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Can O’Brien Succeed as National Security Advisor?
Maybe, but only if he realizes what his real job is—and if the president lets him do it.
After firing his first three national security advisors, U.S. President Donald Trump has just named a fourth, the most any president has had in his first term. Will Robert O’Brien be any more successful than the previous three? That, of course, depends primarily on his relationship to the president—whether Trump believes he is providing loyal and useful service.
But what, exactly, does the president want him to do? Before naming O’Brien, Trump declared last week that “it’s a great job,” and “it’s very easy, actually, to work with me … because I make all the decisions.” But that doesn’t really provide much guidance for the incoming national security advisor.
Of course, presidents make “all the decisions”—or at least most of the major ones. But since President John F. Kennedy named McGeorge Bundy to the position in 1961, they have engaged national security advisors to serve two primary functions. The first is process management, which includes establishing an orderly flow of information to the Oval Office in a manner consistent with the president’s operating style, bringing all points of view and the requisite expertise to bear when formulating decisions, engaging senior officials so they and the president know one another’s views, communicating the president’s decisions to the broader government, and ensuring these decisions are implemented in the way the president intended.
The second function of national security advisors is to provide the president with their best policy advice. Advisors don’t consider themselves to be just paper pushers or even just process managers. All of them come to the office with points of view on policy, and because these advisors sit closest to the Oval Office, all presidents have wanted to get their advice on important policy issues.
The most successful national security advisors have done both functions, but with an emphasis on the first: process management. In fact, it turns out that managing the process successfully has long been the best way for advisors to achieve the second function: getting their own point of view across to the president. John Bolton, the latest of Trump’s national security advisors to be shown the door, never figured that out. He thought that he could ignore process and just tell the president what to do. Because there was some overlap on policy preferences—getting out of the Iran nuclear deal and other international agreements, emphasizing putting U.S. interests first, unquestioning support for Israel, and taking tough stances on Venezuela and Iran—the lack of process did not matter all that much, at least initially. But when it became clear that Bolton and Trump’s views diverged on some matters, especially on whether to negotiate with or bomb adversaries, Bolton lost the inside track, and others more skillful at playing to the president’s predilections, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, were able to push Bolton aside.
Yet, if this president doesn’t want advisors with strong policy views, it is equally clear that he has little interest in an advisor skilled at managing the process. For that was exactly what H.R. McMaster, Trump’s second national security advisor, had set out to do. McMaster focused on creating a textbook national security process. He worked issues through an interagency process consisting of working-, deputy-, and cabinet-level committees bringing all relevant views and expertise into the process. Differences were hashed out, options debated and defined, and decision papers prepared for presidential review. But Trump has no interest in process, textbook or otherwise. He is comfortable with informal Oval Office meetings and will often reach out to interlocutors on Capitol Hill and friends on the outside to gauge their reactions, and then make his decisions—which, if they don’t work out for him, he easily reverses. McMaster never caught on and therefore failed to adapt the process to serve this particular president, as all advisors need to do.
O’Brien has the advantage of knowing what doesn’t work with Trump—neither too much formal process nor being too pushy in policy advocacy. He brings real, if modest, qualifications to the job. He has served in Republican presidential campaigns. He has written a book of short essays, While America Slept, which targets the Obama administration’s foreign policy. He was an alternate delegate to the United Nations and, more recently, was Trump’s negotiator for release of hostages. And he has apparently developed a positive relationship with the president, which is one key to success. He also has a personal style that is the opposite of Bolton’s—collaborative rather than confrontational—which will serve him well in managing the process.
Still, it will be an uphill struggle for O’Brien to have a significant, constructive impact within the Trump administration.
The president likes him, but it is unclear whether he will allow O’Brien to be more than an errand boy—doing discrete tasks for the president but unable to engage consistently at the senior level. Outside critics believe, overwhelmingly, that Trump needs a more orderly process, one that responds to his instincts but broadens his focus and avoids ignoring key on-the-ground facts that will determine whether a policy initiative can succeed. Trump’s track record on this score leaves much to be desired. The president is willful, convinced he knows all he needs to know. And he will resist working within a formal structure, even one designed to mesh with his personal style.
But the president isn’t likely to be the only problem O’Brien will have in his new role. He will also need the cooperation of other senior policy officials, above all the secretary of state. The firing of Bolton solidified Pompeo’s position as the president’s primary foreign-policy advisor. Few will have missed his Cheshire cat’s grin at a press conference shortly after Bolton’s departure was announced, in which he repeatedly stressed his policy differences with the national security advisor.
Having won one battle with a national security advisor, Pompeo isn’t likely to tolerate dissension or contrary advice from another. Indeed, Pompeo is said to have pushed hard for O’Brien’s appointment after Trump reportedly dismissed the idea of making the secretary of state his national security advisor as well. Unless Pompeo takes O’Brien’s role seriously, the national security advisor will find himself off to one side, at best, when Pompeo deals directly with Trump on important matters.
The broader question is whether Trump knows he needs to support and strengthen the aides who serve him. That’s crucial for ultimate policy success. But it’s a tall order for any president to recognize what he needs.
In 1939, an expert advisory committee declared in a report, “The president needs help.” Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized this need, and the result was a revolution in public management: the Executive Office of the President. Today’s National Security Council operates within this broad institution to assist the president in executing his mandate. Trump, too, needs help, but it is far from clear that he will ever recognize that need.
Ivo H. Daalder is the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.