Elephants in the Room
Six Pieces of Advice for Donald Trump’s National Security Council Staff
Decisions are not enough. Implementation is key.
I served on the U.S. National Security Council staff for two stints, for three presidents, for a total of 11 years. I have worked longer for the NSC than for any other organization. I therefore care deeply about the importance of a fair and orderly policy development process — the primary job of the NSC staff. Such a process diminishes the risk of mistakes and maximizes chances for effective implementation. The stakes can be life or death. This is the professional way to make national security policy, especially given America’s exceptional responsibilities as the indispensible nation.
In 2008, when one of my colleagues at the National Nuclear Security Administration was asked to join the National Security Council staff, I wrote the following points of advice. They were written to someone who I wanted to succeed. I now use them to teach students at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Given recent controversy over the proper role of the NSC staff, they might now be of broader interest.
1) Protect the president. This does not mean shield him from political embarrassment or criticism. Rather, ensure: that he has all necessary information to make rational decisions; that the risks as well as advantages of options get analyzed thoroughly (no sandbagging); that, to the extent possible, he is not surprised by issues or threats; and that the credibility and authority of the office are maintained.
2) Think strategically. Pressures of time, the crush of events — the sheer volume of which can be confusing — and the need to execute staff responsibilities (talking points, fact sheets, press guidance, meeting memorandums, etc.) all distract from the need for a relentless focus on strategic goals and how to achieve them. Try to think years ahead, while most people in Washington are looking forward hours or days.
3) Be honest. If you don’t know, say so, and find out. If you know, but the answer is bad news, say so. Always be straight with interagency counterparts. Their trust will make you and the president more effective. Characterize fairly and include all relevant views in the process, even ones with which you disagree.
4) Communicate widely. Uniquely, the NSC staff talks to all levels of government routinely, from action officers and office directors to undersecretaries and cabinet officers. An effective NSC staff can be the mortar that holds together the bricks of the interagency process. The NSC has many disadvantages relative to departments and agencies — size, budget, physical capabilities, etc. Its three advantages are short lines of communication, propinquity to the president, and managing the policy agenda.
5) Run an orderly interagency process. It is your responsibility to set an agenda, task work, identify issues to be considered, attempt to resolve them, and, if necessary, raise them for decision. This must be done at a pace responding to the press of events and allowing sufficient time for rational deliberation. Papers must be distributed far enough in advance that others have time to read them. Departments and agencies must have — and feel that they have — a fair say in the decision-making process.
6) Decisions are not enough. Implementation is key. A decision by the president is not the end of the process. The NSC staff must oversee implementation, assess results, and, if necessary recommend adjustments to policy.
President Donald Trump signed three executive actions in the Oval Office on January 28. One of them outlined a reorganization of the National Security Council. Photo credit: PETE MAROVICH/Pool/Getty Images