Obama’s National Security Council – What to Expect in the Next 1 ½ Years
At the heart of the Obama foreign policy lies the National Security Council – loyal to the president, but frequently seen as obstructionist to State and Defense Department officials.
A Washington Post article last week notes, “it may be too late to change impressions of an NSC bureaucracy whose size has come to symbolize an overbearing and paranoid White House that insists on controlling even the smallest policy details, often at the expense of timely and effective decisions.”
The Post goes on to say, “the NSC, designed in Harry Truman’s time to coordinate sometimes-conflicting diplomatic and defense views, is still widely seen as the place where policy becomes immobilized by indecision, plodding through months and sometimes years of repetitive White House meetings.”
“Others fume that the NSC has taken over things that could and should be handled elsewhere in the government. Former CIA director and defense secretary Leon Panetta, who left the administration in February 2013, has spoken of the “increasing centralization of power at the White House” and a “penchant for control” that in his case included submission of speeches and interview requests for White House approval.”
Although some want to blame this inaction on the bureaucracy, it is clearly an outgrowth of Obama’s political strategy. When Obama was crafting his NSC, he had to face two facts: The State Department was under the control of a previous political challenger, Hillary Clinton, who obviously still had her eyes on the White House. Obama wanted to tightly control any foreign policy decisions so they reflected his priorities and didn’t help Clinton, while hindering his policies.
There was the same concern with the Defense Department, which was controlled by a Republican. As with the State Department, he wanted to insure his policies were implemented instead of those of the Republican Party. SecDef Robert Gates, later said that “micromanagement” by the Obama White House “drove me crazy.”
The result was a NSC that retains more power than other national security teams of previous presidents. This is seen in a staff of about 400, four times the size of the NSC under Clinton according to National Security Advisor Susan Rice. The larger size allows it to monitor and control more (like the Cuba and Iranian negotiations), but also slows down the decision making. Critics have said such slow decision making was responsible for many of the current crisis like ISIS, the Ukraine, South China Sea, and Egypt. NSC supporters say that the NSC has managed to steer a course through an unusually troublesome time.
Can the NSC Improve?
Is the NSC crippled for the rest of the Obama Administration or can it change sufficiently?
Some, who say the NSC is too large, have pushed for a smaller, more nimble NSC. Two months ago, NSC Chief of Staff Suzy George wrote, “To ensure the NSC staff is a lean, nimble, and policy-oriented organization, we are reversing the trend of growth. . . to align our staffing with our strategic priorities.” As of now, the NSC has been reduced by 6%.
But, there are many in the Defense Department that insists that the problems are more structural. At a recent forum, two former Obama Secretaries of Defense attacked the current way the NSC operates.
Gates explained his frustration with the NSC bluntly: “It was that micromanagement that drove me crazy… my concern in terms of this relationship between the White House and the military is not on the big issues…it’s in the increasing desire of the White House to control and manage every aspect of military affairs.” He also commented on how the growing size of the NSC was adding to this complexity: “We have an NSC of at least 350 people; it was 50 when Brent [Scowcroft] and I were there in the [George H.W. Bush] administration.”
Panetta agreed, saying that as secretary of defense he felt left out of the national security decision-making process on a number of occasions: “By the time you get to the White House, the [NSC] staff has already decided or tried to influence what the direction should be. So rather than having a really good give and take, you begin to get sidetracked.”
If Obama wants to improve foreign policy and national defense policies emanating from the NSC, it will require more than cutting staff, changing NSC procedures, or reducing the number of meetings.
A good example is President Carter’s NSC. Carter believed that the National Security Council Staff was out of control—an all-powerful bureaucracy undercutting leadership from the top, while moving at a slow, bureaucratic pace. Once in the Oval Office, he scrapped existing NSC processes, reorganized and downsized.
For all the rearranging, the Carter “system” didn’t produce better policy outcomes. A string of foreign-affairs debacles, like the botched decision to withdraw U.S. forces from South Korea, raised questions about the soundness of the president and his national-security team.
In the end, the ability of the NSC must rely upon the key members of the team and must be willing to work with State and Defense. President Carter paired his reforms with what he envisioned as a “team approach” for managing foreign affairs: a troika of National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Defense Secretary Harold Brown. Each was a knowledgeable professional, but the triumvirate didn’t work well together. Vance and Brzezinski, for example, had bitter disagreements over issues like the strategic arms talks with the Soviets. And the infamous failed rescue mission “desert one” in Iran.
