Elephants in the Room
Can Any National Security Advisor Tame President Trump?
No -- and he or she shouldn't try to.
Modern art came to America in the 1913 Armory show. Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase was a scandal. Former president Theodore Roosevelt wrote an outraged 1,700 word review in Outlook, describing the exhibit as “a question of pathological rather than artistic significance”. The description seems equally suitable for the national security policymaking process in the Trump administration: it is a process of pathological not procedural significance.
While it is not uncommon for new presidential administrations to have a rocky start, the Trump administration is having an especially difficult time with right-hand / left-hand coordination — even within the White House, much less across the interagency. Mike Flynn wasn’t the cause of that problem; the president is. Flynn certainly didn’t tamp down the president’s worst tendencies, but to expect a national security advisor to do so misunderstands the way the interagency actually works. Flynn had odd ideas about policy and process, by which I mean to say he represented the president accurately and tried to make the government responsive to the president’s management.
The national security process in particular rewards deliberation and strategic consistency, neither of which have been conspicuous in the Trump administration. And it will take much more than a capable national security advisor to provide them. Will Wechsler and I conducted a study of NSC best practices, and one of the most important conclusions was that there is no corralling presidents into structures that will constrain them — the process must fit the president’s management practice, or he will simply work around it.
President Obama aspired to have an interagency process on the Scowcroft model of NSC as traffic cop rather than policy partisan, which every expert concedes is the superior way to organize and operate the national security process. Yet he ended up having a White House-centric process, because it suited him better. Henry Kissinger has said that even he would have preferred to use the Scowcroft model, but could not because the president would not. As Ivo Daalder (who ran the Obama transition team) told us, “the Scowcroft model worked in the Bush Administration because everyone was good at their job, including the President.”
Creating functional processes will be an enormous challenge with a president who revels in the instantaneous and direct communication of social media, who reacts without benefit of counsel, and who does not feel confined by the norms that have guided political life before him. It is exceedingly unlikely that the national security process will be far superior to the president. The Trump interagency will likely be scattershot, with lots of lost opportunities and course corrections. But those are the characteristics of the president’s management style and there is only limited range for good processes to corral the president without him choosing to ignore the process. And the president — every president — deserves a process he is comfortable with that helps him make decisions and then carries them out.
While there are better and worse ways to structure policymaking and execution, the optimal choices for any administration are those that work with the grain of the president’s management style. This is what Peter Feaver was getting at with his recommendation the president select his son-in-law for NSA. While the conditions Dov outlines make a lot of sense, I see no evidence President Trump will honor any such bargains, even if he agrees to them in advance. Nor, perhaps, should he. My best-intentioned advice to the president as he selects his next national security advisor is to choose someone he trusts to shape the process to his liking. It may not be textbook, and it may be rough sailing at the start, but President Trump deserves an interagency process shaped to his mold, rather than vice versa.
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