The Hobbling of the National Security Council
Recently, on a Saturday evening President Trump issued a presidential directive, “Presidential Memorandum Organization of the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council” which ushered in a dramatic departure from traditional American national security procedures.
The single-most shocking organizational change contained within this presidential order is the appointment of President Trump’s chief political strategist, Steve Bannon, to the National Security Council’s principals committee. As The Atlantic reported, this is the first time a political operative has been appointed as a permanent member of the National Security Council’s guiding body. Naturally, former presidential cabinet members have issued a variety of statements condemning such an unorthodox move, almost universally arguing that the National Security Council needs to be kept clear of political machinations that could unduly influence national security decision-making.
In an interview published by the Denver Post, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer rationalized the decision to add Bannon, stating, “Having key decision-makers, and the chief strategist for the United States, for the president to come in and talk about what the strategy is going forward is crucial.” Spicer continued by hailing Bannon’s yet-unproven situational poise, remarking, “He’s got a tremendous understanding of the world and the geopolitical landscape that we have now.”
Adding to the shock was the revelation that both the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence had been swiftly removed from their permanent positions on the committee. The United States military’s highest ranking officer and the nation’s top intelligence officer are to be consulted when “issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed.” Former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, who previously served in both the Bush and Obama administrations, labeled the apparent demotions as a “big mistake” stating, “I think that they both bring a perspective and judgment and experience to bear that every president, whether they like it or not, finds useful.”
The gravity of this operational shakeup is amplified by the recent chaos surrounding the executive order instituting the travel ban from seven predominantly Muslim nations. In this case, the morality of the executive action is not the central issue, but rather, the glaring logistical failure of the Trump administration’s inner-circle to liaise with relevant department heads such as Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, during the development and rollout of a policy rife with dire national security implications.
In a White House not currently gripped by chronic tumult, the removal of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence would be mildly upsetting. Yet that unfortunately is not the case, and the firestorm surrounding the travel ban is not the sole indicator of systemic dysfunction at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. A recent article by Politico picked up on a phenomenon frequently identified by the media that the Trump White House is undeniably wrought with tension and distrust, issues which have plagued its ability to both communicate effectively and execute policy initiatives informed by inter-agency review.
On its face, the removal of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence is neither terrifically alarming, nor entirely unprecedented. While former President Obama maintained them as permanent positions on the NSC’s principals committee, former President Bush deviated from the precedent which had been largely formalized by his father. The concern is amplified by the addition of Bannon, a man who has posited a variety of dangerously confrontational statements about the entire religion of Islam and even the nation of China. Less than a year ago Bannon stated, “You have an expansionist Islam and you have an expansionist China. Right? They are motivated. They’re arrogant. They’re on the march. And they think the Judeo-Christian West is on the retreat.”
If one looks merely to the Middle East, arguably the single-most problematic region for American foreign policy, there are numerous brewing or existent situations which require clear-headed diplomatic and military policies if fruitful solutions are to be achieved. It’s in such highly-complex diplomatic situations, those often requiring a deft touch and the embrace of geo-political pragmatism, that policy direction rooted in resolute political ideology not only enhances the risk of exacerbating crises, but also raises the specter of spawning new snares and pitfalls.
Just recently, the top American military commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, testified before the United States Senate, stating that coalition forces are locked in a “stalemate” with the Taliban and other extremist forces. General Nicholson highlighted the vast array of complications that encompass American diplomatic and military efforts in the region. He noted that the Afghan government struggles to control the nation’s remote territory where the Taliban operates and is benefitting from increased external support. General Nicholson noted that Russia is actively attempting to undermine NATO operations in the country.
Aside from the perpetually short-fused powder keg represented by Afghanistan, numerous other regional situations stand poised to deteriorate if sufficiently prodded. The now halted travel ban and its accompanying rhetoric did not only strain American relations with its international allies, but it facilitated the proliferation of anti-American sentiment and propaganda conducive to the expansion of extremism. In Iraq, where the United States’ mission to defeat ISIS rages, the Trump administration’s domestic political agenda has increased the difficulty of recruiting and retaining the fundamentally necessary aid from local populations.
Over a week ago, the Trump administration unilaterally issued a dangerously vague warning to Iran. National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, and later the president himself, stated that “As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.” In a recent report, Iran test fired yet another ballistic missile, in open defiance of Washington. Ali Akbar Velayati, an advisor to Ayatollah Khamenei, stated, “Trump and the American administration must get their stuff together and leave this region completely because the people of this region feel alienated by their policies…Without the slightest doubt, I can guarantee you that we will continue to develop our military programs, and especially our defense missile program, no matter what and at any cost.”
When one looks at the abrasive tenor and unpredictable trajectory of the current brand of American diplomacy, the changes to the National Security Council’s structure become particularly alarming. Moreover, if the NSC’s decision-making is allowed to be swayed by partisan political maneuvering, the United States may very well find itself on an otherwise avoidable collision course with countless entities. As the United States develops its security policy and strategy, the body responsible for managing international and domestic crises cannot be saddled with factional rivalries, rampant distrust, ideological distractions, or risk even the possibility of absent expertise. In times of such international volatility, missteps don’t just result in lost votes, but in American lives and the destruction of the United States’ international standing.