Reforming the National Security Council: What's Necessary?

Thursday, January 5, 2017
Bill M. Sanders/U.S. Navy

Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations; Former Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Planning, National Security Council (via videoconference) 

I. M. Destler

Saul Stern Professor of Civic Engagement, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland

Ivo H. Daalder

President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs; Former Director of European Affairs, National Security Council 

Karen J. DeYoung

Associate Editor and Senior National Security Correspondent, Washington Post

Experts discuss potential reforms to the National Security Council.

DEYOUNG: Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting on “Reforming the National Security Council.” And I’d also like to welcome the members around the country and the world listening via livestream. I’m Karen DeYoung and I write about national security for The Washington Post. But most importantly, we’re fortunate today to have as our speakers three people who have both personal and academic experience in the national security sphere, and specifically in how the National Security Council operates.

Ambassador Robert Blackwill joins us via video from Council headquarters in New York, where he is a Henry Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy. He’s worked multiple times on NSC staffs, most recently as NSC deputy for strategic planning under George W. Bush. And as you can see in his lengthy biography in the program, Ambassador Blackwell has also had a long and distinguished career as a diplomat, an academic, and an author of books and papers on virtually every area of foreign policy.

Ivo Daalder became president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2013, after more than four years as the Obama administration’s ambassador to NATO. Before his government service, he was a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he specialized in American foreign policy and the transatlantic relationship.

Mac Destler, to my right, teaches public policy at the University of Maryland and has advised presidents and secretaries of state on economic and foreign policy, and held senior research positions at some of our most distinguished think tanks.

He has authored a lot of books, including with Ambassador Daalder, one that is particularly pertinent to our conversation here today. “In the Shadow of the Oval Office,” published in 2009, was the culmination of a decade of work that they did together, including the compilation of oral histories of officials who served on the NSC staff and related agencies of presidents from JFK to George W. Bush. The book itself is a historical analysis of national security advisors who served those presidents, what they did, how they did it, and their recommendations for how the role should be undertaken. I think it’s work that’s been invaluable to many, certainly in many position, and probably for many of yours.

So, with that, let’s get started. As you know, this session is on the record. We’ll talk for a bit among ourselves and then we’ll open the floor to questions.

So our title today is “Reforming the NSC,” and that assumes that it needs reform. I have to say, that the need to change the way it operates as a new administration takes over is not in and of itself a new concept. Under Jimmy Carter, some thought the national security advisor was too powerful. Under Ronald Reagan, the NSC was seen as disorganized and too operational. Too weak under George W. Bush. Too big and powerful under Barack Obama.

So I’d like to start with Ambassador Blackwill. You’ve worked for a number of National Security Councils and presidents. What it is that makes a good national security advisor, and an effective, smooth-running NSC?

BLACKWILL: Well, good morning, everybody. And good to be with you.

Well, let me put it like this. I think many in Washington and in the audience would regard the model for national security advisor as Brent Scowcroft. And so—and I worked for Brent. So let me just say, how did Brent do the job? Well, first of all, the national security advisor obviously has to have a close relationship with the president, has to have a temperament that is congenial to the president. He doesn’t necessarily, by the way, have to know the president when he takes his position as national security advisor. Curiously, Henry Kissinger had had one five-minute meeting with Richard Nixon at a cocktail party before he was offered the job. So—but he certainly over time has to have that relationship.

Second—and of course we assume he has to be very smart. But second, it’s a big management job because getting before the president decisions he needs to make, and then being sure the decisions he makes are implemented is a big management job. And some of the NSC advisors who haven’t done all that well because they concentrated on their substantive advice to the president at the expense of their management role.

And third, and this may even be the most important, he has to have a temperament, a non-disputatious temperament, if I have to put it—if I have to put it like that, because he needs to be—or she—needs to be able instinctively to be fair-minded in presenting options to the president. Of course, the president, at least in my experience, will usually ask the NSC advisor, well, what do you think? But that’s after the NSC advisor, at best—and this was certainly Brent—would present to the president in a fair-minded way the various options that various members of the Cabinet supported.

So just to conclude, this is a very tough and challenging job. And it’s because of that that I suppose two-thirds of the national security advisors since the Kennedy years have actually failed in their—in their job and have been replaced or quit.

DEYOUNG: In addition to the personality of the national security advisor, obviously the structure is very important. And one of the first things every administration has done in the last half-century is to produce a document right at the beginning talking about how national security policymaking will be structured, how the process is going to work. I know, Ivo, you participated in that process for President Obama. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how that works and how important it is.

DAALDER: So in part, in order to the job in the way that Bob has described it, you need to have a process and an organization that facilitates that—particularly that last point, the ability to understand what other people in other agencies think, and then how to present what they think in an objective and trust-fulfilling manner to the president. And over the course of the last 50 years, the way in which that process has been put together by presidents has changed, except that since Brent Scowcroft in 1989, actually coming out of a commission report that he chaired as a result of the Iran-Contra affair, we’ve had a relatively similar kind of structure, a structure where you have a principals committee that is chaired by the national security advisor, and whose members are all the members of the National Security Council, minus the president and sometimes the vice president.