This same lack of teamwork is seen in the current NSC, State Department, Defense Department situation. Secretary Kerry was unaware of the negotiations with Cuba until late in the process.
In an example of how the NSC has circumvented the normal process, two senior NSC officials — deputy national security adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes and then-Latin American director Ricardo Zuniga — handled secret talks leading to last December’s announced opening to Cuba. The White House did not inform Secretary of State Kerry until the discussions were well underway, and State Department officials in charge of the region found out only as they neared completion.
There are also times when the advice of both secretaries of defense and state are ignored or sidelined for months, which time counts. Kerry and then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel argued that the United States needed Egypt as a reliable, well-armed ally in the region and should restore the weapons aid. Partner\Client nations in the Persian Gulf region — already stung by Obama’s refusal to take military action in Syria — warned that the administration was alienating the Egyptians when it should be working with them.
Others argued that Egyptian human rights should play a bigger part in the decision to resume arms shipments.
By the time Obama decided in March to lift the ban on the planes and other big-ticket items, no one’s view had changed. Little to nothing had been gained on the human rights front. Sissi’s distrust for the administration had deepened and he opened up negotiations with Russia on arms shipments – a major policy defeat for Obama. Meanwhile, America’s GCC allies thought that the administration had once again let them down.
Rather than resolve the issue or come up with an acceptable compromise, the Obama NSC merely delayed an important decision that made the US and Obama look indecisive.
That’s the exact opposite of the view of Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to George H.W. Bush. Concerned that its staff would overwhelm the departments, he limited it to 50 people. Its purpose was to integrate views and create a cohesive national security policy, Scowcroft said in an interview, “not to replace departments. . . . That’s always the instinctive thing — well, ‘These guys aren’t doing a good job on something, we’ll just do it ourselves.’ I tried not to do that.”
The Next 18 Months
So, what’s the future of the Obama NSC? National Security Advisor Rice appears firmly in control and unlikely to leave before Obama. And, since both the Secretaries of state and defense require Senate confirmation, they are likely to remain in place until January 20, 2017.
In the meantime, the staff reductions and “streamlined” procedures aren’t promising the major improvements that have led former Obama Administration officials to criticize the NSC. The key players in the NSC are still there and acting on policy.
Obama critics points to his failed policy on Syrian Crisis
And they declare:” it’s important to remember that Obama is still in the White House – the same Obama who created a red line in Syria and then refused to act, when Syria( was allegedly accused of) used chemical weapons and has refused to seriously tackle the problem of ISIS.
It’s best to look at the NSC and foreign policy in two groups – long term issues and agreements that must be put into place before the end of the Obama Administration.
The Obama NSC will want to complete certain agreements before Obama leaves office in order to preclude any Republican administration that follows him from dismantling them. Some of these issues would include Cuban relations, Iranian negotiations, climate change agreements, etc.
The second groups of issues are long term policies that can’t be solved. These include ISIS, China and the South China Sea, Russian expansionism, the Ukraine, and Syria. Do not expect the NSC to resolutely address these in the next 18 months – that is unless one of these issues blows up in Obama’s face.
The reason that these issues will lie fallow is the political factor. To announce a “pivot on one of these areas of concern is to admit that previous policy was faulty. Since Hillary Clinton is tied to Obama’s foreign policy as Obama’s first Secretary of State, it will be in the interest of the Obama Administration to smooth over any foreign policy problems in the run up to the presidential election. Other Democratic candidates like Senator Sanders and Vice President Biden are also tied to the Obama foreign policy and will want events overseas to appear as quiet as possible.
In the meantime, any crises will be underplayed as the murdering of the American ambassador in Benghazi in 2012 was downplayed in order to avoid making it an election issue.
Nations seeking any significant movement in foreign policy in the next 18 months may find their hope by focusing on the GOP presidential candidates. History and the polls indicate that the Republican presidential candidate is likely to win next November. This is not our prediction of the outcome since it is too early to have one. That being the case, studying the foreign policy papers of the candidates and the foreign policy advisors of each candidate may give a better indication of what US policy will be in the future.
