- By Dov ZakheimDov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.
The appointment to the Principals’ Committee of Stephen Bannon, a political operative with no meaningful foreign policy or defense experience or expertise, rightly has astounded and perplexed foreign officials and observers of U.S. national security policy. For many analysts, it portends an increasingly erratic and unpredictable America and jeopardizes its leadership of the free world, which already has been called into question by both friends and adversaries. Yet the focus on the changes to the Principals Committee has obscured an even more ominous development — the apparent relegation of the National Security Council staff to a secondary status, and the placing of the executive national security agencies at an even further remove from the national security decision-making process.
When President Donald Trump has met with, or spoken by phone to, foreign leaders, National Security Advisor Mike Flynn has not always been at hand. But Bannon, the president’s political consigliere; Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law; and Steve Miller, Bannon’s deputy and protégé, have always been present. They are clearly the policy advisors of last resort, and, presumably, are in a position to invalidate, or for that matter block, any other inputs the president might otherwise have received.
To say that this arrangement does a tremendous disservice to American interests is the height of understatement. The three men have no experience in national security affairs, but may well delude themselves into thinking that receiving a briefing or two on any given subject renders them sufficiently expert to advise the president. As former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld might have said, “they don’t know what they don’t know.”
America’s interests are highly complex, with respect not only to given regions of the world — think of the Middle East, where Israeli and Arab interests call for careful balancing and constant fine tuning — but even with respect to the tug and pull of alliances and relations with individual states. For example, when allies such as Britain and France have competed for arms sales to the United States — a not infrequent occurrence — their respective leaders have lobbied the president of the day. How should he choose? Would a Bannon, Kushner, or Miller have the foggiest idea as to what advice to provide? And what if different executive agencies offer conflicting recommendations as to which weapons system to buy, as again is at times the case, will it be the so-called inner circle or the National Security Council staff that will adjudicate? At present it would seem that adjudication will fall to the White House troika.
Similarly, if the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) argues for controlling defense spending, while the Defense Department argues for increases, who will determine which path the president should follow? Bannon? Kushner? Miller? Their understanding of the process by which the Pentagon establishes its requirements is superficial at best, and their appreciation of the OMB position may at best be only marginally better.
Many presidents have had kitchen cabinets: the practice began with Andrew Jackson, after whom Trump may be modelling himself. Jackson created what his enemies called a “kitchen cabinet” when his official Cabinet proved itself dysfunctional, due primarily to friction between Vice President John C. Calhoun and Secretary of State Martin Van Buren. Jackson essentially gave up on his Cabinet and relied on a tight group of advisors who helped him to formulate policy. Since then, other presidents have sought advice from close personal friends and associates that at times has run counter to the more formal recommendations forthcoming from government agencies. Yet they rarely, if ever, have pushed the executive agencies to as far a remove as currently appears to be the case.
President Trump’s cabinet is not Jackson’s. In particular, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appear to be working well together. And while the White House is not restricting their access to the president, it appears that it views their agencies as mere implementers of policy rather than significant contributors toward its formulation. For that matter, it seems that the president’s inner circle sees the National Security Council staff in much the same way.
These are early days. The president has yet to be tested by a serious crisis, one that could well involve serious risks to American lives as well as interests. One can only hope that when the inevitable challenge emerges, he will recognize that it is not enough to rely on amateurs, however gifted they think they might be. For America’s sake, as well as the success of his administration, he should turn to the many government experts who have devoted their lives to serve both the president — of whatever party or policy inclination — and the nation that he leads.
Photo credit: DREW ANGERER/Getty Images