And so you have these senior Cabinet figures coming together on a regular basis, chaired by the president’s national security advisor. You then have the Deputies Committee, which is the number-twos in most of the departments, sometimes the number-three depending on what department you’re talking about, that is trying to manage the process almost on a day-to-day basis, and is the crisis management facilitator. And then, third, you have—and this is where it changes from administration to administration—you sort of have the assistant secretary level interagency working groups, which get renamed under every president because, you know, that’s the president’s prerogative. So currently the Interagency Policy Committees, IPCs, that it sometimes gets shared by departments and sometimes get shared by the NSC. There’s always a big fight about that issue, on whether the department gets to chair it.

Over time, the reality is because the central mechanism is in the White House, it tends to be chaired by the NSC. So even the Obama administration, where initially there was in the—in the—what was it called—PSD 1, the first memorandum by the president that laid out the interagency process, there was some thought being given at the State Department, either chairing or co-chairing some of the regional IPCs. That’s never happened. Was pretty much abandoned pretty early on, for one simple reason. The assistant secretaries who were supposed to chair those meetings aren’t actually confirmed until six, seven months into an administration. So somebody’s got to do the job. And the person in the NSC is going to be there on day one because they don’t have to be confirmed—assuming that they have been appointed, they will be there on day one.

So that’s—those are the big—those are the big decisions that you make. And for every administration, the question is: Do we have the same process, or do we have a different process of interagency management? I would—I would suggest that that’s one part that does not need reform. It can work. There’s a question about how many meetings you do, and how frequently they are, and how you run them. That is actually less a process—or, an organizational one, but more a process question. And then there is the larger issue, which we may want to get into later, what is the competence that the NSC covers vis-à-vis all the other issues that are out there, whether it’s international economic issues or counterterrorism issues or homeland security issues. And that, of course, is an issue that is right now being debated within the Trump transition team.


DESTLER: Bob and Ivo have done an admirable job of setting forth both the role of the national security advisor and the structure—the formal structure that has developed and has persisted for the last, I guess, we’re talking 30 years now, 1986, 1987. But, of course, driving a lot of this, and sometimes distorting it, is the development of the role of the president and the relationship of the president to the national security advisor. And these—we have a book we could recommend to look at that.

But basically, what I’ll say is this has varied enormously from president to president, and it often defeats the dreams of reformers. As an example, right at the beginning of the Obama administration there was perhaps an unusual amount of ferment in the national security community, wanting to improve the process. Impressive reports were—multi-hundred page reports were written. Big structure. A lot of people wanted to return to the way President Eisenhower ran the NSC back in the 1950s, which had a fair amount to recommend it.

The only problem was, number—and apparently General Jones, the first Obama national security advisor, had some interest in this. However, essentially the president did not. And the president and General Jones never hit it off in the sense—I mean, he respected General Jones. General Jones respected and admired the president, and all this, but they never hit it off in terms of a day-to-day policy management relationship. And the people who were—who had worked for Obama for a long time, the political aides, the policy aides in the White House, essentially jumped into the vacuum and got—as well as the then-deputy, Tom Donilon, who essentially did a lot of the national security advisor job until that was changed.

So you find episodes where the structure is one way and the personal relationships don’t work out. And therefore they get—and it’s—since the president is dominant—how, we are all particularly recognizing that right now, with a somewhat unusual president about to take office. But the point I would make is for every president there is—there are idiosyncrasies, there are different style preferences. And then tend to shape how the process operates.

DEYOUNG: Before we go to the specifics of what’s happening now, I wanted to talk a little bit about the size of the NSC staff. Brent Scowcroft said that his was about 50 people and he thought that was just about right. But it’s pretty much doubled in every administration since then, to the point where you had more than 400 people working on the NSC staff in the Obama White House. Arguably, many of those were not policy people. They need a lot more technicians than they used to. There’s an administrative staff. But there were a lot of policy people there.

The administration has said it’s worked to make it smaller. And in fact, Congress has moved with legislation in the NDAA this year to mandate. Some argument over whether they actually have the power to do that. But anyway, they’ve done it in legislation, that it can’t be more than 200 people. How important is that? I mean, does size dictate function? Does function dictate size? Is it—does it make a big difference?

DESTLER: Let me jump in on that, and then Ivo will also, and maybe Bob.

At the very—on the very top handful of issues, probably not very much, because those are handled by the president and the chief people—the secretaries, the deputy secretaries, and so forth. What I think—where I think it does matter is on a lot of other issues. Most of these—if you have a couple hundred policy people, which the Obama had—administration had, until at least near the end of the administration—most of them never see the president, except maybe to shake his hand when they’re hired and when they’re fired. And they don’t know the president. And most of them don’t have any real relationship with the national security advisor.

But they have a mandate to work in their policy areas. And they’re aggressive people who are interested in making a difference. So they take initiative. So they try to control what goes below. So as a result, you have—it increases the difficulty of people in the agencies being able to take initiatives and lead—and connect effectively with the national security advisor. And it makes it—but because there’s still only one national security advisor, one president, one Cabinet level, it creates a bottleneck, because all these people are generating ideas and they’re mostly good people. I mean, they’re active. They care. They’ve come to government because they want to make a difference.

