Shadow Government

Trump’s NSC, State Department, and Pentagon Need to Play Together

Coherent national security strategy is influenced by three key institutional relationships.

US President Donald Trump (C) announces US Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster (L) as his national security adviser and Keith Kellogg (R) as McMaster's chief of staff  at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, on February 20, 2017. / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM        (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (C) announces US Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster (L) as his national security adviser and Keith Kellogg (R) as McMaster's chief of staff at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, on February 20, 2017. / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

So my first piece of Shadow Government advice to President Donald Trump’s administration was to get their National Security Council process and command culture right early. I didn’t know then how dysfunctional both would ultimately turn out to be.

After years of flogging the Obama NSC staff for micromanagement and excessive process, the Pentagon and the State Department now face a dramatically worse situation — zero coherent NSC process and an NSC staff with little influence on the President. In other words, be careful what you wish for. A weak and dysfunctional NSC staff is not in the best interest of the President, the U.S. national security interests or the American people (although it might be in the interest of Steve Bannon). The only upside of the tumultuous first month is that the American people are becoming more acquainted with the importance of a functioning national security process and strong institutions.

Even before all this dystopian drama, there were legitimate questions about how this national security team would function. Would the relationship between the National Security Council staff and the Pentagon improve under President Trump? Would the civilians in the Pentagon and other departments and agencies be eclipsed by a military-heavy national security Cabinet? Would the State Department and the Pentagon cooperate or compete for influence? Faced with ongoing West Wing turmoil, these continue to be very live questions for most national security professionals and those of us watching (and cringing) from the sidelines. With a new National Security Advisor in place, the team now has a real chance to set a positive trajectory.

In recent years, the relationships between the NSC staff, the Pentagon and the State Department were at times strained – the relationship between the NSC staff and the Pentagon probably the most acutely so. In some cases, this was the result of different perspectives between all three institutions on key policy issues (spoiler alert: not abnormal). Yet in my observation, these relationships became unnecessarily frayed because of conflicting personalities, woefully untended institutional relationships and a lack of basic understanding about the role each institution is meant to play in the national security process.

As a former State Department civil servant, then long-time NSC staff member and later a Pentagon official, I became a walking Washington cliché of where you stand depends on where you sit. I saw all sides of it — often defending one side to the other or even myself complaining. However, my experiences reinforced for me the idea that coherent national security strategy is profoundly influenced by three key institutional relationships — between the White House and the Pentagon, between civilians and the military inside the Pentagon, and between the State Department and the Pentagon. What follows are some recommendations for how the Trump team can try to reach a healthy equilibrium in all three.

1. President Trump: Check Your Blind Spot.

We get it. The president values the kind of leadership, decisiveness and confidence that U.S. general and flag officers exude. But they don’t automatically make the best National Security Advisors or Cabinet secretaries. In a National Security Advisor, President Trump needs someone who can operate a transparent and coherent national security process, leverage the talent of the interagency, and manage crisis while still seizing strategic opportunities. And most importantly, the National Security Advisor needs to protect the president and his decision space. Putting aside his Russia problem, Mike Flynn failed at all of the above. Hopefully, Lt. General H.R. McMaster — a strong pick — will succeed.

Yet this over-reliance on military leaders could easily generate a strategic blind spot for the president. In this dynamic global security environment, the president needs a national security team with broad experience. McMaster would be wise to acknowledge this blind spot, and strive to establish a healthy balance between civilian and military leaders such that each respects the role the other has to play, each values different perspectives and each is willing to collaborate to protect U.S. national security interests. Further, he should recruit senior NSC staff with more varied backgrounds and utilize the talented career staff already there.

2. National Security Advisor McMaster: Reduce micromanagement of the Pentagon, but only once a clear, well-developed strategy is in place.

The Pentagon regularly accused the Obama National Security Council staff of micromanagement. The primary complaints being that: 1) more authorities should have been devolved to commanders in the field without NSC staff calling all the tactical plays; 2) that the burdensome interagency process made decisions difficult to reach in a timely way and often of little value once they were reached; and 3) that NSC staff was mucking around unhelpfully in the military chain of command.

