeier), and The Unquiet American: Richard Holbrooke in the World (co-edited with Samantha Power). A native Nebraskan, he lives in Washington, D.C., with his family. Chollet is a co-editor of Shadow Government., Julie SmithJulianne ("Julie") Smith is director of the strategy and statecraft program at the Center for a New American Security. Prior to joining CNAS, she served as the deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden from 2012 to 2013. Before going to the White House, she served as the principal director for European/NATO policy at the Pentagon. Smith lives in Washington with her husband and two children. Smith is a co-editor of Shadow Government.
It has been a tough few days for the National Security Council. The news that Trump’s political guru Stephen Bannon secured a place on the NSC’s Principals Committee was troubling enough, but the creation of a Bannon-led “Strategic Initiatives Group” within the NSC further erodes its stature, independence, and influence.
We would be the first to say that the NSC is imperfect. As two people who worked in President Barack Obama’s White House, and who were designated to lead Hillary Clinton’s NSC “landing team” had she won the presidency, we’ve thought a lot about how to make the NSC and interagency process work better — something we’ll have a lot more to say about at Shadow Government. For now, suffice to say that in almost every way, Trump’s team has done the opposite of what we would suggest. This kind of “disruption” may feel good right now and may send Washington’s Twitterverse into apoplectic frenzy — but Trump will soon learn that it will only bring dysfunction, and likely worse. Dust off your histories of Iran-Contra to get a sense of what may come.
A common refrain across Washington over the past two years has been that the NSC is in dire need of reform. Critics generally cite four main problems with the NSC: it’s too big, it’s too controlling, its processes are outdated, and it lacks the ability to think strategically. As such, the structure and mission of the NSC has become a hot topic in policy circles. Various think tank have issued earnest reports — like this and this and this — that recommend structural changes to make the NSC more effective and better equipped to deal with today’s security challenges. Congress has also gotten in the game, with attempts to legislate the size of the NSC (under the assumption that smaller is better), and even toying with the idea of making the national security advisor subject to Senate confirmation. While experts have differed on the specifics, there is now widespread support in both parties to make changes to a system that was created back in 1947.
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But instead of reforming the National Security Council, it looks like Trump is diminishing its role altogether. Normally, the national security advisor (currently Michael Flynn) has had a direct line to the president and has carried more clout than any other member of the president’s team on foreign policy. The one exception to this is Ronald Reagan, who initially layered the national security adviser by removing his direct reporting line to the president. (That did not work out so well, and was soon changed.) Already, it seems, many in and out of government are questioning Flynn’s authority.
It’s doubtful Trump cares about the NSC’s internal dynamics, as he seems to like operating with multiple, free-wheeling power centers in competition with one another. In one corner, we have Flynn who, according to several well-sourced reports based on conversations with people on the inside, is already having trouble shaping and influencing the debates. In another corner, we have Bannon with his controversial and disparaging comments on Islam, refugees, U.S.-EU relations, and the media — which he calls the opposition party. Bannon and his team have been increasing their public profile on foreign policy issues in recent days, which is highly unusual (and may also explain why Flynn made an appearance in the White House briefing room on Wednesday, Feb. 1, as a kind of bureaucratic station-identification).
And in yet another corner we have Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who also seems to be assuming a prominent role in foreign policy. Some allies have been told to work directly through him and not Flynn, raising questions about who is in charge. Kushner has also held meetings with the secretaries of state and defense and the CIA director, apparently because of brewing tensions with Flynn over personnel picks at other agencies (so far, none of which seem to be going Flynn’s way).
The hypocrisy here is outrageous. For years, Republicans howled about the way the Obama team ran the NSC, but now they don’t seem to mind that under Trump the NSC could be run into the ground. They asserted the fact that unqualified civilians on Obama’s NSC “micro-managed” the U.S. military — a charge that was always wildly overblown — but have been silent when Bannon got a permanent place on the Principals Committee while the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff became an “as-needed” member. They complained about the size of the NSC staff and its lack of accountability through congressional oversight, but are somehow OK with the president’s political counselor setting up a kind of shadow NSC that promises to be even more secretive and unaccountable. And they disparaged the “kids” who became close Obama NSC advisers, but seem perfectly fine with Kushner, 36, playing an even larger role.
For those that normally don’t track the inner workings of the National Security Council in any great detail, these changes might seem nothing more than trivial inside baseball. All presidents, after all, make personnel changes when they enter office. Yet the changes we have seen in the first few days of the administration foreshadow a number of disturbing trends that run counter to the way in which past presidents have handled national security issues. Even worse, they will likely blow up into a crisis.
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