Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Too Many Generals in the Situation Room?

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Loren DeJonge Schulman and Amy Schafer write at Lawfare:

Editor’s Note: The Trump administration, more than any of its predecessors, is relying on serving and retired military leaders to staff key civilian positions, including much of the National Security Council. Too often this is caricatured as a militarization of foreign policy, but the effectsfor better and for worseare probably far more complex. Loren DeJonge Schulman and Amy Schafer of CNAS assess the likely impact of the prominent role of military figures and argue that their perspective is a valuable one but that countervailing points of view are also necessary for U.S. foreign policy to be effective.


From the moment President Trump nominated James Mattis as his secretary of defense, the swamp has made hand-wringing over civil-military relations a fine art. There are veterans on the NSC staff! There are generals in the West Wing! There are no political appointees in the Office of the Secretary of Defense or the State Department! The president is delegating to the military!

Reasonable people might rightfully inquire: So what? If the president—particularly an inexperienced one such as this—is staffed with competent professionals, what difference does it make if they wear, or once wore, a uniform?

Good question. Most assessments of Trump’s appointees have focused on the long-term effects a militarized leadership team and staff might have on civil-military relations. But few have discussed the basics of the national-security process and how the mix of personalities achieves—or doesn’t—an alchemy that leads to good decision-making. Few have talked about why civilian policy perspectives and military advice are necessarily different, and most valuable when distinct. Some who have raised this issue have been dismissed for relying on clichés and stereotypes: Veterans are warmongers. Civilians are destructive micromanagers. The military doesn’t appreciate soft power. Civilians held the military back.

Clearly, these are extreme interpretations. But there is a small hint of truth to each of them, which is why the practicalities of national-security staffing and the decision process relies on mixing archetypes from across government.

The NSC in General

The Situation Room’s a stage, and the National Security Council functions best when the players understand each other’s roles while mastering their own. It is the primary tool at the president’s disposal to organize the disparate perspectives and advice from his national-security team. By statute and presidential memo, it involves over a dozen agencies and White House offices. The national security advisor—a non-statutory position—manages a process that is ideally impartial and hierarchical that she or he uses to evaluate and present options to the president. Most other member roles are delineated in the Constitution, later statutes including the National Security Act of 1947, and the proclivities of each president. The most frequently lauded NSC “model” is that of LTG (R) Brent Scowcroft under President George H.W. Bush, described in detail by Michele Flournoy:

Scowcroft saw the role of the national security advisor and his staff as that of an honest broker, developing and assessing options for decision, ensuring the president had the benefit of the full range of perspectives when making decisions, and then, once a decision was made, providing oversight to ensure that it was executed by agencies according to presidential intent….This relies on being explicit with each NSC principal, individually and as a team, as to expectations of their respective roles, responsibilities, decision rights, and accountabilities.

Beyond the inclusion in, then removal of, Steve Bannon from his NSC, the most concrete way President Trump has shifted the dynamic of the NSC is by placing a greater number of retired and active military officers in critical national security posts (Mattis, McMaster, Kelly, Waddell), and seeding the leadership of the National Security Council staff with the same (at least 10 current or former military officers out of 25 senior posts). Regardless of your political leanings, veterans now have a larger influence on national security decision-making than in the past, and this bears consideration (in the same way similar numbers of, say, experienced female human-rights lawyers would raise eyebrows).

This matters on account of the roles President Trump asks these current and former uniforms to play. For example, to the layman, the distinction between the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs is not obvious. The differences between, say, defense strategy and military advice are easily waved away by old friends who know each others’ views well, or a president who cares less about civilian control than the prestige of his GOFOs, or a junior enlisted Marine with a Mattis religious icon on his wall. They shouldn’t be. Each NSC stakeholder has his or her own staff and should come to the table with different rationales or views on the best options available. Their distinct advice derives not only from their expertise but from the full analytic weight of their separate institutions. For example, it is useful for McMaster, Waddell, Mattis, and Kelly to understand the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, but commenting on it or being asked by the president to freelance from their new perches minimizes the distinction between military and policy advice.

Simply putting several smart men and women in the room—without caring about what equities they are representing or what biases they maintain—serves the president poorly. Groupthink is their worst enemy.

The NSC’s decision process relies on debate rooted in the lack of consensus among these different perspectives (even stereotypes!). Participants are in the Situation Room less to demonstrate their individual brainpower and more to effectively guide the unique interests, capabilities, and risk assessments of their agencies in pursuit of national security. These roles are profoundly difficult to learn and unlearn; to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, there is no NSC school. Simply putting several smart men and women in the room—without caring about what equities they are representing or what biases they maintain—serves the president poorly. Groupthink is their worst enemy. One of the national security advisor’s roles is to coax out the most robust versions of different perspectives and associated tools without leading the debate toward his or her own bias. Equally important, he or she has to manage the debate in a way that leads to options, not paralytic problem admiration.

Similarly, NSC staffers are usually brought on due to their ability to access and balance the perspectives of the agencies that work within a portfolio (like Afghanistan or nonproliferation). . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 June 2017 at 1:47 pm

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