President Barack Obama listens to National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice during a National Security Council meeting to prep for the United Nations General Assembly, in the Situation Room of the White House, Sept. 19, 2014.

President Barack Obama listens to National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice during a National Security Council meeting to prep for the United Nations General Assembly, in the Situation Room of the White House, Sept. 19, 2014. White House photo by Pete Souza

What’s Wrong with Obama’s National Security Council?

An insider sorts the solid critiques from the amnesiac complaints.

Is President Obama’s National Security Council decision-making process broken? If you listen to the stinging assessments of influential outsiders and the grumbling of former inside officials, it is easy to conclude so.

Consider these complaints: A group of Washington wise men criticize the NSC staff for assuming “direct operational control” of key issues and “largely ignoring” the State and Defense Departments. A high-profile Assistant Secretary of State publicly denounces the NSC process as a “gigantic stalemate machine” that produces a “watered-down policy.” And a Defense Secretary sends an unsolicited memo to the National Security Advisor pointing out that in one month he spent nearly 42 hours in NSC meetings (including 14 hours of travel time), and offers ideas to “make the process more manageable,” including suggestions about everything from the length and style of background papers (“bulletized – and few, if any, 63-word sentences”) to changing protocols that forbid “Principals” to bring a “plus-one” to meetings while numerous junior White House officials attend.

I attended my fair share of White House meetings during six years in the Obama Administration, and yes, many of these criticisms ring true. But they illustrate a larger point: none of them are about Obama’s NSC.

The first is a conclusion from the 1987 Tower Commission that investigated President Reagan’s tumultuous and law-breaking NSC in the wake of Iran-Contra. Who’s the hard-charging diplomat openly deriding the process? That’s Richard Holbrooke, over 20 years ago, months before the Dayton Peace Accords, when he was so frustrated by the Clinton NSC’s Bosnia deliberations he was thinking of leaving government. And the last is from one of the famous “snowflakes” addressed to Condoleezza Rice from Donald Rumsfeld, whose low regard for the Bush NSC’s process was one of Washington’s worst-kept secrets.

So in many ways, bashing the NSC is one of the foreign policy establishment’s oldest traditions. Now Republicans in Congress are getting into the scrum, with Sen. John McCain and Rep. Mac Thornberry considering legislation to slash the NSC budget and force the National Security Advisor to undergo Senate confirmation. The easiest path for a pundit or a disgruntled official – or a member of Congress, especially those who once aspired to be in the White House – is: if you don’t like the policy, blame the process. As I argue in my forthcoming book The Long Game, it’s worth keeping this in mind when assessing the critique of Obama’s foreign policy.

Sure, the Obama NSC process – or as it’s known in bureaucratese, the “interagency” – has generated its share of dysfunction. As someone who was present at the creation as a member of Obama’s 2008 NSC transition team, and then served in the Administration at the State Department, Pentagon, and White House, I both experienced and am partly responsible for many of the complaints one hears.

But one must consider these frustrations without amnesia. The hiccups of Obama’s process have been more garden-variety than unique. There has been nothing to equal some famous past breakdowns. Just to cite a few examples, recall Henry Kissinger’s paranoid machinations from the Nixon White House (e.g., wiretapping subordinates); the bitter debates between Zbigniew Brzezinski and Cyrus Vance during the Carter years; the rogue Reagan NSC that made Oliver North a national figure and flushed through six national security advisers (two of whom were convicted of crimes committed while in office); or the epic battles of George W. Bush’s NSC, with Vice President Cheney’s staff operating a kind of parallel operation. This history is a reminder that criticism is most helpful when prepared with a healthy dose of perspective.

Consider the three most common complaints one hears about the current NSC: that it is too big, that it does too much operational work that properly belongs to agencies, and that it has a proclivity for too much micro-management.

The NSC staff has become bigger, roughly doubling since 1992 to about 400 people. But this is less a power grab and more a reflection of global complexity and a changing world. During the George W. Bush years, the NSC underwent structural innovations in an attempt to address new threats, and this has continued under Obama.

For example, the “traditional” regional policy offices – Europe, Asia, Latin America, etc. – have looked similar in both size and function during the past several decades. Yet there are now new policy dimensions the NSC must cover, such as cybersecurity, homeland security, global economics, and counter-terrorism. Some of these specializations existed within the NSC before 9/11, but since they have expanded vastly. Moreover, as crises erupt – during the Arab Spring, for example – the NSC tends to add staff to bolster surge capacity, then retains many of these folks after the crisis subsides. Finally, as technology has become more sophisticated, there are more NSC personnel performing critical “back office” functions, such as staffing the White House Situation Room. (One small example: when I served at the NSC in 2011, no one inside the Situation Room followed Twitter. That was quickly amended.)

Another theme of the critiques from former officials and Washington pundits is that the Obama White House is overbearing, litigious, and too prone to trimming the trees rather than overseeing the forest. The result, these critics claim, is a policy process that stifled innovation and left the United States fiddling while events passed it by.

In many ways, such frustrations are inevitable. West Wing officials tend to approach the bureaucracy in one of two ways: believing it is doing too much and going beyond what the president has decided, or that it is doing too little and not fulfilling what the president wants done. (During my time at the White House, I found myself toggling back and forth.) The answer to both is more oversight, which can often evolve into bureaucratic overreach. In my experience, even when the White House tried to focus more on the strategic issues and leave tactical implementation to the Pentagon or State Department, decisions would slowly gravitate back to the Situation Room. Given that the president would be the one held accountable by the public, press, and Congress, the incentives usually were for the White House to take more control, not less.

There is also a structural imperative for the White House to dominate foreign policymaking, especially when the president is trying to execute a strategic move. A firm hand on the tiller is required to implement a policy that is sustainable and precise, and that really can only come from the White House. Moreover, some of the most delicate tasks — think 2014’s diplomatic opening to Cuba — require such secrecy and agility that they can only be managed by a tight circle.

There is, finally, a fundamental constitutional point. Since the president is the only person who actually got elected, the idea that rigorous White House oversight is “meddling” or a “process foul” is odd. In many ways, a president can’t win: act decisively, and you are criticized for going it alone and not including your advisers; consult widely and exhaustively, and you are criticized as indecisive and dithering; engage deeply on issues and refine options, and you are accused of interfering.

Sometimes, when the White House tries to enforce “regular order” and place the agencies in charge of a policy, then it is accused of taking its eye off the ball and abdicating leadership. (One hears this in many of the complaints about the Administration’s handling of postwar Libya in 2011.) And of course where you stand often depends on whether you are winning the policy argument – for example, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has recently griped about the Obama NSC’s micro-management of the military, although he has apparently not complained about the Bush White House’s micro-management of the 2007-08 surge in Iraq.

To be sure, today’s NSC is hardly perfect. Its process works in some areas but is confused in others, raising questions about clear responsibilities, chain of command, unnecessary duplication, lack of strategic focus, and ineffective implementation. That’s why the current National Security Adviser, Susan Rice, deserves credit for leading a process to shrink the NSC (mainly through attrition) in order to leave office with no larger a staff than it inherited from the Bush team, and to seek greater efficiencies in the NSC’s structure and processes.

The next opportunity for real structural change comes at the end of this year, as a new President and her or his team prepares to take office. They must resist temptations to submit to bureaucratic inertia and face these structural questions squarely and quickly. But they must do so with humility — because no matter how they make the NSC better, there will always be room to complain.