But I think just in that sense, the large number is the enemy of the good. And it’s the Scowcroft idea—Ivo and I wrote a piece in 2000 for Brookings, which we basically said we think 40 to 50 is about right. Now, that did not include Homeland Security. So, if you add that, that makes it a little bigger. But clearly, with under W. Bush and then under Barack Obama, it’s got a lot bigger, though Ivo may want to speak to some very recent changes.

DAALDER: So a couple of points on it. First, the idea that Congress should legislative presidential staff in the White House—they may or may not be allowed to do it, but it is not the wise thing to do. The president should be able to choose how he—someday she—gets advice from the people that he or she wants to get advice from. And it’s not for Congress to decide it. That number one.

Two, in terms of policy staff, as you’ve written, Karen, the National Security Council under Susan Rice has actually, for the first time really since Brent Scowcroft, said: Let’s look at what’s the right size of this organization? And they’ve taken a very serious look at how many people do they need? And they’ve cut the staff quite dramatically, particularly on the policy—on the policy side. So it’s now under the soon-to-be mandate of 200 policy professional staff. They’ve also tried to figure out how to streamline the process, by which decisions are made—including the principal meetings and deputies meeting, which were overtaking the day-to-day responsibilities of principals and deputies around the departments.

Third point, just to echo Mac’s last point, because the more people you have, the more busy they will be on issues that they shouldn’t be busy on. (Laughter.) And the core thought that everybody should wake up with, from the national security advisor until the lowest policy person is, is what I am concerned about something the president ought to be or is interested in?

DESTLER: Absolutely, yeah.

DAALDER: And if the answer is no, then don’t worry about it. Let somebody else figure it out. You have an entire bureaucracy that is—that exists for the very purpose of worrying about the things that the president doesn’t or shouldn’t worry about it. And staff should only worry about the things that the president is or should be—and I’ll underscore should be—concerned about. And when you have 50, 60, 75, make it 100 people, you’ve probably got enough to cover that broad range of issues with, again, the caveat, depending on how broad that range of issues is. Does it include trade policy? Does it include your domestic homeland security and disaster response policy? So the larger the remit of the NSC, the larger the staff will be. But that’s a key organizational decision that the president needs to make very early on in the administration.

DEYOUNG: Do you—Bob, you’ve seen this from the inside through several administrations. What’s your view about the size—size dictating function or functioning dictating size? What difference does it make from the inside?

BLACKWILL: Well, let me first say I agree entirely with what has just been said, in every respect. I just observe, there doesn’t seem to be an obvious relationship between the size of the NSC staff and the quality of the policies—(laughter)—that the president is following. It may even be an inverse relationship. But if we think that the late, great Dick Neustadt, presidents get the kind of organizations they want. And so this president will get the kind of organization he wants through his national security advisor. And whether that errs of the side of larger or smaller I don’t think really matters all that much, as long as it’s reasonable. I don’t think 400 is reasonable, because it has the effect, as my colleagues have said, of getting NSC staffers, quote, “on behalf of the president,” involved in policies that no president would be interested in. So I think about 100 is right. Could be a little more, a little less. But certainly not as large as it has been in recent administrations.

DEYOUNG: So we don’t know a lot about what President-elect Trump wants from his national security staff. What we do know is that he has already changed the structure somewhat. At least, we know that from appointments that have been made, not because there’s been any structural documents released. But he has apparently revived the separate Homeland Security Council, which the Obama administration subsumed into the—into the NSC. He has elevated the National Economic Council. He has created the National Trade Council. And he’s appointed heads of all of these in the White House, all of whom report directly to him. And presumably, all of them have staffs. And so I wonder what any of you think about what that says about how smoothly the system’s going to run, what his interests are, and how he intends to pursue them through the White House.

DAALDER: Let me make two points. First, on the issue of the Homeland Security Council, the Homeland Security Council exists in the Obama administration. The Council, which is a group of people that meets at the principal level and can meet with the president, and is chaired at the principals level by the homeland security advisor today. We don’t know, yet, whether the change—so the appointment, I guess it’s Tom Bossert—as the new homeland security advisor, as assistant to the president for homeland security affairs and counterterrorism. It’s the same title as Lisa Monaco has today.

DEYOUNG: But doesn’t she still report through Susan Rice?

DAALDER: No, she doesn’t. She reports directly to the president. But this is where the change is. The change that the Obama administration made is they abolished the Homeland Security Council staff and merged it with the NSC. So the question is, are we going to have a separate staff dealing with homeland security, counterterrorism, and cybersecurity? There is a cybersecurity staff under the CIO in the White House today. That, we don’t know. But so we just don’t know how that is going to happen.

The larger point is exactly your point, that on the big issues dealing with the international affairs, ranging from homeland security, through national security, to economic affairs and trade, we are now going to have four individuals who are all in the White House directly reporting to the president. And the question is, who is going to coordinate the coordinators? Because these are four people who are going to be coordinating various parts of the government, and then they have to coordinate with themselves because, strangely enough, foreign economic policy and trade policy are not that different. And many of our national security and foreign policy issues involve both trade and counterterrorism, et cetera.

