TSG IntelBrief: Another Reshuffle at the National Security Council
February 24, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• The main task for incoming national security adviser, Lt. General H.R. McMaster, will be to restore confidence in one of the most important bodies in the U.S. national security apparatus.
• While McMaster will set the pace and tone of the National Security Council (NSC), the council’s size and composition is often a reflection of the president’s personality and management style.
• Currently, the organization is understaffed and dogged by controversy over potential politicization and Michael Flynn’s resignation.
• The challenge for Lt. General McMaster will be to lead an NSC that maintains the trust of both the public and the president, while ensuring a careful and efficient national security policymaking process.
For the second time in as many months, the Trump administration’s National Security Council (NSC) will likely see a shakeup of its key staff and organizational structure. Potential changes to the council come as the incoming national security adviser, Lt. General H.R. McMaster, replaces President Trump’s original pick for the job, Michael Flynn. As Lt. General McMaster takes over an organization still reeling over the scandal that caused its former director’s departure—as well as an organizational remake just one month prior—his main task will be to restore confidence in one of the most important bodies in the U.S. national security apparatus.
Created by the National Security Act of 1947, the NSC was designed to be the chief coordinating body for executive branch national security policy. The national security adviser chairs the NSC’s Principals Committee—the organization’s highest, cabinet-level body—and acts as the policy coordinator for a diverse array of agencies and departments with national security-related missions. The national security adviser also sets the pace and tone of the NSC, helping to craft an institutional order that is meant to ensure well-planned strategy and smartly-executed policy.
There is no tried and true methodology to the way an administration structures and utilizes the NSC. Aside from a small handful of cabinet members and advisers whose membership on the council is mandated by law, the president has the authority to add or remove members at will, and to drastically increase or decrease the size of the council’s staff. Whereas under President George H.W. Bush the NSC staff numbered around 50, under the Obama administration the number of NSC staff grew to around 300 to 400.
The size and composition of the NSC is often a reflection of the president’s personality and management style. Keeping the NSC membership restricted to a small group of trusted advisers and staff—the model reportedly preferred by President Trump—has the advantage of efficiency. A small number of policymakers involved in contentious and sensitive policy issues facilitates open and decisive debate, and helps to diminish the fear that sensitive information will be leaked. However, a small number of officials restricts the diversity of opinions voiced in the policymaking process, potentially exposing debate to the risk of groupthink or domination by strong personalities, and leaving relevant but less conventional policy options unconsidered.
More important than the size of the council is its composition and the way it is used. Under Flynn, the Trump administration reorganized the Principals Committee, downgrading the permanent seats of the country’s senior-most military officer and intelligence official, while elevating a political adviser to a permanent seat, raising fears that domestic political concerns would influence decisions on national security. As Lt. General McMaster assumes the NSC’s leadership, he is reportedly considering restructuring the agency again, possibly to reinstitute the permanent seats of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence.
The quick turnover at Trump’s NSC comes in the midst of a variety of major international security challenges. As a government bureaucracy, the NSC thrives on order and consistency; with every new presidential administration there are shakeups in both personnel and process that inevitably lead to friction. However, the concerns over politicization, in addition to the novel management approach of the Trump administration and Flynn’s dealing with Russia, have caused an unexpected degree of unease both among council staff and the American public. Many positions on the NSC remain unfilled since Trump’s inauguration, complicating the administration’s ability to effectively and efficiently coordinate and enact security policy throughout the government. The challenge for Lt. General McMaster will be to lead an NSC that maintains the trust of both the public and the president, while ensuring a careful and efficient national security policymaking process.
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