The president’s instrument, to use, abuse, or ignore
The release a week ago of a Presidential Decision Memo reorganizing the National Security Council and its more recently established Homeland Security counterpart has caused a fair amount of vaporing by Trump critics and the foreign policy establishment.
The memo is largely boiler-plate, reasserting the centrality to national security decision-making of the NSC and the HSC, and directing the National Security Advisor and Homeland Security Advisor respectively to manage their agendas.
What has prompted most of the angst are two changes from immediate past practice. The first change adds the White House chief of staff and the newly established "chief strategist" ó a position created expressly for Trump political adviser Steve Bannon ó to the councils' regular membership.
The inclusion as regular NSC/HSC members of presidential advisers heavily concerned with domestic politics reverses a longstanding, albeit never very convincing, effort to sustain the claim that national security decision-making is above politics ó that politics, in the hackneyed phrase, "stops at the water's edge."
The second change appoints both advisers to the Principals' Committee, the councils' primary cabinet-level working group, while simultaneously removing the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence as regular members, instead making their attendance discretionary.
Since both are statutory advisers to the councils themselves, it's not entirely clear what their deletion from permanent membership on the Principals' Committee really accomplishes. But the optics once again imply a willingness on Mr. Trump's part to substitute political for policy expertise and opinion.
The fulminations prompted by these two changes have been a wee bit over the top. On Sunday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) complained to CBS's Face the Nation, that "I am worried about the National Security Council," calling Bannon's appointment to the NSC ó inaccurately ó a "radical departure from any national security council in history."
Chiming in, former National Security Adviser and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice tweeted that the reorganization was "stone cold crazy." "Chair of Joint Chiefs & DNI are after thoughts [sic] in Cabinet level principals mtgs. And CIA?? Cut out of everything?"
And one-time office-holders from former CIA Director Leon Panetta to former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Robert Gates have worried publicly that excluding the JCS chairman and DNI risks politicizing national security decision-making.
Putting personalities aside ó in fact, it's largely personalities, especially those of NSC adviser Michael Flynn and Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, that worry the foreign policy establishment ó contrary to Sen. McCain's assertion, Mr. Trump's changes are entirely consistent with the history of the NSC.
However uncomfortable it may be to Trump's and especially Flynn's and Bannon's critics, the NSC is and always has been the creature of the president, to be organized, staffed, and employed as he sees fit.
That pattern was set from the very outset by Harry Truman, who, resenting the NSC's statutory imposition as an assault on his prerogatives, largely ignored it. His most important policy decisions, including the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, came out of the State Department's Office of Policy Planning.
In contrast, accustomed to the support of a formal military staff, President Eisenhower turned the NSC into a formidable bureaucracy in its own right. While it assured routine interagency review of major policy issues, critics attacked it as ponderous and inflexible, and successor John F. Kennedy largely dismantled it.
Instead, JFK chose to rely largely on trusted advisers, including his brother Robert. During 1962's Cuban Missile Crisis, he convened an informal body labeled the ExComm, comprising both formal NSC members and a varying stable of political advisers, including White House Counsel Ted Sorenson, Special Assistant Ken O'Donnell, and of course RFK.
Lyndon Johnson was even more cavalier, ultimately relying largely on what became known as the Tuesday Lunch ó an informal Tuesday luncheon meeting originally involving only Secretary of State Dean Rusk, NSC adviser McGeorge Bundy, and his successor Walt Rostow, although eventually expanded to include the press secretary, JCS chairman and CIA director.
Finally, assisted by NSC Adviser Henry Kissinger and having experienced Ike's system, Richard Nixon restored the NSC and its subordinate committees to a central role in policy formulation, coordination, and oversight, one it has retained in greater or lesser measure ever since [Disclosure: I interned on the NSC staff under both Presidents Nixon and Ford).
The point is, the NSC belongs to the president and no one else ó not to Congress, not to the departments, and not to the foreign policy punditry. And presidents will use, abuse or ignore it at their sole discretion.
Critics of last week's reorganization need to adjust their sights. Not process, but policy and its results, are what should concern them. And those won't be the NSC's. They'll be President Trump's, and his alone.