When Trust and Gravitas Matter – Failings of the National Security Advisor

Just how did the National Security Advisor ‘lead and advise’? Trust and gravitas matter when the stakes are as high as they were during the Presidential decision-making process regarding whether to leave a recommended force in Afghanistan after the deadline. The Constitution’s Article II, Section 2, Clause 1.2 and public law granted the President with executive counsel to ensure he or she can make a well-informed decision. Key to ensuring that all options are thoroughly examined requires expert, unbiased opinions from a core of advisors whose duty it is to advise the President with a clear understanding of the risk vs gain, without political bias. The framers knew this and after our nation’s experience in two World Wars, Congress further strengthened this provision by enacting the National Security Act of 1947 (Pub. L. No. 235, 80 Cong., 61 Stat. 496). This act established the Secretary of Defense, Central Intelligence Agency, and among other structural changes, the National Security Council (NSC). The NSC was implemented to provide a well led and coordinated national security decision making process for the President (see Milestones: 1945–1952 – Office of the Historian (state.gov)).

The current administration provides this description of the NSC (see National Security Council | The White House):

“The NSC is chaired by the President. Its regular attendees are the Vice President, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of Energy, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Representative of the United States of America to the United Nations, the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Chief of Staff to the President, and the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the military advisor to the Council, and the Director of National Intelligence is the intelligence advisor. Counsel to the President and the Legal Advisor to the NSC are invited to attend every NSC meeting…”

The NSC is a large body that needs careful management and a process that relies on the right mix of interagency leadership. In 1953, President Eisenhower knew the value of a trusted advisor who had the gravitas to lead the NSC, so he established the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, commonly known as the National Security Advisor, to serve as the chief in-house advisor to the president on national security issues (see WHTP2017-24-National-Security-Advisor.pdf (whitehousetransitionproject.org). This executive branch staffer does not have any budget authority or supervisory control over the cabinet secretaries, rather, he has unique proximity to the president and can speak with him perhaps more than anybody else in the foreign policy side of the government. This gives him enormous, potential power as he leads the NSC and its various committees.

Several famous statesmen have successfully managed this power as the President’s National Security Advisor. Trusted household names such as Kissinger, Scowcroft and Brzezinski were known for their statesmanlike gravitas on the international stage. It was Scowcroft’s multi-level process comprising the Principals and Deputies Committees that remain in effect to this day.  His believed that to be a successful National Security Advisor, one must (a) gain the trust of the entire team, (b) build a multi-level decision making process and (c) get close to the President to ensure the model works and you have the President’s trust (see The Role of the National Security Advisor (state.gov). The National Security Advisor chairs the NSC’s Principals Committee with the Secretaries of State and Defense, and the Director of National Intelligence among others depending on the situation. This senior level body ‘tees up’ critical decisions for the President and it was most certainly in-play for the Afghanistan withdrawal decision. The National Security Advisor was also on hand to advise the President in dealing with the aftermath of the decision while the Secretaries were away working to solve the resulting national crisis.

While we don’t exactly know how the President made his disastrous Afghanistan decision, we do know that in recent Congressional testimony, the the Secretary of Defense advised on maintaining a small 2,500 force in Afghanistan.  We are still awaiting disclosures on what the Secretary of State and Director of National Intelligence recommended.  One area that we are very uncertain of is how the National Security Advisor chaired the Principals Committee and if he was able, or even willing, to harmonize a collective recommendation, and then carry it to the President.  Did he advise the President independent of their collective recommendation given his direct ‘daily access?’ Begging further examination is the level of trust and gravitas the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State and Director of National Intelligence actually have with the President; neither seemed to have had the juice to thwart a last minute Vice President or staffer intervention? And, why hasn’t the National Security Advisor or any other Principals Committee members resigned out of a personal failure to convince the President to make the right decision?

As we await these answers, we should remain keenly aware that the President’s Afghanistan withdrawal decision was the result of the National Security Advisor’s poorly led national decision making process that failed to convince the President to do what is right. We do know is, unlike Kissinger, Scowcroft and Brzezinski, the current National Security Advisor saw it fit to remain in the shadows as the chaos in Kabul unfolded. During the first key days, he gladly let his deputy take the tough questions and seemed to avoid any outward personal engagement by allowing the Pentagon answer a barrage of interagency questions for the President’s failed national security decision. As we look forward to other high stake concerns, this ‘shadow-staffer’ claims that our border is secure, then, like Afghanistan, remains out of view as news footage reveals a horde of Haitians under a bridge in Del Rio and being freely released into America (see Some Haitians are being released into US despite claims they would be immediately expelled – CNNPolitics). This relatively unknown presidential advisor has a pattern of demonstrating more concern about reputation-preservation than dealing with the crisis at hand. Most troubling is this principal advisor, with enormous power, and lack of leadership or willingness to accept responsibility, remains in place today to coordinate key recommendations for the next decision of critical importance. With China’s sabers rattling over Taiwan, now, more than ever, America needs a new National Security Advisor who can be trusted to advise in the best interests of the United States, and carry a coordinated recommendation with the necessary gravitas to convince the President to do what’s right for America.

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