Inside the 18-acre White House compound, the National Security Council process—making key decisions and overseeing their execution—is still in transition nearly five months after President Trump took office. The sooner this transition concludes, the better for our security. In the long run, getting this transition right is far more important than any of the Trump administration’s discrete decisions that have dominated the news since Jan. 20. Based on my first-hand experience in the White House coordinating the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during the last such transition—the departure of the Bush administration and the arrival of the Obama team in 2009—there are two fundamental challenges.
First, the national security team must be built. This goes far beyond the early presidential memorandum specifying the members of the National Security Council and the supporting principals and deputies committees. With the departures of Michael Flynn and K.T. McFarland, inside the NSC staff the leadership is now settling in, with H.R. McMaster at the helm. The 10-12 “senior directors” reporting directly to McMaster lead small cells of professionals drawn largely from across the government. But, this is only the nerve center of the national security team. Their counterparts in the State and Defense Departments—where the depth of experience and diversity of views reside, and where responsibility for implementation lays—are still nowhere close to being in place. Incredibly, nearly half a year in, there are still only a very few political appointees in Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon below the deputy secretary level, fewer than 10 percent of those required.
This is because the administration has been slow to nominate candidates who then face a multi-step process: in-depth personal vetting, investigations before being granted a security clearance and in many cases confirmation by the Senate. As candidates are drawn mostly from outside conventional policy circles, they will never have experienced this rigorous process, resulting in further delays. Today, the team is set at the very top, but not the supporting cast. There is simply no substitute for getting the team in place, and soon.
Second, the process of decision-making and overseeing execution needs to be established. This is the how of national security policy. There is no magic formula here, but several principles apply. McMaster will set the example in his relationship with the other principals, especially Tillerson, Mattis, Kelly, Coats, Pompeo and Dunford. Good process builds trust among the players and leads to good policy. Everyone must feel he has a voice in the process, that there will be no rush to judgment, that there is a regular order to decisions and that discussions will remain confidential. A good process will deal with routine issues routinely, allowing the participants to come to discussions well prepared, based on a predictable schedule that also gives them the space to run their own large departments and agencies. Good process also preserves time and energy to handle the inevitable crises, when everyone must stop whatever is planned and move to the Situation Room.
Without a routine process in which the principals have confidence, every issue becomes a crisis: Officials never know what the priorities are, preparation suffers when they become consumed by the latest fire drill, and there’s too little time to focus on the longer-term national interest. