Elephants in the Room

What to Look for in a National Security Advisor

There should be no intermediaries between the new national security advisor and the President.

WASHINGTON, D.C. - FEBRUARY 14:  (AFP-OUT) U.S. President Donald Trump looks on before signing H.J. Res. 41 in the Oval Office of the White House on February 14, 2017 in Washington, DC. The resolution nullifies a rule in the Dodd-Frank Act that "requires resource extraction issuers to disclose payments made to governments for the commercial development of oil, natural gas, or minerals." (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C. - FEBRUARY 14: (AFP-OUT) U.S. President Donald Trump looks on before signing H.J. Res. 41 in the Oval Office of the White House on February 14, 2017 in Washington, DC. The resolution nullifies a rule in the Dodd-Frank Act that "requires resource extraction issuers to disclose payments made to governments for the commercial development of oil, natural gas, or minerals." (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

The search is on for a new National Security Advisor. Among the leading candidates: retired Vice Admiral Bob Harward and retired General and former CIA Director Dave Petraeus. These are serious men. Petraeus is, of course, the better known of the two. One of America’s greatest generals in the past one hundred years — and that is saying a lot — he stumbled as CIA director, but would bring a wealth of savvy experience to the White House. Harward is less well-known. But he was a highly competent and capable officer, an Asia expert who knows the Middle East particularly well. Born in Iran, he served as Derputy CENTCOM Commander under General Jim Mattis. Equally important, he has National Security Council experience, holding the strategy and defense portfolio under President George W. Bush.

Neither man was a rabble rouser during the presidential campaign. In fact, neither took a political stance at all. That is how it should be. Retired generals and admirals play an important role as mentors to their successors, as advisors in the private sector, and, when appropriate as commentators on matters military. They should not lead screaming crowds on behalf of any candidate, of whatever party. Moreover, neither has been identified as anti-Muslim; on the contrary, like Mattis, they both are well-known and respected by America’s Arab allies.

Either of these retired officers would bring stability to the country’s national security apparatus, something the White House desperately needs. Despite my good friend Peter Feaver’s case for Jared Kushner, I am not sure that he has the depth or the gravitas to provide that stability, or, for that matter, manage the job. He is certainly discreet, and he does have his father-in-law’s complete trust, but he simply is too inexperienced to deal with foreign leaders. As I have previously written, he has neither the depth nor the knowledge to handle the tasks to which he has currently been assigned. As National Security Advisor he would be way over his head; the president simply cannot afford more instability at that level.

Indeed, whoever takes the job as Assistant to the President for National Security should insist that he is the only such assistant. There should be no intermediaries between him and the President. He should have the last word before the President acts, and, difficult as it might seem, must be able to close the door behind him and counsel the President as bluntly and as forcefully as necessary.

The new appointee should also insist that the Principals’ Committee be just that: a committee of the top agency heads. Other White House officials may be invited from time to time. But that is all. The calculus of domestic politics is important for national security decisions, but it should be dealt with elsewhere, not in that committee. Indeed, the newly created Strategic Initiatives Group should focus solely on domestic policy, which plays to Steve Bannon’s strength.

The new advisor should also revamp his staff. Morale is low throughout the national security agencies: many officials have been reluctant to take an office in the Old Executive Office Building. What is needed is an intensive recruiting effort, backed up by a promise that the work will be as meaningful as it is discreet. Civilian experts throughout the bureaucracy are likely to believe that promise if it comes from either Petraeus or Harward.

President Trump has been afforded a golden opportunity to hit the reset button for foreign policy and defense national security. He can choose a national security advisor who, like Petraeus, has experience as a civilian leader, or, like Harward — a former SEAL — has a reputation for discretion; and both of whom know how to work with colleagues across the inter-agency system. In choosing one of these two men, or a man or woman cut from similar cloth, President Trump could set aright a national security edifice that has been tottering since he took office. The result can only be of benefit both to him and the nation he leads.

Photo credit: OLIVIER DOULIERY-Pool/Getty Images

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