The Obama NSC staff will vigorously defend their process, noting that 1) military options — especially those that put U.S. military personnel in harm’s way — need to be well-considered and implemented as part of a larger whole-of-government strategy (measure twice, cut once); 2) that in today’s hyper-connected world, small tactical decisions can have strategic implications; and 3) that there wouldn’t need to be so much NSC micromanagement if the military were presenting options consistent with the broad contours of the President’s policy or guidance.

Both sides were at times right and wrong. But there is a middle ground. The key to reducing NSC micromanagement is to have a clear and well-vetted strategy in place, as well as a regular mechanism for honestly reporting and assessing its results. This is a necessary pre-requisite to any devolution of authorities. Indeed, commanders need and deserve flexibility to manage operations in the field, but they also must have a clear understanding of the right and left boundaries set by the president’s policies and adhere to those policies in the conduct of their campaigns. It is also the job of the National Security Advisor to provide departments and agencies the space to succeed but also to course correct to ensure the President’s agenda stays on track.

With the Trump national security team now in the middle of a major reset, I suspect they are not even close to having fully developed strategies on the major national security challenges facing the United States. (That said, I am also not sure the president has the patience for or interest in serious strategy.) One need only look to the recent Yemen counterterrorism operation that resulted in the death of U.S. Navy Seal William “Ryan” Owens and reportedly many Yemeni civilians to see why a complex operation probably deserves more significant discussion, beyond a brief mention by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs over dinner. This operation should have been brought to the president for decision in the context of an overall strategy in Yemen that took into account risk and mitigated the consequences of failure.

3. Secretary Mattis and National Security Advisor McMaster: Set Basic Ground Rules for Your Staffs.

Friction between the NSC staff and the Pentagon over what constitutes appropriate tasking and engagement with the U.S. military is not a new phenomenon. In 2002, then Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld sent a now infamous missive to then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice titled “Chain of Command” that bluntly complained about what Rumsfeld perceived as inappropriate NSC staff taskings to the Joint Staff and combatant commands. Secretary Bob Gates and Secretary Leon Panetta both openly chafed at similar issues.

But here’s the thing: The NSC establishes contact with the military because it is often critical for the efficient distribution of information and completion of tasks. In order to arrest this trend, the Pentagon needs to reflect more on why this is the case and get its own house in order. The Pentagon, believe it or not, is extremely inefficient at producing quality information for the White House on short timelines. And more often than not, military commanders are happy to have direct relationships with White House staff, much to the chagrin of both Pentagon civilian and military leadership. Likewise, combatant commands would insist on seats at the Deputies and Principals Committee, but then grumble about NSC staff mucking around with their authorities or reaching down into their commands for information.

It is therefore imperative for order in the national security process that the Secretary and the National Security Advisor set some ground rules for their staffs. The Secretary should first communicate his expectations to the civilian and military chains in the Department for how he expects them to interact and share information with the NSC staff, being realistic that business still needs to get done. Likewise, the National Security Advisor should make clear to NSC staff that there indeed is a military chain of command that needs to be respected (but importantly back them up when they are truly acting on behalf of the president).

4. Secretary Mattis: Level the Civ-Mil Playing Field inside the Pentagon.

The civilian-military relationship within the Pentagon is equally important in a healthy dynamic. Unfortunately, this relationship could currently be characterized as strained — at best. In my experience, this is due to friction over fundamental roles and responsibilities between the civilian and military chains, compounded by poor staff connectivity on both sides.

This strain has also been exacerbated by recent public debate about the role of the Chairman, the Joint Staff and the concept of “best military advice” — a somewhat priest-like approach to military strategy and options generation uncontaminated by civilian input. Best military advice is perfectly appropriate and a necessary input to national decision-making. The president obviously deserves to have the unvarnished views of his military commanders, which can actually help sharpen the choices.

