What exactly are O’Brien’s reform plans? Politico’s Nahal Toosi did an outstanding story on that very question: “The changes at the National Security Council are both sweeping and minute: several dozen policy roles will be eliminated as staffers return to their home agencies or leave government in the coming two months; at least two NSC divisions are being phased out completely; a third, meanwhile, has been handed off to a separate White House-based group.”
O’Brien proposes some significant changes. The staff will shrink from 174 current nonadministrative staffers to 120 by January, a reduction of more than 28 percent. The strategic planning and emerging technologies directorates will be eliminated; the international economics directorate will report to the National Economic Council instead of the NSC.
Will O’Brien’s reforms improve the running of U.S. foreign policy? In theory, it’s a mixed bag at best. The size and influence of the NSC staff has been a long-running source of irritation among non-NSC policymakers. Shrinking the staff size might clarify the fact that the NSC staff’s job is supposed to be policy coordination, not policy creation or, God forbid, policy operations.
That said, eliminating the strategic planning and emergent technologies directorates seems foolhardy at best and counterproductive at worst. The claim, as reported by Toosi, that strategic planning is unnecessary because the National Security Strategy was already crafted is, how to put this, bonkers. Any decent strategy requires not just articulation, but monitoring and assessment. This would have been a good job for this NSC directorate. Furthermore, by statute, another NSS will need to be crafted for 2021, so it’s not like that function disappears. Or it might just be the case that no one actually pays attention to the 2017 NSS.
As for emergent technologies, it seems curious for a White House obsessed with things like 5G and the Fourth Industrial Revolution to voluntarily shed that competency in the NSC. Similarly, having international economics no longer report to the NSC is an odd choice for an administration that has fused economics and security like no other administration in the history of the National Security Council.
In normal times, O’Brien’s proposed reforms would be great fodder for think-tank panels. These are not normal times, and so one must appreciate the high comedy of this latest tweak to the foreign policy machinery.
Simply put, in a world in which the president of the United States displays the emotional and intellectual maturity of a toddler, what difference does an NSC organization make?
If there is anything we have learned from the impeachment inquiry, it is that this administration cannot coordinate foreign policy or national security issues to save its life. As my Post colleague Greg Jaffe recently noted after reading the depositions, “Senior U.S. officials working on Ukraine often seemed to live in a state of dread and confusion over what the president might do or tweet.” CNN’s Kevin Liptak reported a similar dynamic: “Like a new book written by an anonymous administration official, the transcripts depict a president consumed by festering grievances and an administration perpetually thrown into disarray by rash decisions — and the tweets that announce them.”
The most obvious example of the irrelevance of the NSC came from senior diplomat William B. Taylor Jr.'s testimony, in which he explained why it was impossible for senior officials to coordinate Ukraine policy at a critical juncture: “Those principals, as we call them, were on different trips at different times. … I think this was also about the time of the Greenland question, about purchasing Greenland, which took up a lot of energy in the NSC.”
No staff reform can fix that kind of leadership pathology. Even the defense of Trump by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) points to the incoherence of policymaking under Trump: “What I can tell you about the Trump policy towards the Ukraine is that it was incoherent. … They seem to be incapable of forming a quid pro quo.” And it’s not like O’Brien has demonstrated the best judgment since taking the NSC post. The notion that any NSC reform will fix any of this is absurd.
The primary problem with American foreign affairs in 2019 is not the size of the NSC staff, or the failure of policy principals. It is who occupies the Oval Office. Everything else is flotsam.