So the coordination of the coordination function is—within the White House—is a recipe for more staff, because who’s going to coordinate the coordinators. More staff, obviously. And a recipe for potential conflict. Now, everything we know about Donald Trump’s management style through the campaign, he seems to like that. He wants to have different people coming forward with different points of view. He’s creating a White House organization that will do that in spades. We haven’t even talked about the domestic side and the chief of staff side. So he’s going to have a lot of people reporting directly to him, and he will make, presumably, the decisions.

DESTLER: Presidents often create organizations to signal priority. There were—every president since Richard Nixon has had a White House staff that had dealt to some degree with international economic issues, outside of the NSC. However, Bill Clinton, when he ran his campaign, really wanted to empathize those economic issues. And so he announced he was going to create, and did create, the National Economic Council, the NEC, which is parallel to the—and for his first couple years, it really was parallel to the NSC, because it had—Bob Rubin was a very strong and very effective leader of that. Thereafter, it became somewhat less important, but it became, you know, a consequential entity.

Now, then George Bush created the Homeland Security Council and staff. So then you had these three. And then this was pulled where you still had—under Obama you still have the advisor but, as Ivo pointed out, the staffs were merged. The biggest problem—there’s a dilemma here, because as a defender of the separate economic staff, I would say, yeah, ideally you’d like to have everything under the national security advisor. But historically national security advisors have not responded adequately to the economic agenda. And because of that, the—it has tended to be neglected, and it has moved to other people, because there were driving forces in politics, in Congress, in industry. And that pushed it that way.

So you had a—I think the biggest redundancy is this combination of a National Economic Council and a National Trade Council, because obviously there’s rampant overlap there. Trump has done the National Trade Council because he says he wants to revolutionize trade policy. And he created a new organization. But I think because, as Ivo suggests, is going to be either one of these advisors establishes clear primacy and the other defers, or alternatively that there’s chaos.

DEYOUNG: Well, let’s—well, let’s—Bob, you mentioned that it was important for the national security advisor not to be disputatious, as you—was the word you used. Let’s assume for the moment that the national security advisor has primacy among these people, at least on the issues that we’re talking about in terms of national security.

General Flynn, who’s been named as the national security advisor, very distinguished intelligence officer throughout his military career, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, where he ran into some problems both with the Pentagon and the—and the White House. So some concerns have been raised that he in fact does have a reputation for being disputatious and someone who’s focus, at least through his career, has not necessarily been on the wide range of national security issues. How do you think his characteristics fit the ideal, as you described it earlier?

BLACKWILL: Well, I really don’t want to speak to that, because I’ve never met the man. So I don’t know. Washington reputations are formed in many different ways. And so I don’t want to get—I do want, though, to reinforce something that’s just been said about national security advisors and economic issues just—and I may be not quite right about this, but I was just sitting here thinking: Has there ever been a serious economist who’s been the national security advisor? And I guess Walt Rostow would qualify. But I don’t think there’s another one. Maybe there is I’m forgetting.

And they tend to be national security types—generals, admirals, or people like Condi Rice, who had spent her career on East-West and Soviet issues, and so forth. And I think that inevitably downgrades the economic dimension. Now, Mac Bundy’s deputy was Francis Bator, who was a very distinguished economist from Harvard. But usually there’s not an economist who’s the deputy either. So I think having a separate structure, especially given the preoccupation of this president-elect’s with economic issues, it would seem to me that having that separate structure makes sense.

On the broad issue of temperament, we just have to see what. But what I am confident, having watched myself half a dozen national security advisors who—successful and unsuccessful—close up, is a disputatious personality gets the national security advisor in trouble, because sooner or later the Cabinet members—beginning with the secretary of state—will be in having a one-on-one meeting with the president saying: We have a problem here. And in most cases, if the president has to choose between a secretary of state and a national security advisor, they choose the secretary of state. So we’ll see. This is an experiment which is about to occur. And we’ll see how it turns out.

DEYOUNG: Well and, of course, we have a lot of senior Cabinet officials now who do not have experience in the executive branch, or in government at all, who are used to running their own shows. And so it’ll be—you know, you can see the possibility of conflict on that level.

I’m going to—go ahead.

DAALDER: Can I add just two points on what Bob—just amplify? One, the only person with some economic background who was a national security advisor other than Walt Rostow would be Sander Berger, who did trade law. Different perspective than—but, you know, he was a broad—he was one of those very broad people. But I would agree fundamentally with the neglect of big economic and trade issues by the national security system.

The way this has been resolved, starting actually under Clinton, is that the key person doing international economic affairs on the NEC report—is dual-hatted—and reports to the NSC. Mike Froman was one of the most stronger and powerful people in that position. He was a both—

DESTLER: Yeah, under Obama, right.

DAALDER: —deputy national security advisor under Obama, and he was a deputy at the NEC, and merged that.

One other point on temperament and how to think about it, as Bob said at the outset, the key characteristic you want in a national security advisor is someone who can create the trust within his Cabinet counterparts, particularly the secretary of state and secretary of defense, that their views will be represented fairly on a day-to-day, minute-to-minute basis to the president. The national security advisor, just because of the nature of the job, sees the president, you know, every hour on the hour almost, at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day. And the secretary of state and the secretary of defense, and everybody else, needs to know that their views are going to be presented fairly, openly, and they need to trust that.

