Over the past two years, there has been a loud chorus of complaints about the Obama administration’s overly centralized decision making and the unnecessary expansion of the National Security Council staff. The White House is criticized for a bloated staff (more than 400 people) micromanaging work best done by cabinet departments and agencies. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is among the loudest critics. In his memoir, he lampooned “the controlling nature of the Obama White House,” and found it “by far the most centralized and controlling in national security of any I had seen since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger ruled the roost in the 1970s.” His successor, Leon Panetta, added that President Obama’s decision making and staff were centralized “far more than in previous administrations that I’d witnessed, certainly more than in Clinton’s.”
It is ironic that the current administration’s deliberate process and efforts to coordinate execution draw so much criticism from the Department of Defense. The irony has two sources, one being a resource comparison and the other historical evidence involving the effectiveness of the Pentagon when it was allowed to operate with insufficient oversight.
First, the sprawling Leviathan at Defense has some 30,000 officers and staff personnel and another 30,000 staffers in eight geographic and functional joint commands around the globe operating at the strategic level. This complex architecture vastly exceeds the management staff of any corporate entity in the world. Yet the President is criticized for employing 400 staffers to coordinate and oversee his global foreign policy, economic, and national security priorities.
Second, while the Bush administration had a smaller national security secretariat, it failed to effectively coordinate policy formulation and interagency requirements for our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The nation had difficulty achieving the unity of effort of the various federal departments and functional agencies to secure designated strategic objectives. The Pentagon only exacerbated the problem during Donald Rumsfeld’s tenure as Secretary of Defense. Our shortfalls in Iraq and Afghanistan reflect shortfalls in policy and strategy development, interagency collaboration, and implementation of complex operations requiring interagency coordination and political-military integration. Critics who find a large NSC staff inherently bad casually overlook the obvious historical evidence of what happens when oversight is weak.
Diluting the White House staff’s capacity to support presidential decision making and to challenge bureaucracies to execute POTUS’s policies decisions is not an answer to serious challenges to U.S. strategic competency. Of course, a bloated and inexperienced staff tied up in minutia has a cost, too. The truly important tasks of long-range strategic planning get pushed aside by the daily crush of in-baskets. As the 9/11 Commission warned, if “the NSC staff is consumed by these day-to-day tasks, it has less capacity to find the time and detachment needed to advise a president on larger policy issues.”
We live in an age where hard and soft power have to be adequately integrated and all instruments of U.S. power must be coherently applied to national security problems. Delegation to a lead agency, like the Pentagon, too often leads to suboptimal results—as in Iraq. The complexity of contemporary crises, as well as their velocity, argues against delegation or weak supervision.
The Obama administration has responded to the criticism by starting to pare down the NSC staff. There is little doubt that the White House staff should not be running its own tactical operations. But that does not excuse weak oversight, failure to resolve interagency disputes, and poor execution. Policy implementation oversight should be the most important role of the President’s staff. But as one former NSC staffer I interviewed noted, “Unfortunately, unless the President himself makes it very clear that the NSC staff has specific authority to oversee implementation, there is a strong resistance from the departments to respond to the NSC staff.”
The price—measured in lives and treasure—of poorly crafted and executed national security policies remains a perennial reminder. The cost of a few dozen extra experts on a staff seems a small price to pay for sound policy and strategic direction. An adequately staffed and resourced NSC leadership also must monitor the policy arena, evaluate intelligence, and assess results independently on behalf of the President.
The valor of our troops and their tactical skills cannot compensate for poor strategic direction. Sound planning and rigorous policy development are more essential than ever and demand an effective leader supported by a focused NSC staff.
Dr. Hoffman is a senior research fellow at the National Defense University and a frequent contributor to Proceedings.