As Congress marches toward major defense reforms in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, one area receiving increasing attention is the National Security Council (NSC). The narrative surrounding President Obama’s NSC has been shaped by biting criticisms of micromanagement in the operations of the Departments of Defense and State and indecision on major national security issues. As some have noted, the NSC has long been the preferred punching bag for foreign policy spectators over the last half century. However, the chorus of criticism has seemed to peak more recently, manifesting in proposed legislation.
The House (HASC) and Senate Armed Services Committees’ (SASC) bills both include caps on the size of the NSC’s staff. Offered as an amendment by Chairman Mac Thornberry, the House version would impose a 100-person staff limit, above which the appointment of the National Security Advisor (NSA) would be subject to Senate confirmation. Seeking to circumscribe the role of the NSA to function as advisory rather than operational, the text would offer the next administration a stark choice between drawing down the NSC’s staff significantly or subjecting the NSA to a tedious confirmation process. Alternatively, the Senate’s language (Sec. 1089) caps the NSC staff size at 150. If imposed, either limit would require the divestment of more than half of the body’s staff, with recent estimates putting its current size around 400. Purportedly, shrinking the NSC with staff cuts would limit its ability to permeate facets of the policymaking process it ought to be avoiding and increase the relative influence of executive branch agencies. The NSC would then be forced to limit its scope to an advisory capacity, offering strategic planning advice for the president, and avoiding entanglement with the day-to-day operations of the agencies.
Given the short shrift NSC reform received in the SASC’s series of fall hearings on reexamining the Goldwater-Nichols Act –– which jumpstarted the reform agenda –– it’s worth taking a quick stock of the impetus for reform. Many have highlighted the tremendous growth in staff members from 50 during the time of Brent Scowcroft’s idealized NSC of President George H.W. Bush’s administration to the 400 of today. With the growth of staff size over time, successive administrations have expanded the NSC’s mission, moving beyond simply facilitating principals meetings and providing discreet strategic advice. Staffers now regularly find themselves immersed in minute technical details, circumventing agency heads to ask questions of operators in the field, and contributing to an ever-expanding churn of work for staffs across the executive branch.
Several former cabinet level officials and senior military leaders have made scathing remarks on the functioning of Obama’s NSC. All three former secretaries of defense in the Obama Administration prior to Secretary Carter have criticized the modern NSC. Robert Gates recalled that, “it was micromanagement that drove me crazy,” and suggested that field commanders respond to inquiries from NSC staffers with “call me instead, and then tell them, oh, by the way, go to hell.” Leon Panetta noted that since there is growing, “centralization of authority at the White House, there are too few voices that are being heard.” … Chuck Hagel decried endless NSC meetings that would last for hours, miss the forest for the trees, and frequently end without decisive conclusions. At a public event this past spring, former Central Command Commander Admiral Bill Fallon reflected that the NSC has begun to delve into, “far too much detail and meddling, frankly, in each and every issue,” and former Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Norton Schwartz agreed that the current situation presents a “fundamental dysfunction.” The recent blowup over the New York Times’ fawning piece on the deputy national security advisor for strategic communication Ben Rhodes has only added fuel to the fire.
This narrative of an unruly NSC has also taken hold in the mind of the public. As a part of the broad stream of research the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ International Security Program has done on defense reform, we conducted a public survey. The survey revealed that respondents generally felt that most institutions within the Department of Defense wielded appropriate influence commensurate with corresponding responsibilities, including the Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Combatant Commanders, Service Chiefs, and Service Secretaries. On the other hand, the NSC was rated as having far too much strength in the policy process. Respondents tended to believe the NSC staff was larger than necessary, to a greater magnitude than other bodies. These opinions held constant across the demographic groups surveyed, including respondents with Hill, government, military, and other experience.
It is hard to argue with this confluence of public and expert opinion. However, the necessity for radically reorienting the NSC does not in itself warrant a legislative solution. First, there is certainly merit in providing the president the flexibility of organizing his or her own national security advisory body how he or she sees fit. Since its foremost responsibility is providing advice on international security issues to the president, the NSC is and should remain fundamentally shaped, scoped, and directed by the president. In this sense, Ivo Daalder and I.M. Destler have written “national security advisors can only be as effective and successful as presidents enable them to be.” Some presidents set themselves up for success by achieving the right formula for their NSC’s involvement in their decisionmaking processes and establishing a trusting relationship with the NSA. Entering office as arguably the most prepared president for the job in history, Bush empowered Scowcroft to be an objective, neutral facilitator of advice and debate. Others have been far less successful. Despite being remembered as the president who won the Cold War, President Reagan went through four NSAs over his eight years, with each failing to productively run the NSC, culminating in the disastrous Iran-Contra scandal. The relationship between a president and an NSA is built on trust, in support of the president’s own decisionmaking process, which is something that simply cannot be legislated.
Second, there are a litany of practical complications that severely hamstring Congress’ ability to effectively litigate NSC reform. When it comes to requiring the confirmation of the NSA, it’s unclear which committee should be granted oversight responsibility. There are also serious concerns related to congressional regulation of executive branch activities in Article II of the Constitution. While the courts would almost certainly avoid intervention on the ground of the political question, doctrine, or other procedural grounds, the strength of the executive branch’s argument is quite persuasive in the court of public opinion. Effective enforcement of the cap also cannot be taken for granted considering the budget and creative staffing games executive branch bureaucrats are experienced in playing, especially when congressional interest in the subject wanes or political incentives shift.
Finally, there’s an uneasy tension between the vogue realization of the day –– that national security threats are growing in number and complexity –– and kneecapping the organization currently charged with coordinating the interagency apparatus. One can be persuaded that the modern NSC is not operating optimally or even that it’s substantial influence is having serious adverse effects on policy outcomes, but merely cutting its staff size without fully accounting for all of the functions it is currently performing and what may be necessary to fill in for it seems reckless. This concern at least warrants more study before requiring austere staff cuts.
Despite the dubious premise of a Republican-controlled Congress passing a draconian restriction on the NSC in the eighth year of a Democratic administration before a November election that has some Republicans concerned about their chances and their candidate, NSC reform proposals are stirring a productive debate. How should the next president seek to organize their NSC? What type of NSA best lines up with his or her preferred decisonmaking style? The next president will have the requisite latitude to remake the NSC how he or she sees fit; cutting staff size and narrowing the scope of the NSC’s role seem like wise choices. It is better for the candidates to ask themselves these questions early and often, rather than muddle through a transition period, just to be overcome by the crisis of the day once in office. A robust well-managed national security decisionmaking process facilitated, but not driven by, a deft and agile NSC would go a long way toward improving national security outcomes.
Colin McElhinny is program coordinator and research assistant in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is an M.A. candidate at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, and he holds a B.S. in economics and political science from the University of Mary Washington.
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Header Image: President Obama meets with the National Security Council in the Situation Room of the White House on Thursday in Washington. (AP Photo/The White House, Pete Souza)