And the moment that breaks down is the moment when the system breaks down. And it happens—I don’t know whether it’s two-thirds of the time in the last 50 years, but it happens way too often. And it was Brent Scowcroft’s great skill to be able to be very, very close to the president—probably closer than almost any other national security advisor. Here’s the guy who writes the memoirs together with the president—the president’s memoirs, writes it with the national security advisor. And yet, there was never any doubt that he represented Jim Baker and Dick Cheney and others fairly and fully. And that’s going to be the key to success.

DESTLER: When Ivo and I were doing our project, we organized a roundtable of former national security advisors, which, of course, Brent was a member of that group. And what—the big point he made, he said: When you become national security advisor, you really have to spend the first year, year and a half, establishing trust. And you have to get the—you have to get so the Cabinet people believe in you. Otherwise, they’re going to go around you and either you’re going to have a big conflict like, say, Henry Kissinger had with William Rogers under the—or Brzezinski with Vance, different administrations. Or you’re going to—anyway, it’s not going to work. It’s going to break down.

And what—a very nice aphorism which Ivo and I used in our book, but from David Abshire, a long-time veteran, now no longer with us but who was an expert on that, said: Trust is the coin of the realm. You have to run a good organization, good policy. And the George H.W. Bush administration was a wonderful—was a paragon of trust among the top people. And Brent Scowcroft made this happen. His son’s administration, alas, at least in its first few years, was not such a paragon, and problems arose from that.

DEYOUNG: Well, I want to ask our members to join with your questions now. To remind you, first of all, that the meeting is on the record. And I’ll call on you. And wait for the microphone. If you could state your name and your affiliation. And I know I don’t have to ask you to speak concisely, and to limit yourself to one question so that we can get as many as possible.

Yes, sir. Back there. Yes.

Q: Hi. Cam Kerry at the Brookings Institution, on the governance studies side of the house, and formerly at the Commerce Department.

I want to pick up on the theme of, you know, how you integrate economic issues into the National Security Council process. I did a paper at Brookings last fall—which I will plug briefly—addressing that question, drawing particularly on the experience of the Snowden disclosures and the response to that, which was initially treated as a national—purely a national security issue, but had enormous reverberations beyond that. And I am—one of the things to look at is the composition of the National Security Council.

The Obama administration’s PSD 1 says that if economic—international economic issues are on the agenda, then the advisor for international economic affairs, the secretary of treasury, the secretary of commerce, other economic advisors are at the table. But the proposal is you change that default, so that ordinarily those people are at the table, unless those issues are not at the agenda. The presumption is that things have some impact on those issues.

And I think the notion that there’s—you know, the economic councils are a solution is certainly important, but you still need to integrate those issues. So I wonder if you’d comment a little bit more on how you make sure that economic agencies and advisors have visibility into what’s going on, that may have an impact on those issues that, you know, may not be seen by the people who make up the NSC.

DEYOUNG: Who wants to take that?

DESTLER: One thing that the Clinton administration did when it established the NEC was to have a staff of people who were dual hatted, who worked for both the NEC and the NSC in charge of international economic issues. So at the staff level you had some integration. Then in the George W. Bush administration, they elevated that to the point of having a deputy assistant to the president who was dual hatted and did both national—so this helps, to do it—to integrate at the staff level. It doesn’t fully solve the problem, but it’s a useful step, I think. And as Ivo pointed out, Mike Froman played this role strongly in the first Obama administration.

BLACKWILL: Karen, can I chime in? I think that that was an important point that was made in ensuring that the economic agencies are right at the center of White House deliberations of foreign policy, and especially in an era of geoeconomics when around the world China, Russia, the Gulf States, others are using economics for geopolitical purposes. But I would add that most secretaries of the treasury are not enthusiastic about involving their issues in an interagency process. (Laughter.) That’s the mildest way to put it. And therefore, don’t come to their meetings, lest their colleagues become interested in Treasury issues. And my experience at the White House was it was hard to get the secretary of the treasury over to the White House for issues, for the reasons I said.

DAALDER: Just to empathize exactly what Bob says, it sometimes isn’t a question whether they’re invited. It is often the question whether they show up. And at a certain moment the invitation—you know, and there’s a lot of meetings that in fact they don’t think they’re expertise is particularly important and so it gets downgraded to who shows up. And ultimately nobody shows up. So it is—

DEYOUNG: I think that was often the case—

DESTLER: Or it’s the deputies to the deputy.

DEYOUNG: —often the case with the Obama administration. There were so many meetings at the White House—

DAALDER: And the more meetings you have—

DEYOUNG: —that the level of people who attended started to go farther and farther down all the time.

John, you have a question?

Q: John Bellinger from Arnold and Porter, and adjunct fellow on international law at the Council on Foreign Relations.

I’ve got a question about the NSC’s staff coordination function. So obviously the staff’s primary function is staffing the president. It’s also pushing the president’s priorities. But they also have to coordinate all of government. And so, Ivo, you made the point which says, well, if the president doesn’t care about it then staff shouldn’t worry about it. Let someone else do it. Although, you did say if the president should care about it. But the president really does need to care about a coordinated government. And there is a tendency, I think, maybe perhaps in Republican administrations in particular—I know it started when I moved to the NSC staff in 2001—that, well, let’s hire strong Cabinet secretaries, let them do their jobs, and the NEC staff just staffs the president and stay out of the way.