Iraqi Stability and the “ISIS War”
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
August 12, 2015
The events in Iraq over the last month have shown that any success in Iraq requires both the Iraqi government and the United States to go far beyond the war against ISIS, and makes any partisan debate over who lost Iraq as damaging to U.S. national interests as any other aspect of America’s drift toward partisan extremism. The war against ISIS is a critical U.S. national security interest. It not only threatens to create a major center of terrorism and extremism in a critical part of the Middle East, and one that could spread to threaten the flow of energy exports and the global economy, but could become a major center of international terrorism. It is important to understand, however, that ISIS is only one cause of instability in the region, and only one of the threats caused by spreading sectarian and ethnic violence.
Turkey Faces Growing Terrorist Threat
By Bulent Aliriza
Center for Strategic and International Studies
August 11, 2015
The series of attacks across Turkey yesterday, including at the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul, highlights the growing threat of domestic terrorism since it launched airstrikes against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) targets in northern Iraq on July 24. It is interesting to note that the sustained Turkish air campaign began just hours after Ankara announced that it had finally agreed to cooperate militarily with the U.S.-led effort to confront the threat of ISIS. Most of the terrorist incidents in Turkey since then have involved the PKK and the DHKP-C, a far left organization implicated in the bomb attack on the U.S. Embassy in Ankara in February 2013. However, Turkey is now also on alert for attacks by ISIS, which had used a suicide bomber to kill 33 Turkish citizens at Suruc near the Turkish-Syrian border on July 20 prompting the major change in Turkey’s policy. U.S. warplanes have now been moved to Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey and are expected to begin operations against ISIS in Syria in the coming days.
Is Iran’s supreme leader really just a politician?
By Michael Rubin
American Enterprise Institute
August 12, 2015
In the Iranian context, the president is about style while the supreme leader is about substance. Or, put another way, to understand the relative power of the Iranian president if transposed onto the US political hierarchy, he’s about as powerful as the secretary of agriculture when push comes to shove. And yet, speaking to CNN interviewer Fareed Zakaria in an interview aired last week, Obama declared, “…You know, the Supreme Leader is a politician, apparently, just like everybody else.” It’s an important statement on a number of levels, and it exposes a number of both false assumptions on the part of the president and logical flaws in his approach to Iran.
Iran’s European Enablers
By Ilan Berman
American Foreign Policy Council
August 11, 2015
Not all that long ago, it seemed as if the United States could learn a thing or two from Europe when it came to economic pressure on Iran. Today, a great deal has changed. Even as the fledgling Obama administration stuck doggedly to its “engagement” policy toward Tehran, European capitals were rapidly heading in the opposite direction. In November 2009, in a move that caused nothing short of a political earthquake on the Old Continent, a majority of the Dutch parliament formally voted to place Iran’s clerical army, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), on the European Union’s terror list. The decision was in part a reaction to the Islamic Republic’s brutal crackdown on the grassroots protests that had followed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s controversial reelection to the Iranian presidency that summer – a move that sparked outrage among foreign observers. But it was also a policy broadside aimed squarely at the Iranian regime’s rogue behavior writ large.
The Saudi-UAE War Effort in Yemen (Part 2): The Air Campaign
By Michael Knights and Alexandre Mello
August 11, 2015
Saudi-led air operations against the Houthis began after Yemeni president Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi’s March 24 request for military intervention “based on the principle of self-defense in Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations,” as well as “the Charter of the Arab League and the treaty of joint Arab defense.” On March 26, the air forces of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar launched Operation Decisive Storm. Since then, around 170 strike aircraft have participated in the campaign, including 100 from Saudi Arabia (mostly F-15S and Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft), 30 from the UAE (F-16s and Mirage 2000s), and several F-16s from Bahrain (15), Jordan (6), and Morocco (6).
Iraq’s Political Crises Could Stall the Anti-ISIS Campaign
By James F. Jeffrey
August 12, 2015
While the world’s attention has been focused on dramatic developments in the Iran nuclear negotiations, the war in Yemen, and Turkey’s new confrontations with ISIS and the PKK, several major developments have burst onto the scene in Iraq. Taken together, these developments could change the face of Iraqi politics and — for better or worse — affect how the international community prioritizes the fight against the so-called “Islamic State.” In Baghdad, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi faces an ever angrier public, joined by the country’s most powerful Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, all of whom are demanding reforms in service provision and the fight against corruption. Meanwhile, a couple hundred miles to the north, Kurdistan Regional Government president Masoud Barzani is facing his biggest challenge since assuming leadership over the KRG more than a decade ago.