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Naming National Security Team Will Be a Priority for Obama

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By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 19, 2008

If President-elect Barack Obama follows the pattern of most of his modern predecessors, one of the first documents to bear his signature after he takes office will be a directive laying out his administration's national security structure. Bill Clinton signed one his first day in office; George W. Bush during his first month.

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The directive traditionally sets the membership of the National Security Council, determining who has a seat at the table where the highest-level defense and foreign policy decisions are made. Most important, it determines the person who schedules meetings of the NSC principals and writes the agendas, who sits at the head of the table in the absence of the president and who has the president's ear on national security matters on a daily basis.

For most chief executives, that person has been the White House national security adviser. Obama has announced no selection yet and, according to several sources, has made no decisions, although three names have circulated widely.

The heaviest betting is on James B. Steinberg, the former Clinton deputy national security adviser and State Department official who is currently dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

Retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, a former NATO commander and current executive at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has been an informal foreign and defense policy adviser to Obama and is highly respected.

A third possibility is Susan E. Rice, a State Department veteran who signed on early with Obama as a senior foreign policy adviser. Although she has been close to Obama much longer than the others -- Steinberg joined the campaign after the primaries -- Rice is considered a more likely choice as deputy national security adviser.

Among Obama's earliest decisions will be whether to retain the separate National Economic Council created by Clinton, as well as Bush's Homeland Security Council, and whether to establish new White House-level panels on policy priorities such as energy and the environment. Sources close to the Obama team said neither will be determined until the national security team -- the adviser and the secretaries of state and defense -- are chosen.

Like his predecessors, Obama will have no shortage of immediate national security problems to address, not least the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or advice on how to organize his team. In addition to many upcoming think tank and university reports, Congress has funded the Project on National Security Reform, which will recommend more legislative oversight and amendments to the 1947 National Security Act.

The act set up the NSC structure: a "principals" committee including the president, the vice president, and the secretaries of state and defense, with a small White House staff. But each president since then has established his own national security apparatus, and the structures have varied as widely as the balance of power among competing national security voices in each administration.

Clinton officially added the Treasury secretary, the U.N. ambassador, his economic adviser and chief of staff to the council; Bush removed them all. Both included the CIA director and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at principals meetings but did not put them on the principals list.

Structure is inevitably overtaken by personalities, and informal processes develop as the president turns his attention to one adviser over another. Beyond Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., whose strong foreign policy credentials ensured his place on the Obama ticket, possibilities mentioned for secretary of state, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, are far from shrinking violets. With the two wars and mushrooming resources, the Defense Department inevitably will have a large say in decision-making.

Some national security advisers such as Henry A. Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski have been more powerful than the secretaries with whom they served. In some administrations, the White House national security staff has been large -- 74 people under Dwight D. Eisenhower and more than 100 during Clinton's second term -- and in others it has been small.

John F. Kennedy slashed it to 12 members and relied on his own council of "wise men." Richard M. Nixon wanted to "run foreign policy out of the White House," he said in his memoirs, and adviser Kissinger assembled a 50-person staff to do it. Jimmy Carter cut that number in half.

In the wake of the Iran-contra arms-for-hostages scandal, Ronald Reagan stripped his White House national security council staff of the unprecedented "operational" responsibility it had assumed.

There was nothing in Bush's Organization of the National Security Council System directive, signed on Feb. 13, 2001, that previewed the power assumed by Vice President Cheney. Condoleezza Rice, Bush's first national security adviser, won an early battle with Cheney when Bush rejected the vice president's suggestion that he -- not she -- chair the NSC principals' meetings in the president's absence.

But Rice's influence was weakened by the warring first-term troika of Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. Many analysts believe she failed at one of the national security adviser's primary responsibilities -- serving as an honest broker for the president among competing Cabinet points of view. Others, however, have argued that it is the president's job to make sure his team acts in concert.

When the going gets tough, Lyndon B. Johnson's national security adviser, Walt Rostow, once told the Brookings Institution, "it takes a very strong president to insist these people get along."

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