In testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on accusations that national security aide Ben Rhodes created an “echo” chamber to deceive Congress and the American people, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action critic Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute said there are lessons beyond the administration’s efforts to manufacture Iranian “moderates” and portray the deal as coming as a result of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s election: “Rhodes’s war room is not an isolated problem: it is symptomatic of an NSC [National Security Council] that, according to all three of Obama’s former secretaries of defense, has grown imperial in both size and ethos. In order to protect our system of checks and balances, Congress must take action to school the White House in a healthy respect for republican values.”
Doran is not alone. “It is an open secret that the bloated Obama NSC has created enormous problems for DoD over the past 7 years,” former ambassador Eric Edelman tells me. “I am largely sympathetic to what the committees of jurisdiction are trying to do to limit the size of the NSC and to cut down on its penchant for getting involved in operational activity something that folks had thought unwise since the Iran-Contra fiasco.”
None of this should detract from the egregious arrogance Rhodes displayed or the active trickery to pass the JCPOA. Rhodes is also emblematic of what occurs when people with zero foreign policy background and knowledge take it upon themselves to treat foreign policy like creative writing. It would, of course, be even worse to have a commander in chief whose knowledge of the world can be tucked into a thimble, but that discussion will go on through November.
As to systemic problems with the NSC, neither of these foreign policy veterans favors imposing congressional oversight on presidential staff members. (“As the head of a co-equal branch of government, the president has the right to organize his staff however he sees fit,” says Doran. “Moreover, he deserves the frankest advice available, something his advisors will not provide if they are forced to serve two masters.”) Nevertheless, both agree with the objective of cutting the NSC down to size. Edelman notes that President Obama’s own secretaries of defense have complained about incessant micromanaging from White House staffers.
Although the president has threatened to veto it, a push to amend the National Defense Authorization Act — led by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.) — would chop the NSC down to 100 people (from nearly 400!). Last week Thornberry put out a statement explaining, “All of President Obama’s former Defense Secretaries have complained about micromanagement by the NSC. I have personally heard from troops on the frontlines who have received intimidating calls from junior White House staffers. The current NSC has grown so large that the White House cannot even give us a clear estimate of how many people actually work for it.” He continued, “I believe the traditional role filled by the NSC — of coordinating policy and offering advice to the President — is essential and should continue. History proves that 100 people are enough to get that job done. However, if the President wants an NSC modeled after the current one — an NSC that makes operational decisions, builds misinformation campaigns, and absorbs most national security functions within the White House — it will come with accountability and oversight from Congress.” The latter is a veiled threat to cut the NSC down to size or face congressional oversight.
Obama, as we noted, is threatening to veto the bill, not only because of this issue but also because of bipartisan agreement on additional funding needed to adequately equip and maintain the military. Democrats would be well advised to stand behind the bill, if for no other reason than the thought of 400 Donald Trump NSC aides like Corey Lewandoswki conducting their own, unsupervised foreign policy operations.