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Ambassador Chas Freeman: “NSC staff has evolved to resemble the machinery in a planetarium …”

Posted: 1:13 am ET

Below is an excerpt from The End of the American Empire remarks to East Bay Citizens for Peace, the Barrington Congregational Church, and the American Friends Service Committee by Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.), Senior Fellow, the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, 2 April 2016, Barrington, Rhode Island:

We went into Afghanistan to take out the perpetrators of 9/11 and punish the Taliban regime that had sheltered them.  We did that, but we’re still there.  Why?  Because we can be?  To promote girls’ education?  Against Islamic government?  To protect the world’s heroin supply?  No one can provide a clear answer.

We went into Iraq to ensure that weapons of mass destruction that did not exist did not fall into the hands of terrorists who did not exist until our arrival created them.  We’re still there.  Why?  Is it to ensure the rule of the Sh`ia majority in Iraq?  To secure Iraq for Iranian influence?  To divide Iraq between Kurds and Sunni and Sh`ia Arabs?  To protect China’s access to Iraqi oil?  To combat the terrorists our presence creates?  Or what?  No one can provide a clear answer

Amidst this inexcusable confusion, our Congress now routinely asks combatant commanders to make policy recommendations independent of those proposed by their civilian commander-in-chief or the secretary of state.  Our generals not only provide such advice; they openly advocate actions in places like Ukraine and the South China Sea that undercut White House guidance while appeasing hawkish congressional opinion.  We must add the erosion of civilian control of the military to the lengthening list of constitutional crises our imperial adventurism is brewing up.  In a land of bewildered civilians, the military offer can-do attitudes and discipline that are comparatively appealing.  But American militarism now has a well-attested record of failure to deliver anything but escalating violence and debt.

This brings me to the sources of civilian incompetence.  As President Obama recently said, there’s a Washington playbook that dictates military action as the first response to international challenges.  This is the game we’ve been playing – and losing – all around the world.  The cause of our misadventures is homemade, not foreign.  And it is structural, not a consequence of the party in power or who’s in the Oval Office.  The evolution of the National Security Council Staff helps understand why.

The National Security Council is a cabinet body established in 1947 as the Cold War began to discuss and coordinate policy as directed by the president.  It originally had no staff or policy role independent of the cabinet.  The modern NSC staff began with President Kennedy.  He wanted a few assistants to help him run a hands-on, activist foreign policy.  So far, so good.  But the staff he created has grown over decades to replace the cabinet as the center of gravity in Washington’s decisions on foreign affairs.  And, as it has evolved, its main task has become to make sure that foreign relations don’t get the president in trouble in Washington.

Kennedy’s initial NSC staff numbered six men, some of whom, like McGeorge Bundy and Walt Rostow, achieved infamy as the authors of the Vietnam War.  Twenty years later, when Ronald Reagan took office, the NSC staff had grown to around 50.   By the time Barack Obama became president in 2009, it numbered about 370, plus another 230 or so people off the books and on temporary duty, for a total of around 600.  The bloat has not abated.  If anyone knows how many men and women now man the NSC, he or she is not talking.  The NSC staff, like the department of defense, has never been audited.

What was once a personal staff for the president has long since become an independent agency whose official and temporary employees duplicate the subject expertise of executive branch departments.  This relieves the president of the need to draw on the insights, resources, and checks and balances of the government as a whole, while enabling the centralization of power in the White House.  The NSC staff has achieved critical mass.  It has become a bureaucracy whose officers look mainly to each other for affirmation, not to the civil, military, foreign, or intelligence services..  Their focus is on protecting or enhancing the president’s domestic political reputation by trimming foreign policy to the parameters of the Washington bubble.  Results abroad are important mainly to the extent they serve this objective.

From the National Security Adviser on down, NSC staff members are not confirmed by the Senate.  They are immune from congressional or public oversight on grounds of executive privilege.  Recent cabinet secretaries – especially secretaries of defense – have consistently complained that NSC staffers no longer coordinate and monitor policy formulation and implementation but seek to direct policy and to carry out diplomatic and military policy functions on their own.  This leaves the cabinet departments to clean up after them as well as cover for them in congressional testimony.  Remember Oliver North, the Iran-Contra fiasco, and the key-shaped cake?  That episode suggested that the Keystone Cops might have seized control of our foreign policy.  That was a glimpse of a future that has now arrived.

