Opinion: Deforming the US National Security Council
February 2, 2017 2 Comments
There has been much consternation and confusion over the maneuverings engineered by United States President Donald Trump with the National Security Council (NSC). By now everyone knows the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the head of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) have been essentially demoted down to Principals Committee meetings, with the no-doubt unsatisfying caveat that “when their specific expertise” is needed they will be asked to attend the main Principals meeting with the President. The irony, of course, is that both of these offices have always been oversight and unifying leadership positions: the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs oversees and coordinates discussion and debate between the heads of all the military branches while the ODNI was basically created to go do the thing the Department of Homeland Security was initially meant to do after 9/11 —coordinate and improve communication and cooperative transparency across the entire US Intelligence Community. It is therefore somewhat mystifying as to why two deeply experienced actors with comprehensive knowledge of military and intelligence affairs writ large would be inexplicably categorized as ‘knowledge specialists’, not required for the big general meeting. It is not like the ODNI came into the NSC meetings pre-Trump as the ‘Basque subject matter expert’ alone, or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs laid claim to being the world’s only ‘Gulf of Aden’ maritime security specialist. While it is still too early to know, it seems a logical bet that there is some personality conflict or discomfort between these two men and the incoming member(s) that Trump has designated. Safe money is on General Michael Flynn. But since that right now will remain unsubstantiated rumor and gossip, we are left with nothing but conjecture.
Which leads us appropriately into the appointment of Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon as a permanent sitting member of the National Security Council. David Rothkopf recently wrote in The Washington Post how the NSC was created in 1947 in order to provide the president with the best possible advice on national security issues from his Cabinet, the military, and the Intelligence Community. Being able to meet with all these key principals in a single meeting, achieve consensus, and then send them out as de facto ambassadors of that consensus, thus guaranteeing more efficient and consistent policy implementation across the entire American governing system, was the sacred purpose of the NSC and had been largely unaltered for 70 years. While it is true that the Chief-of-Staff of the President was often present in NSC meetings, this is not the same thing as being a permanent participating member of the Council, as Bannon was named. The other curious aspect? If the NSC is meant to be a meeting of the President with members of his Cabinet, military, and intelligence, then guess what Bannon is not? Neither Cabinet, nor military, nor intelligence. And no, having an international relations-oriented ‘graduate degree’ (a slippery way of avoiding telling someone it isn’t a terminal degree) and seven years in the Navy does not make you an honorary member of any of those three things.
So what exactly is a ‘chief strategist’? While in the past this has been an august and somber position occupied by very serious individuals, Bannon seems more inclined to morph the title ‘strategist’ toward the ‘Svengali’ end of the spectrum. This has given political analysts enough pause when it comes to general Presidential affairs and initiatives. But when it comes to being a constant and potentially influential presence on the National Security Council, that is disturbing indeed —and not because wise people like Rothkopf have focused on Bannon’s commentaries in the past that can be interpreted as sexist, misogynist, homophobic, and anti-Muslim. I know those aspects are the sexy parts of the media coverage on Bannon and garment-rending inducements for most liberal commentators. But I do not think anyone needs to dive into the tawdry tabloid aspects of Bannon’s mind to understand why his presence on the NSC cannot signal anything except a degradation of the Council’s true purpose.
While the military and Intelligence Community do not have perfect records, and there are many critics of each, the one sacred duty of both that has always been taken with the utmost seriousness has been the apolitical nature of their duties in serving the President. The Intelligence Community gathers facts and communicates them openly and without artifice. It is the job of the President and his minions to decide how to judge and interpret them from a political angle. The military carries out those decisions with little care as to what party the Commander-in-Chief comes from or what his advisors believe in. This lack of politicization is what makes the American force community so wonderfully unique. But that reality might be no more. And that will likely be Bannon’s fault. The chief political guru of President Trump, who pridefully and openly sings the praises of characters like Darth Vader (no, that is not a joke), is the antithesis of apolitical.
If the military and Intelligence Community sees their sacred duty as not getting involved in petty politics, the Bannon imprimatur is to make sure everything ends up being about petty politics. For it is in the dirt and muck of politics that he is most comfortable in, and where he believes true policy importance is found. It is ruthless, conniving, manipulative, and unapologetically cutthroat. This is fine for the chief strategist. But it is not fine as an atmosphere for the Principals of the National Security Council. If the NSC now comes to represent a Bannon strategy meeting more than a rational, emotionless, objectively dispassionate consideration of national security, then the NSC has been heinously deformed and snapped from a 70-year legacy that was justifiably rich and proud. It is too early to say that will happen. But Bannon’s track record does not exactly give one room for cautious optimism.
► Author: Matthew Crosston | Date: 02 February 2017 | Permalink