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Bolton Leaves the National Security Council in Ruins
The former Trump advisor helped trash the institution—but the process began long before he was hired.
After his spectacular firing on Tuesday, former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton is getting credit—if that’s the word—for taking the entire decision-making structure of U.S. national security policy down with him. “The NSC [National Security Council] is no more, there is no process,” a former White House official told New Yorker reporter Susan Glasser.
Earlier this year, Glasser’s colleague Dexter Filkins documented the decline of the process, which his interlocutors also blamed on Bolton, talking of chaos, a completely broken down system, and a total lack of priorities.
Principals’ meetings—crucial gatherings involving the President, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the heads of intelligence agencies—have become rare. “I don’t remember the last time there was a fucking principals’ meeting,” the official said.
But if the U.S. national security process is the corpse in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, stabbed to death by (spoiler alert) multiple hands, Bolton is only the most recent member of this administration to stick a knife in it. In policy areas including Iraq, Afghanistan, atrocity prevention, and trade policy, Beltway dwellers have been hearing from friends and former colleagues inside government almost since President Donald Trump’s first weeks that structures and procedures were going by the wayside.
The stories have become more public and almost too numerous to track. Some are just odd violations of tradition—why would Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, rather than a Pentagon official, travel to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to meet the body of a service member fallen in Afghanistan? Others, such as allegations that at different times both Bolton and Trump avoided working with civilian defense officials and instead went directly to uniformed officers with briefing or policy requests, are more serious. Former Defense Department and NSC official Loren DeJonge Schulman writes that it is “unclear what role senior civilian defense officials even played” in the planning, and then the aborting, of a military strike on Iran in June.
Plenty of critics suggest that this doesn’t really matter. In the six decades of the National Security Council’s existence, they note, some presidents relied on it more, others less. “The system quickly snapped back into place,” the Marine Corps University professor and Army veteran James Joyner argues, “when their successors wanted a more structured approach.”
Others make a results argument: The NSC process didn’t prevent quagmires in Iraq or Vietnam, didn’t produce a workable way to win the peace in Afghanistan or Libya, didn’t protect American workers from the China trade shock, didn’t prevent genocides in Rwanda or Syria. Maybe the United States didn’t need it anyway.
John Gans, a historian of the NSC process, frames the alternative as President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who described himself as a “juggler” and who “liked to keep his options open and just about everyone else — military leaders, diplomats, Congress, even Vice President Harry Truman — in the dark.”
It’s immediately obvious why that approach might appeal to Trump, who likes his team to fight one another like gladiators… or The Apprentice contestants. It’s less obvious why anyone acquainted with history would think it was a good idea. First, there’s the little matter of how Roosevelt’s obfuscations affected Harry S. Truman, who had no idea the United States had built a working atomic bomb until Roosevelt’s death left him president.
Then there’s the sheer size of the national security establishment. The U.S. military counts more than 2 million people under arms, active duty plus reserves. Roosevelt had 16 million serving during World War II—but the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a Roosevelt innovation that ran the war, was then a White House agency. Even in its current decline, the State Department manages more than 250 overseas posts, many with representation from as many as 40 U.S. government agencies. Then there’s the intelligence community, 17 agencies with something like 890,000 employees with top-secret or higher clearances. Together those agencies are trying to prevent and win wars, create jobs at home and sell goods abroad, and protect Americans when they travel and the image of America that foreigners have.
It’s nonsense to suggest all of that complexity can be managed without a strong interagency process. And it’s naive to imagine that the breakdown in process is limited to the complaints about meetings that we’ve heard. After all, many of the participants—even those kicked unceremoniously out of office by Trump—have kept quiet about what they’ve seen.
At the Pentagon, Schulman and two former Pentagon colleagues have highlighted process changes and lapses that add up to a significant decline in civilian oversight. Retired intelligence officials worry that the community is demoralized, leading to “rote production” of intelligence in the near term and a loss of talent in the long term. Meanwhile, there’s more leakage between the functions normally reserved for intelligence agencies and those carried out by policy agencies.
For example, as Trump’s team debated whether or not to strike Iran, news reports indicated that CIA Director Gina Haspel had explicitly “favored” a strike—a surprising departure from the expectation that intelligence officials bring information but do not make policy. And in the other direction, the Financial Times reported that State Department Iran envoy Brian Hook used his official phone number and email in an attempt to bribe a Persian Gulf ship’s captain—something that would normally be approved at fairly senior levels and then left for intelligence operatives to implement. The State Department itself has suffered through a major loss of the senior talent that knew how to work the interagency process and promote the department’s interests—as well as how to conduct the actual business of diplomacy.
The decay of norms, the rise of unaccountable fiefdoms, the discounting of civilian oversight, the loss of senior talent, and the collapse of recruitment for new talent—none of those issues is solved by a president with a different process or, for that matter, a different ideology.
But, likewise, nostalgia for prior processes is not the answer, either. The Obama administration’s NSC process had plenty of bipartisan critics for its length and complexity. The movement of power from the agencies to the White House, for that matter, accelerated under President Barack Obama but had been underway for decades.
Kori Schake, a veteran of the White House and the Defense and State Departments, points out that the original NSC process was designed not for efficiency but for political buy-in—to ensure that various cabinet figures, representing important interests and factions in U.S. political life, were comfortable with vital decisions on war and peace. Obtaining political buy-in from key members of his coalition is also vitally important to Trump, but he has little interest in using formal structures to do it. The hiring, firing and Twitter-shaming of Bolton all represent parts of Trump’s coalition-management toolkit as he balances between more and less interventionist wings of the Republican Party. This is a personalized model of power that has at least as much in common with Joseph Stalin’s Politburo as with the NSC run by Brent Scowcroft under President Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush.
The National Security Council hasn’t necessarily functioned well as a political tool in the post-Cold War era, either. So its would-be reformers, whether they are Democrats vying for the presidential nomination or, who knows, Republicans angling to be Bolton’s successors, have their own dilemmas to consider.:
In an age of exponentially rising complexity, the NSC needs a model that does not result in exponentially rising staff and budgets. It must return the power of action closer to the field—as contemporary management strategy proposes in an age of complexity—but also maintain presidential power. It must allow both executive branch employees as well as members of Congress tasked with oversight to monitor highly technical and highly classified endeavors.
Finally, a truly renovated NSC process would acknowledge and work with, rather than against, the coalition politics of our times. It is no accident that Trump’s trade and economic officials fight so viciously in public—insiders and advocates alike will tell you off the record that such fights have been avoided in prior administrations of both parties because meetings were structured for some interests to win and others to lose. If you want to know what a president truly prioritizes—climate? jobs? special forces?—see who gets airtime in National Security Council meetings. The collapse of the process under Trump will make it easier to judge his would-be successors on what they prioritize—and, as we watch how he chooses to run his own circus, give us an unvarnished sense of what he values as well.