The problem is, you really can’t just do that. We have a government that has got to coordinate with each other. CIA has got to coordinate with State and Defense. Defense, we saw what happened in the first term of the Bush administration, has got to coordinate with others. Justice now is doing things that have to be coordinated with the rest of government. So there has to be a coordination function of the NSC staff. The problem is there can also be too much coordination. This is, you know, if every single thing done by every department is sent to the NSC staff for a crosshatch and approval, it’s what drives people crazy. So what is the appropriate level of coordination across government that the NSC staff should do, which really largely goes on below the president’s eye level?

DAALDER: So I think this is an excellent question. It’s a key—it’s sort of a key driver why staffs get larger in the White House, because the presupposition is that the White House is the only place that can—that can and does coordinate. And I think it’s time to ask the question whether that’s in fact true. Like others in this building, I was an ambassador. And I coordinated, by definition, because as chief of mission you have everyone from every different agency part of your coordinating function. And it used to be the case—it’s not like coordination’s something new that we didn’t have to do in the 1960s. But it used to be the case that assistant secretaries were very powerful people in the State Department or in the Defense Department or Justice Department, in fact did much of that coordination at that level.

And I think we want to go back, it seems to me, to a system where political appointees who are Senate confirmed—and so they stand at a higher level—actually have more power to do the job they’re supposed to be doing, and that includes the coordinating job. And the idea that it can only happen in the White House leads you to 2(00), 3(00), 400 staff folks. Now, information flow is one thing. You want to have as much information flow while it’s happening. But the idea that the only person who can coordinate an interagency process is somebody who sits in the White House is—it’s just wrong.

There’s no reason why the assistant secretary for near—for Europe can’t coordinate Russia policy with folks, including the White House. But actually, you go to the State Department, it’s actually—strange idea. But from the White House to the State Department—it’s equally far coming from the State Department to go to the White House, as from the White House to the State Department. Just to think about that. So you can actually do coordination in a different way.

DESTLER: And what you have to have, if you do it that way, is an informal—preferably informal group at the assistant secretary level, that includes a defense person, may include an intelligence person, may include an economics person depending on the issue, and who are congenial with one another. I mean, they’ll fight with each other about policy, but they’ll also work together and they’ll also realize their—and administrations that have been able to establish effective informal coordination at the Cabinet or near-Cabinet level also tend to be more effective at establishing it at the assistant secretary level.

DEYOUNG: Well, you have to give somebody convening authority. And I think the—you mentioned, Ivo, that the IPCs—I think the Obama administration specifically, in their initial directive, had a whole paragraph saying IPCs will not be interagency headed by a department. They will be in the White House, headed by a personal on the NSC staff. So I think that they sort of control from the White House was in their heads from the start.

DAALDER: In part because it tries to answer John’s question of coordination, and there’s the presupposition that the only person who doesn’t have a stake in this is in the White House, and therefore is the only person who can convene and control—I’m not sure that’s actually true.

DEYOUNG: Or the person who—

Q: (And the ?) agencies coordinate with each other.

DAALDER: Well, and if they don’t—so if there’s no coordination, then you hit it in—then you throw it back into the NSC process. But in many cases, it does get coordinated. In does in country, often.

DEYOUNG: Yeah. Bob, jump in when you—it’s a little bit awkward having you on the screen there, but jump in.

BLACKWILL: No, that’s fine. That’s fine.

Q: I’m Audrey Kurth Cronin. I’m at American University. Hi.

My question is, where do you think U.S. long-term strategy is made, beyond the interests of any department, agency, or policy area? Or is the concept simply anachronistic? (Laughter.)

DEYOUNG: Bob, you want to take that one?

BLACKWILL: Well, if I can be personal, when I was at the White House the last time, in George W. Bush’s administration I was deputy national security advisor for strategic planning. And so I started out, as Condi had asked, to try to do that. And the secretary of state, Colin Powell, said forget it. There isn’t going to be any strategic planning generated out of the White House. It will come from the agencies and presented to the White House. And it can amalgamate the views. And Blackwill ought to become the envoy to Iraq, because our policy in Iraq is such a mess. And I spent much of the next year in Baghdad. (Laughter.)

So I’m pretty skeptical of strategic planning being generated by this small NSC staff separate from the national security advisor himself. Perhaps the best example of strategic planning coming out of this process we’ve been discussing was Henry Kissinger and the break—the opening to China and the creation of détente and all the rest. And that was basically out of Kissinger and Nixon’s head. And so we’ll see whether this national security advisor has that capacity. But I don’t think it’s generated upward to any significant extent by the NSC staff.

DESTLER: When Henry Kissinger was made national security advisor, he invited a distinguished political scientist, named Bob Osgood, to join his staff as—basically to do long-term planning. He treated Osgood, unlike a lot of his other staff members, with the utmost respect and deference. And Osgood was more or less—I remember interviewing him a couple years into this—he was total irrelevant. I mean, he—there was no—and I think the reason is really a process run that is very hard to overcome.