But best military advice is not the same thing as best strategy. And it shouldn’t be marketed as such. To produce the best possible strategy, you need to leverage the insights, experience and talent of the military defense civilians and, most importantly, value the healthy friction and interaction between them that produce much stronger outcomes. It was certainly my experience at DoD that we produced the better strategies (and plans) when the Joint Staff, combatant commands, and OSD Policy truly partnered and aligned effort to find solutions to knotty problems.

To this end, Secretary Mattis needs to level the playing field and develop an internal process that gets him the best out of both the civilians and the military. He needs to empower his OSD Policy staff but also demand more from them. That starts with hiring an Under Secretary for Policy (USDP) that he both trusts and has the juice to be his chief civilian strategist. By extension, the role of OSD Policy needs to be refreshed and rebalanced — away from the inbox and towards actual comprehensive policy and strategy development. To promote cross-pollination, he should break with tradition and include his USDP in all his top leadership meetings. He should make clear his assistant secretaries have his imprimatur and not allow the military chain to bypass their role in developing and implementing policy. Finally, the secretary needs to find more civ-mil balance in his own front office. So far, Secretary Mattis has chosen to staff his front office team almost entirely with military officers, including the important role of chief of staff. While this may have been a comfortable move, it also leaves him without anyone with first-hand knowledge of the civilian levers of influence in the building — essential for getting things done and advancing his priorities.

By all early accounts, Secretary Mattis is popular among Pentagon policy civilians. He’s engaging, genuinely interested in their views, and a fast learner. But Pentagon policy civilians are at a distinct disadvantage right now. With no senior policy positions permanently filled, the Joint Staff is reportedly filling the void and stretching its legs. Secretary Mattis would be wise to keep an eye on this dynamic during what is turning out to be a period of extended transition.

5. Secretary Tillerson: Get in the Game (and Become Besties with Mattis).

So far the secretary of State does not appear to be part of the cool kids club. That’s a problem. While it is reasonable to expect that an experienced CEO like Secretary Rex Tillerson has faced worse barriers to entry over the course of his career, he’s going to have to work harder to keep the State Department in the game — and not just as the clean up crew.

Secretary Tillerson first needs to demonstrate his value and the value of his institution to the president. He needs to raise his profile both in Washington and abroad. He needs to get on the road and be the man on the scene. He needs to be in every meeting the president has with a foreign leader (he has been notably absent from several of the president’s foreign counterpart meetings). He needs to insist on weekly one-on-one meetings with the president. And even as he advances the president’s agenda abroad, he needs to find his own foreign-policy voice and use it. Right now, the voice of American foreign policy is either the president’s Twitter account or Sean “Spicey” Spicer.

Secretary Tillerson should also make it a point to become best friends with Secretary Mattis. They need to talk by phone every day, take overseas trips together, schedule regular State-DoD long-term strategy sessions, and pre-coordinate positions before heading into the Situation Room. They need to do whatever it takes to maintain a good relationship at the top of both departments so that trust builds beneath. It also happens to be a very effective way to mitigate dysfunction in the White House.

To further enable State-DoD cooperation, both Secretary Tillerson and Secretary Mattis need to field leadership teams that view each other as partners, not competitors. The Department of Defense’s natural instinct is to flood the zone. This instinct, combined with significantly more resources at its disposal, often leaves the State Department feeling like it needs to play institutional defense. While State-DoD friction is natural and even healthy sometimes, U.S. foreign policy is at its best when State and DoD work hand in glove — whether in the South China Sea or in the fight against the Islamic State. Both secretaries should regularly convene their leadership teams (this need not require the NSC staff) to ensure more effective partnership on our top national security challenges.

Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Kelly Magsamen served as the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs from 2014 to 2017. Prior to joining the Defense Department, Magsamen served on the National Security Council in various positions, most immediately as special assistant to the president and senior director for strategic planning from 2012 to 2014. During her years at NSC, she also served as the director for Iran, from 2008 to 2011; and then as director and senior advisor for Middle East reform in the wake of the Arab Spring, from 2011 to 2012.

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