The NSC Is Broken……And, It’s Time To Fix It



…and it’s time to fix it.

– Mark Safranski
http://www. WORLD.html
American presidents, particularly in their second term, tend to emphasize foreign and defense
affairs in establishing their legacy because it is where our political system and the Constitution
give them the greatest freedom of action. Success or failure here for their administration
emanates from two distinct but related areas: formulating good, effective, policy ideas and
secondly, policy execution by strategy and implementation with our allies and adversaries.
Lacking good policies, an administration is simply a caretaker government on autopilot;
lacking competent execution, good policies will be frustrated, then discredited and potential
opportunities lost. The primary tool the POTUS has to see his foreign policies carried out is
the National Security Council and the inter-agency process it supervises; while membership of
the NSC was set into law in 1947, every president is free to establish and staff the national
security decision making process that suits them best. Unfortunately, this means that while
every president gets exactly the NSC he wants, too few of them get the one they most need or

The most effective historical model of the NSC so far is the “honest broker” format used first
by Dwight Eisenhower and then again by the elder George Bush. Issues and options are
developed by the departments of State, Defense, Treasury and the intelligence community
and are staffed at successive inter-agency levels before reaching the full NSC, chaired by the
POTUS. The role of the National Security Adviser in this model is to ensure that the President
receives a full airing of views, criticism and clear options for action and then is the enforcer
who ensures the government bureaucracies carry out the president’s policies and orders. The
primary weakness of this model is that the heavy reliance on State Department and Defense
bureaucrats to generate options means that the president will seldom see any options that
challenge conventional wisdom or represent creative solutions.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the “no structure” NSC model used initially by John
Kennedy and Bill Clinton and later abandoned by both (Reagan’s NSC also had slipped into
this mode in the run-up to the Iran-Contra scandal under Bud McFarlane and Admiral
Poindexter). Here there is no or a very dysfunctional formal inter-agency process, the
President deals with various NSC principals like the Secretary of State one on one or calls
random groups of staff and cabinet officers together ad hoc to discuss whatever the president
deems important. The National Security Adviser in this model is only as influential as their
personal relationship with the president (leading to courtier-like behavior) and while this
system tends to initially maximize authority personally in the president’s hands, it has ultimately
descended into complete chaos, precipitating or aggravating a foreign policy crisis. While the
president may receive more frequent unconventional policy ideas from an unstructured
format, execution dramatically suffers as coordination, organization and follow through
become extremely difficult or impossible.

A third model that has produced very mixed results is the “Operational NSC” used by Richard
Nixon, Jimmy Carter and for periods of time, by Ronald Reagan. Here the NSC is expected to
generate original policy alternatives for the President in competition with the departments of
State and Defense and sometimes the CIA. The National Security Adviser in this model is very
powerful, often becoming a rival to the Secretary of State or even, in the case of Henry
Kissinger, a kind of deputy president. This model centralizes power in the White House staff
and has helped produced several diplomatic triumphs, including the opening to China, nuclear
arms control treaties and the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Unfortunately, with
regularity it also produces a tremendous amount of bureaucratic infighting, damaging leaks to
the press, gaffes with foreign leaders due to incomplete staffing and the increasing isolation of
the president from outside or contrary views or information by a staff drunk on a siege

The news at present is buzzing with the furor over the invitation to Israeli Prime Minister
Netanyahu by Speaker of the House John Boehner to address a joint meeting of Congress,
which blindsided the White House.. The week before, it was the wholly inexplicable decision of
the White House to send no high level representative to Paris to stand in solidarity with world
leaders – almost all of America’s key allies were present- against Islamist terrorism after the
massacre at Charlie Hebdo magazine. Before that it was mixed signals and a lack of strategy
to deal with ISIS. Before that it was conflict with Chancellor Merkel over a variety of issues from
the NSA spying on her phone calls to how the EU, NATO and the U.S. should react to Russian
intervention in Ukraine. Before that it was a series of balls dropped with leaders of Japan,
Australia, Canada, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Regardless of whether you agree or
disagree with the substance of specific administration policies in each case, the execution was
poor and it is hard to escape the conclusion that President Obama is not being well served by
his staff. No president suddenly gets this unlucky with such consistency in so many places
around the world without key aides being part of the problem. A big part.

Furthermore, no president, not even the highly secretive Richard Nixon, can run a one-man
foreign policy (though Nixon, it must be said, certainly tried) nor should President Obama be
expected to do so. The Obama administration is closest to using the “Operational NSC” model,
which worked relatively well during the first term. While not friction-free, Leon Panetta, Robert
Gates, Hillary Clinton, John Brennan and several others were very experienced senior officials
and political heavyweights accustomed to working closely with the Oval Office who were able
to counterbalance the excessive influence of a relatively junior White House staff whose
primary experience was and remains domestic politics. No such check and balance exists
today. Brennan departed his post as counter-terrorism adviser to the President to head the
CIA, Hillary Clinton left to prepare to run for president, while Panetta and Gates returned to
private life. When the dean of the American foreign policy community, Leslie Gelb, the
respected former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Democrat who is no
conservative, called for the firing and replacement of the entire senior White House staff, it
was unprecedented but not surprising. A staff that cannot get little things like a photo-op right
are not of the caliber to serve the president in questions of war and peace.

The operational model of NSC that Obama has chosen to use to formulate and implement his
foreign policy can work well, but it requires an “A team” staff led by a formidable intellect, like
Zbigniew Brzezinski or Henry Kissinger. It cannot be done with a gaggle of former campaign
aides, speechwriters, ex-journalists and inexperienced academics on university leave any
more than a division III college football team can play in the Superbowl. The good news is that
the Democrats have developed a stronger national security bench in recent decades of
talented former officials who could be brought in to help – indeed, one of the few bright spots
lately is the nomination of the cerebral Ashton Carter to replace the ineffectual Chuck Hagel
as Secretary of Defense. Likewise, a decade and a half of war and crisis have tested the
mettle of a cohort of deputy and assistant secretaries and senior civil servants at the
Pentagon and State who are ready to move up, if the President chooses to ask.

It is not too late for President Obama to have the national security team he deserves and from
that, all Americans will benefit.

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