Issues come—the national security advisor gets his or her leverage from the day-to-day issues, managing them for the president. And these are urgent. And if you have a president who is deeply involved in foreign policy, as most, though not all, have been, that tends to—the issues that are current in the day tend to drive. The Nixon administration was an interesting and impressive exception in being able to move strategically. But I think as you’ve said, Bob, absolutely right. It comes—came from Nixon and Kissinger’s heads, not from a staff, not from an institutional procedure.


Q: I’m Francisco Martin-Rayo. I work at the Boston Consulting Group.

To Bob’s earlier point about the idea that a national security advisor should both be able to collate, you know, policy from different agencies and present it to the president, and then implement it, if you guys could just briefly give us an example of, you know, when that process worked well, right? So what was a policy that you feel was well, yeah, executed, both from the beginning toward the end.

DAALDER: I’ll give you an example. There’s a really good book on this, by the way—(laughter)—on how we got to Dayton. So after a truly disastrous by two administrations figuring out what to do with Bosnia, Tony Lake led a process where he asked different agencies to come up with their best ideas about to resolve it. And it was a State Department effort and a Defense Department effort. And it was a—Madeleine Albright was at the U.N. It was a Madeleine Albright effort. And it was an NSC effort. And those different efforts were put together in a series of meetings, in a series of discussions with the president over a number of days that led to a strategy for trying to get the issue resolved one way or the other.

And the one way or the other was either through negotiation or through withdrawing the U.N. troops and lifting the arms embargo and striking, and providing airpower. And it was, in fact, using the military means in order to get the process—the peace process going. That led to Dayton and then led to the implementation of the post-Dayton period, which may be not as successful as at least getting to Dayton and ending the war. But it ended the war. And it’s now—that was in 1996—1995. It’s now 2006—’16, ’17. And while the situation in Bosnia is in some ways not that much different from what it was in 1995, one thing’s different. Nobody’s killing each other. And in that sense, it was a remarkably successful process, run actually out of failure, which is usually when things happen.

I think the surge—the Iraq surge is the other good example of a recognition that the policy wasn’t working, and then saying: How do we get new ideas together? And that’s when the national security advisor, when they play their roles right, really become—if you want to do—strategists, planners, in order to resolve a particular issue that, in the case of Bosnia it had to be resolved before the 1996 election. In the case of Iraq, a recognition by the president that it wasn’t working and we needed a new policy. And this was eating up everything that was going on domestically and in our foreign policy. And they did.

DESTLER: And Steve Hadley played a crucial role in doing that.

DAALDER: Absolutely.

BLACKWILL: I think those are two good examples. And a third is the unification of Germany within NATO from April 1989, when Eastern Europe started vibrating, all the way through September of 1990, when Germany was unified under—in NATO. And that was one not that was born out of failure, it was born out of an utterly unanticipated event, which was Gorbachev and the loosening of control over Eastern Europe and the consequences. And the president—in this case, the president and Brent in the spring of 1989, seeing these events, basically created the policy of going as fast as one could toward German unification, and involving Gorbachev deeply in that process. And Helmut Kohl saw it was really basically a trilateral endeavor of Bush, Kohl, and Gorbachev, opposed by, as we recall, Thatcher and Mitterrand. (Laughter.) But it was responding to events.

So there are numbers of good examples when this works. But if you go back to say, well, what—I think, at least in the case I’m most familiar with, which is the one I just mentioned—it was because of the trust. And Baker and Cheney and Brent and the president worked their way through tactical disagreements without a bump. And that’s what it takes to implement the kind of policy that—and the examples we’ve been using. And we’ll see if the Trump administration is capable of that.

DAALDER: And amplify one other thing on this, which, Bob, one dimension—that trust actually went down levels of the administration. So you have you, Bob, working with Kimmitt and others, and Zoellick. And that team, equally trustworthy and worked as well. So you don’t—so it’s bringing that interagency process and the trust down through the levels of government that is absolutely critical.

DEYOUNG: Well, and I think that that was one of the problems with the George W. Bush administration, certainly in the first term, where you had the enmity among people at the top level went all the way down.

DAALDER: All the way down.

DEYOUNG: With people defending their side.

DAALDER: And underappreciated in the Obama administration is it exists there. That level of confidence and cooperation and trust actually does go down, frankly, quite far. There’s always competition. There’s always different views. But people work together at various different levels. And when that happens, things can—things can move.

DEYOUNG: Let’s try—we’ve only got about five more minutes. So let’s try to get in two or three more questions. Way in the back there.

Q: Thank you. Hi. I’m Astri Kimball from Google.

I was wondering, could you comment on the dynamic between regional organization in the NSC and functional? Is it preferred to have cyber as its own entity within the NSC, or have cyber experts within the Europe bureau or Europe directorate?

DEYOUNG: Who wants to take that?

DAALDER: Just as a—just as a larger issue, the competence in government is not in the White House. It just isn’t. You can’t have all of the experts in the White House, because if you do you will just take all the departments. That’s where the expertise lies. And that’s true for regional. It’s trust for functional. It’s true for everything. So the people that you want in the White House are the people who know where the expertise is, and can bring it to bear to the decision-making process. But if you bring it all into the White House, then the White House becomes the U.S. government. Why bother?