Size and numbers matter.  Among other things, they foster overspecialization.  This creates what the Chinese call the 井底之蛙 [“jĭng dĭ zhī wā”] phenomenon – the narrow vision of a frog at the bottom of  a well.  The frog looks up and sees a tiny circle of light that it imagines is the entire universe outside its habitat.  With so many people now on the NSC staff, there are now a hundred frogs in a hundred wells, each evaluating what is happening in the world by the little bit of reality it perceives.  There is no effective process that synergizes a comprehensive appreciation of trends, events, and their causes from these fragmentary views.

This decision-making structure makes strategic reasoning next to impossible. It all but guarantees that the response to any stimulus will be narrowly tactical.  It focuses the government on the buzz du jour in Washington, not what is important to the long-term wellbeing of the United States. And it makes its decisions mainly by reference to their impact at home, not abroad.  Not incidentally, this system also removes foreign policy from the congressional oversight that the Constitution prescribes.  As such, it adds to the rancor in relations between the executive and legislative branches of the federal establishment.

In many ways too, the NSC staff  has evolved to resemble the machinery in a planetarium.  It turns this way and that and, to those within its ambit, the heavens appear to turn with it.  But this is an apparatus that projects illusions.  Inside its event horizon, everything is comfortingly predictable.  Outside – who knows? – there may be a hurricane brewing.  This is a system that creates and implements foreign policies suited to Washington narratives but detached from external realities, often to the point of delusion, as America’s misadventures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria illustrate.  And the system never admits mistakes.  To do so would be a political gaffe, even if it might be a learning experience.

Read in full here.

Well, that’s not all.  On April 14, WaPo’s David Ignatius has the following Robert Gates’ nugget:

Gates criticized the current National Security Council’s implementation of policy, arguing that “micromanagement” by a very large NSC staff undercut Obama’s efforts to use power against the Islamic State and contain China in the South China Sea. “It becomes so incremental that the message is lost. It makes them look reluctant,” he said.

Gates’s criticism of the NSC is noteworthy because he served as deputy to national security adviser Brent Scowcroft in President George H.W. Bush’s NSC, which Obama has cited as a model for how policy should be managed. By that standard, Gates implied, the current NSC team, led by Susan Rice, needs to lift its game.

And then here’s the following extracted from Brett D. Schaefer‘s How to Make the State Department More Effective at Implementing U.S. Foreign Policy (backgrounder via heritage.org, April 20, 2016):

…To increase their direct control over foreign policy and their perceived capacity to deal with fast-evolving crises, modern Presidents have also increasingly empowered and expanded the size of the National Security Council (NSC).

The original NSC, established in 1947, comprised only a handful of key advisers to the President. It grew slowly at first. Total NSC staff did not exceed 20 until the 1970s, or 60 until the mid-1990s.[10] The size of the NSC spiked in the late 1990s and stabilized at roughly 100 staff in the post-9/11 period. NSC growth resumed in the latter part of the George W. Bush Administration, and this trend has accelerated under President Barack Obama. Currently, the NSC staff is estimated to be over 400 people, more than twice the number at the end of the Bush Administration.[11] This growth has been a direct result of the President relying more on the NSC to devise and implement his foreign policy than on the Department of State.

The expanding responsibilities of the NSC can undermine several of its critical functions: serving as an honest broker of differing perspectives and equities among the various parts of the executive branch, managing the President’s scarce time to focus on the most important issues, and providing medium-term and long-term strategic thinking and perspective to the President. The Hart–Rudman Commission noted this problem 15 years ago: “The power to determine national security policy has migrated toward the National Security Council (NSC) staff. The staff now assumes policymaking and operational roles, with the result that its ability to act as an honest broker and policy coordinator has suffered.”[12 ]While not new, this problem has grown since then. As explained by former Assistant Secretary of State and current Heritage Foundation fellow Kim Holmes,

The 24-hour news cycle has thrust many issues, no matter how trivial, into the limelight, making them the President’s responsibility. The news media expect every tactical detail, from the timing of a raid on a terrorist bunker to the targets of drone attacks, to be known and controlled by the President. As a result, the NSC staff gets overly involved not only in the minutiae of operations, but also in politics. It begins to operate more as a personal White House staff than as an advisory and policy coordination staff, sometimes even to the point of acting like a Praetorian Guard for the President’s political fortunes, which is particularly inappropriate given that many people on the staff are career civil servants from national security agencies rather than political appointees. The results are quite often disastrous.[13]

 

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One response

  1. Thanks for posting these great Freeman pieces. I find the State Department, and the SFS and SES in a personally comfortable delusional bubble.

    Susan

    Sent from my iPhone

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