As a student of the national security and White House decision-making process, your faithful blogger has been overwhelmed by the doings of the current administration. In fact, I considered doing a post simply summarizing the different things I would like to write about – although I believe that is called a Tweetstorm. Even the discussion of the
princeling son-in-law’s ridiculous almost vice presidential role deserves another post – after a prominent (and generally sensible) person defended it. (If you need a response to that defense, here is an excellent one.)
But then I looked at the picture of Trump’s ExCom during the Syria strikes and something (not a Tomahawk missile) struck me. Kremlinologists long relied on pictures of the Soviet leaders to derive power. This open source effort has expanded exponentially with the Internet, allowing deep insight to closed regimes like Pyongyang. It can even serve a purpose here, in our open society, and yours truly has not hesitated to dabble in it to highlight the expanded role of the vice president.
Going around the table we have on the far side of the table, facing us: Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin, Jared Kushner, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and then the President. Sitting behind them in the corner is Press Secretary Sean Spicer. Continuing around the table is Secretary of State Tillerson, National Security Advisor McMaster, and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. Just behind McMaster is National Economic Council chief Gary Cohn and next to him is the Deputy National Security Advisor Dina Powell. Next to Powell are Michael Anton, Assistant to the President for Strategic Affairs and Senior Advisor Stephen Miller, and chief strategist Steve Bannon. The VP, SecDef, and CJCS are all there by video-conference.
The famous picture from the OBL raid
contained primarily people with hard national security roles (DNI, various advisors on terrorism from the national security council, as well as the relevant national security principles.)
The stark differences are:
- Far greater presence of political advisors and staffers. Of course the Chief of Staff belongs in the room, but also the Deputy CoS and the Press Secretary? Bannon and his team have a corner and the Jared-of-all-trades even has a seat at the table.
- The absence of working-level national security staffers is striking. This may reflect the ongoing disconnect between the administration and the bureaucracy.
- The economics team is also there in the Treasury Secretary, the Commerce Secretary, and the chair the National Economics Council. I am not original in this observation – but I have a lot more to say about it.
Putting aside thoughts on and preferences for specific players, what can we know about the broader structure of decision-making here.
Let’s start with the good. While some have criticized the inclusion of the economic team in the strike video, I’m not sure this is a bad thing. In international affairs there is often a divide between the money people and the guns people. This can lead to real discontinuities
. Economic disturbances can cause security problems
, while military actions can create economic problems. Yet the practitioners barely understand one another. More closely integrating these decision streams could bring better policy.
The bad is the large number of political types in the room. Everyone in the White House is a political, it is the nature of the beast. But past presidents have tried to – at least somewhat – section off the policy/national security types from the political staffers. There are innumerable stories of presidents (and other politicians) telling policy experts, “Tell me what to do and leave the politics to me!”
Besides the costs of appearing to make national security decisions on blatant political grounds, the reality is that the national security staffers don’t give very good political advice and the political advisors don’t give very good national security advice. The chief of staff plays a key role in bringing these sides together. Perhaps some other political advisors and staffers might participate, but in this care there were six politicals besides the CoS.
And the Ugly
If the attendees of this meeting were part of a carefully considered plan, great. But the reality is that it appears to have been haphazard, shaped as much by who was around. This is also highlighted by the lack of national security staffers present. Without them, you may not have the necessary people with the working knowledge of the issues. The administration has not established an orderly process and is still being run by personal whim.
One can speculate as to who is up and who is down. Bannon and his crew were in the back, while new Deputy National Security Advisor Dina Powell was closer in. That Powell is also a protege of Gary Cohn could be a good sign for further integration of security and economic issues.
It cannot be said often enough, good process does not guarantee good policy. But lousy process makes it really hard to get anything but lousy policy.