The Trump administration’s quest for limited government has reached the White House Situation Room.
Robert C. O’Brien, President Trump’s new national security adviser, has launched an initiative to right-size the National Security Council. This is not a Night of the Long Knives aimed at scores of potential anti-Trump whistleblowers, as anti-Trump paranoiacs have convinced themselves.
The goal of this NSC reform effort is to slice Obama-Biden’s Big Government blubber that engulfed even the White House office that, since 1947, has furnished foreign-policy information and options to America’s presidents.
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Soon after the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, President John F. Kennedy inaugurated the fabled Situation Room and assigned its operation to the 12-member NSC staff. While President Jimmy Carter juggled an energy crisis, the Iran Hostage Crisis, and Soviet colonialism, he relied on just 35 NSC professionals.
Fast forward to Obama-Biden: NSC policy positions had grown to some 230 staffers. As an NSC official told me: “That number was so high that Congress stepped in and adopted legislation that required the NSC to limit its policy slots to under 200, or the position of NSC chief might be made subject to Senate confirmation.” There were so many people in functional-area roles — such as coordinating defense, tracking WMDs, and tightening transportation and border security — that they were stepping on the toes of those in regional-focus posts, such as Asian and Latin American area specialists. Atop this internal duplication, Obama-Biden’s NSC had begun to mirror positions at agencies outside the White House.
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O’Brien’s recommendation — which President Donald Trump approved and assigned O’Brien to implement — would reduce the NSC’s policy-aide headcount from 178 today to 117, roughly the number who served with NSC chief Condoleezza Rice in the early 2000s, under President G.W. Bush. It seems logical that an NSC as large as it was when the Afghan and Iraq wars blazed should do just fine in the early 2020s, as those and other conflagrations cool down.
These departing staffers will not be given 10 minutes to clear their desks before being booted onto Pennsylvania Avenue. Au contraire. Through next January, these reductions will occur via attrition, in some cases. In most, professional staffers on loan from other agencies (e.g. the State Department, Pentagon, or CIA) will conclude their White House duties and then redeploy to their home offices, imbued with the knowledge and contacts they cultivated in the West Wing. Such inter-agency cross-pollenization should benefit the American people.
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“It just ballooned into a massive bureaucracy over at the White House, under the last administration,” O’Brien told Fox Business Network’s Lou Dobbs on October 10, in his first TV interview since departing State as special envoy for hostage affairs to helm the NSC. “We want to bring it back to historic levels. We think we can be more efficient, get rid of some of the bloat, and also better serve the president with that sort of a streamlined organization.”
O’Brien’s plan to make the NSC great again already has earned the applause of security- and fiscal-affairs experts.
• “The problem with too many people in the NSC is that the staff starts to operationalize; they start doing things not coordinating and integrating,” says Heritage Foundation foreign policy scholar James Jay Carafano. “The staff should be small,” adds the 25-year U.S. Army veteran. “It should focus on the president’s business. It should be primarily political with professional support staff as needed, like on technical issues.”
• “In this case less IS more. The cuts are needed, and there will be immediate benefit in efficiency,” predicts my London Center for Policy Research colleague, LCPR president Anthony A. Shaffer. The former Pentagon intelligence officer worked frequently with NSC staffers. He continues, “By empowering a small number of competent officers you actually increase the odds of important issues being put forth to the president and his key deputies on a timely basis.”
• “Reducing the size of NSC staff to match contemporary national security priorities will help to eliminate duplication and should increase the effectiveness of its advice to the president,” says Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. “Returning some detailed staff will enable federal agencies to restore some of their own foreign policy capabilities. Since NSC staffing is flexible, it can be reduced further or increased in the future, as needed.”
To be as transparent as a display-room window, Robert O’Brien has been a friend of mine since college. We met through the Bucks County, Pennsylvania-based Washington Crossing Foundation. Its scholarships eased O’Brien through UCLA, yours truly through Georgetown, and have done likewise for hundreds of incoming college students who aspire to government service and revere the ideals of 1776.
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In terms of presenting options to commander in chief Trump, O’Brien has plenty on his to-do list, starting with security on the U.S./Mexico border, Chinese ambitions, North Korean denuclearization, Iranian non-nuclearization, and the immediately and desperately urgent need to contain, if not liquidate, imprisoned (and now escaping!) ISIS murderers in Syria.
Ironically, NSC chief Robert O’Brien and his team might get more done with fewer hands on deck.