A team of Generals: Donald Trump’s National Security Council

The past week’s media cycle has been dominated by the news of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Now the announcement of his replacement, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, keeps the attention on the National Security Council (NSC). Beyond the high-profile replacement of a National Security Advisor, however, the NSC has undergone some significant changes during the transition, and these will have a significant impact on the function and identity of the most important bodies for determining U.S. foreign policy.

Shortly after each new administration takes office, each President issues a memorandum to Cabinet heads and top White House officials titled “The Organization of the National Security Council.” Beyond a paragraph detailing the new naming conventions for these memoranda (the Trump administration replaced the Obama-era “Presidential Policy Directives” [PPDs] and “Presidential Study Directives” [PSDs] categories with the name “National Security Presidential Memoranda” [NSPM]), this memorandum structures the National Security Council and decides who gets an invite to which meetings.

The Trump Administration’s memo, released on January 28, caused an uproar by including “the Assistant to the President and Chief Strategist,” the role created for Steve Bannon, in both the Principal’s Committee (the secondmost senior forum) and the National Security Council itself. The addition of Bannon troubled many, both for his controversial stances and the inclusion of another appointed advisor, one who faces no Senate confirmation and whose role has yet to be untangled from that of the Chief of Staff, who also sits on the NSC and the Principal’s Committee.

Role overlap and a lack of distinction between authority is perennially one of the most confounding challenges for the NSC. In a sense, this conflict is built into the body, it has both Cabinet-level Secretaries as well as White House Officials with similar purviews. Consider, for example, the presence the Ambassador to the United Nations and the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State technically outranks the UN Ambassador, but the UN Ambassador answers directly to the President and both sit on the NSC. Every iteration of the NSC has some confusion, but the utility of this has shifted from the Truman era, where the NSC was focused on shaping and coordinating the national security agenda, to the present-day, wherein the NSC has increasingly focused on its own implementation of policy. Regardless the Trump administration is doing itself no favors by adding an intrinsically confusing role to the body.

The addition of Bannon does, however, reveal an insight to Trump’s widely-reported management style of cultivating rivalries among his subordinates- a curious reading of Doris Kearns Goodwin. The NSC Memorandum also provides a glimpse of the foreign policy direction the Administration will follow.

Several additional features stand out from the memo, which generally borrowed its language and structure from the Obama Administration’s PPD-1 (which in turn borrowed a strong degree from Bush’s NSPD-1, which looked to Clinton, etc.). First, the Ambassador to the United Nations, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Director of National Intelligence are no longer automatically on the Principal’s Committee, but rather “may attend as appropriate” or “shall attend where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed.” In the upcoming Administration, the United Nations, the Intelligence Community, and the Military are all starting with a handicap, and will have to fight to get their issues to the table.

In a similar vein, the space that the Deputy Secretary of State filled on the Principal’s Committee, has been replaced by Chief of Staff of the NSC as “Executive Secretary.” This change muscles out a voice of the diplomats for another NSC official, consolidating more power within the White House. Additionally, the Executive Secretary, currently held by Keith Kellogg, who briefly served as interim National Security Advisor, has absorbed most of the functions of the Deputy National Security Advisor. Not only does the Executive Secretary sit on the Principal’s Committee, but the paper-preparing and conclusion-drawing for the Deputies Committee is now their prerogative as opposed to belonging to the DNSA under Obama. The Executive Secretary also serves as the NSC point person for the “Policy Coordination Committees,” which are “the main day-to-day fora for interagency coordination of national security policies.” The chairship of all of these committees belongs to the NSC, under the White House roof; matching Obama’s centralized structure of the NSC rather than Bush’s, who had a mix of White House personnel and Secretaries chairing the equivalent committees.

As the influence, and controversy, of Ben Rhodes’ position as Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications proves, the power to determine what will be discussed and what was said in the meeting is one of the most potent forces in administration (this understanding of influence is not unique to Ben Rhodes- recall Stalin’s transformation of the office of “General Secretary”). And now, what are effectively the top two most influential positions in the National Security Council, to the detriment of Deputy National Security Advisor K.T. McFarland, the National Security Advisor and the Chief of Staff for the NSC/Executive Secretary, are both held by former Generals.

The Trump Administration’s tapping of generals for these top positions, as well as Cabinet spots, will undoubtedly shape the function and identity of the NSC, but it will also raise unique questions. Every new NSC must define its role, every new NSC grapples with the balance of operation versus strategy. McMaster and Kellogg have proven themselves as brilliant operational minds, but will they be able to shape a coherent national security strategy? With an council full of contradictory worldviews, and a lack of a clear strategy from the Executive, the staff of the NSC, especially McMaster and Kellogg, will have their work cut out for them.

(featured image by Jenna Ndjon

Bryan Burgess is a Junior at the College of William & Mary and is the Managing Editor of the Monitor Journal of International Studies. He may be reached at bvburgess@email.wm.edu 

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