February 9, 2017–President Trump repeatedly told the public that all sorts of things were going to be accomplished on “day one,” whether it was building a wall on the Mexican border, sequestering the profits of the megalith corporations, or deporting all those immigrants. Here we’re approaching the one month mark, twenty days in from the inaugural, and those day one promises are starting to nag. A key area is government organization, because having the structure in place facilitates all other government activities. Today let’s take a look at the National Security Council (NSC) staff.
Retired Army general Michael Flynn is President Trump’s national security adviser. Flynn gained Mr. Trump’s confidence during the political campaign, when he stood by through thick and thin as many of the country’s foreign policy heavyweights shunned the Trump campaign. There is a reason, of course. The general and, now, the president, are kindred spirits who enjoy baiting and playing their adversaries, and they share an affinity for Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Flynn has also expressed disdain for religions and ethnicities, seeming to lump many Muslims in together with those Islamists who are actually fighting–not to mention viewing all of them as attacking the United States rather than each other. It’s a vision Mr. Trump shares too.
Flynn’s professional reputation is mixed. As a field officer and junior general he was regarded with awe as a “young turk,” an intelligence specialist who applied creativity to innovating new ways of slicing and dicing the data to derive new visions of the adversary. He did this for General Stanley McChrystal at the Special Operations Command and again in Afghanistan. Flynn was less successful when promoted to head the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), where he reportedly made a mess of reorganization, and alienated his rank and file with peremptory demands and far-fetched analytical positions. Details of what happened at DIA remain obscure to this day and there may be a Flynn scandal waiting in the closet.
Kellyanne Conway has her “alternate facts,” at DIA the general had “Flynn facts.” This might make for bitter infighting on the NSC staff but it could also lead to a cowed staff that dares not raise problems with proposals.
Flynn is in a position where he must somehow steer around the even bigger White House struggle for supremacy among Stephen Bannon, Reince Priebus, and Jared Kushner. It’s too early so far to do more than note that problem exists. Note this: all three of the big guys, along with Flynn, will share responsibility for overseeing a “Strategic Vision Task Force.”
Under President Obama the NSC staff had grown like a mushroom. There were more than four hundred policy professionals divided into different regional and functional sub units. National security adviser Susan K. Rice had to supervise twenty-three different directorates. (By way of contrast, on President John F. Kennedy’s NSC staff the total number of professionals remained small enough to fit on a single rubber stamp.) Flynn intends to cut the directorates by two-thirds, and the staff as a whole to 230 professionals, roughly two hundred of them delegated from the departments and agencies of the Washington bureaucracy. This is important : that statistic indicates the thinness of the Trump national security staff.
Traditionally in Washington about one third of NSC staffers are seconded from agencies, here the number approaches ninety percent. That datum testifies to Trump and Flynn’s failure to attract the talents of the experienced national security professionals, who are standing aside or have been blackballed by administration officials or talent scouts. Yet size reductions notwithstanding, there are sixty positions on the NSC staff still unfilled, about 30 percent of the anticipated departmental cohort.
From the names we have seen so far an inordinate number of the staff directors are military officers detailed to the White House. That does not promise well for breadth or depth of foreign policy experience.
Meanwhile, even with reductions the Trump national security staff reflects the bloating of bureaucracy, hardly the sleek image the new president affects. Kissinger’s NSC staff had about fifty–and that was viewed as swollen. The Brzezinski staff grew larger yet, and in Ronald Reagan’s day the security staff reached 150. Bottom line: expect the Trump NSC staff to be opinionated yet based on a narrow grasp of issues and implications.