And it’s this constant tension, this belief that the only way you can coordinate is to have the expertise, that leads to growing the staffs. When, in fact, it’s the ability to think through where in the government is this expertise and how do we bring it bear to the decision-making process, and then let them implement it, because you’re not the ones that are supposed to be implementing. That is the—you know, the question that Brent Scowcroft, as he once put it, is: Every morning when I wake up I look in the mirror and says, how can I have one less staff person? Not one more, but one less. What is it that we’re doing that, in fact, somebody else can do better? That’s the right question.

DESTLER: But the question you raised is sort of a basic dilemma of government. Do you go on function—do you give it to the functional expert or do you give it to the regional expert? And it really depends on the nature of the issue. I mean, if you—if it’s predominantly—I mean, if your issues with China are predominately economic and trade issues, you tend to give that issues to the economic people. If they are more security, then you give them to the China people. So it’s—but it’s not automatic or easy. And I think cyber would be an example which is principle is a functional issue. But then, as Ivo says, that doesn’t mean you have to pull everything up into the White House, which is—can create a mess.

DEYOUNG: Yes, sir.

Q: Good morning. My name is Ruben Brigety from George Washington University.

Do you all have a view of the role of the U.S. mission to the United Nations, and how that ought to be coordinated or folded into the national security apparatus? Obviously since that—the ambassador’s been elevated to a Cabinet-level position has essentially created another pole of U.S. foreign policy maybe as a functional matter. I’d be grateful for your views. Thanks.

DAALDER: You know, I think the—I think the U.N. ambassador should report to the Secretary of State, like every other ambassador, and that’s where it belongs. And it should be an instrument of American foreign policy writ large, and not a separate entity. So I would move it in the direction of reintegrating it back into it. I’m sure that as ambassador to the African Union, Reuben, you would have loved to have been a Cabinet member. (Laughter.) And I, as ambassador to NATO, would have loved to have been a Cabinet member. I don’t think either of us would have been as effective if we had been in every principals meeting as a(n) independent actor, as opposed to people who are part of the State—or, in my case, State and Defense apparatus. And so the idea that the U.N. ambassador somehow has a separate standing—I know my great friends and colleagues who have been U.N. ambassadors will violently disagree. But I do believe integrating it back into the place where it belongs, which is the State Department, is probably the right place for it.

BLACKWILL: Hear, hear. (Laughter.)

DEYOUNG: Now, I wonder if you look at—if you look at the history of this, and you look at it, starting with Jeane Kirkpatrick, who was a person of great stature who was brought in by the Reagan administration. And I think they wanted to have her and her views in the Cabinet. And I would dare to suggest that since many of the U.N. ambassadors since then have been women, that it allows—also allows the president to have another woman in the Cabinet. I think that that’s been left to the discretion of the president.

DAALDER: And so I’m all for—I’m all for having women as secretary of state and secretary of defense. So I don’t think that’s the issue, the way the solve it. (Laughter.)

DEYOUNG: Yeah. Yes.

Q: My name is Courtney Radsch. I’m with the Committee to Protect Journalists.

And as we’re talking about downsizing the NSC, I have a question about where you believe human rights belongs, and whether it belongs in the NSC. One of the ways that, you know, we’ve participated in consultations is that there are these global engagement centers, there are these consultations held with civil society organizations broadly, lots and lots of consultations on many issues. So can you talk a little bit about what happens then to the ability to integrate civil society into policymaking processes, and where you believe human rights belongs, if at all, at the NSC?

DESTLER: The problem with human rights is it tends to be in practice a country issue. It tends to be actions that are taken, you know, abuses that are taken by national governments. And yet, there’s a strong pressure, and the State Department has an often-effective organization dealing with human rights. But it’s a real dilemma, because how do you feed that—how do you make that—cross the line between the functional concern of human rights and the country relationship which has multiple interests. And I don’t know that there’s a clear organizational answer. I think if a president is very concerned about human rights and is willing to give it priority in certain cases, and to advertise the priority, that would probably make some difference. I think creating—but creating specialized offices often does not make a difference.

BLACKWILL: Yeah, this, of course, came up in the Jimmy Carter administration, where President Carter was very preoccupied with human rights during the campaign and set up a special office in the White House on that subject, but discovered that he had essentially two different policies towards every country, the one of the secretary of state and the one of the human rights person on his own staff. (Laughter.) And after a while, the human rights person left and the position was downgraded. But that brings me to this final point about coordination that we’ve been talking about throughout, which is if you’re not careful, you’re going—any administration faces the danger of having several policies at the same time being articulated to other governments.

And that gets back to the crucial function of the NSC advisor, to try to be sure on behalf of the president that the president’s policy, as the president has decided, is implemented, and there’s only one. I was in the Reagan administration, and especially in the early years on any given Monday there were four or five different foreign policies on any particular issue being pursued by various agencies of the U.S. government. (Laughter.) And were, basically until Colin Powell took over as national security advisor. So this is absolutely crucial and it’s very hard to do.

DEYOUNG: Well, I think that’s a good note to end. We always try to get everybody out on time. So thank you all so much for being here. Thank you to our panelists. (Applause.)

DESTLER: Our pleasure.


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