Donald Trump Should Run His National Security Council Like a Boardroom

Empty boardroom in Hong Kong. Flickr/Creative Commons/@ricardo

Think like a CEO.

January-February 2017

PRESIDENT TRUMP is guaranteed to face a crisis within the first months of taking office. How he and his team respond may define whether he is perceived as a successful chief executive or as an outsider who failed to translate a stunning electoral victory into effective governance.

Consider this scenario. It’s March 2017. A Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel clashes with a Chinese fishing trawler in the waters surrounding the disputed Senkaku Islands. Several Japanese personnel are killed. The Chinese ship sinks. In response, Beijing announces plans to send naval and air assets into the area to assert its territorial claims. The Japanese government declares its intent to “repel” any Chinese incursion—and seeks the reassurance from the United States that Tokyo enjoys Washington’s unstinting support.

As the news reaches Washington, the president is preparing to return to the capital from the West Coast, where he was announcing a new small-business and infrastructure-redevelopment initiative. Yet problems immediately emerge as the national-security team works to develop options for the president’s consideration. The haphazard selection process for the deputies’ positions in the key national-security departments, combined with the lack of effective direction from the White House, has made it difficult for information and options to be summarized and presented to the principals. The decision to adopt a “team of rivals” approach to the cabinet means that each principal has very different answers about how to address the emerging crisis. Already, each key secretary—defense, state and treasury—has issued contradictory statements about how the United States will respond, with the secretary of state breathing fire about coming to the aid of Japan, defense calling for caution, and treasury worried about the impact of a clash for world financial markets and the U.S. economy. Lingering disputes over whether the vice president or the national security advisor chairs the National Security Council (NSC) in the president’s absence continues to add needless tension to their deliberations and prevents the meeting from reaching any sort of consensus. Arguments erupt across the table as different principals accuse each other of cherry-picking or withholding information and trying to steer the discussion in favor of their preferred option. Distrust as to whether each cabinet principal is truly bringing all options and information to the table leads the NSC staff to bypass the normal chains of command and communication. They reach down to mid-levels of the intelligence community and directly to Pacific Command to gain raw intelligence and different operational plans, so as to be able to formulate a parallel set of options for the president, which exacerbates simmering tensions between the cabinet secretaries and the White House staff.

The president returns to the Situation Room to face not only a brewing crisis in the Pacific but also bickering within his national-security team. As the meeting breaks up to allow the president a chance to consider his choices, different cabinet secretaries jostle for the opportunity to speak to the president in private to sell him on their specific plan. Meanwhile, White House aides attempt to block these efforts in order to safeguard the president’s time. Pressured to respond, and beset by a chaotic process, the president runs the risk of making bad decisions. Over the next several days, he either arbitrarily excludes people from his circle in order to have a coherent decisionmaking process, but then is deprived of valuable perspectives and information; or he accepts a series of compromises that win acceptance around the wider table, but cannot achieve American objectives in the field. As press reports depict a U.S. national-security process in disarray, Russian president Vladimir Putin offers to use Russia’s partnership with Xi Jinping and Putin’s close ties to Shinzo Abe to broker a temporary agreement that defuses the immediate crisis. Once again, as during the 2013 crisis over Syrian chemical weapons, the diplomatic initiative is shifted to the Kremlin—and Putin’s image as a responsible statesman is enhanced at America’s expense.

GIVEN THE history of U.S. foreign-policy failures over the last several decades, this scenario is not as improbable as it might appear. All of the problems outlined in the above narrative have flared up in recent administrations: whether the national security advisor or the vice president, for instance, chairs the National Security Council in the president’s absence; whether the cabinet secretaries have at-will access to the Oval Office or must receive clearance (either from the national security advisor or the chief of staff) to see the president; whether decisions are taken in the presence or absence of the cabinet secretaries; and the most critical one: the delicate issue of people who enjoy immediate proximity to the commander in chief but are legally outside the chain of command being able to directly issue orders while bypassing the senior departmental officials. We have seen foreign governments unclear as to whether, in the absence of a presidential statement, the comments of the vice president, national security advisor, chief of staff, secretary of state or secretary of defense reflect the actual position of the U.S. government—and who has the authority to make commitments and offer deals.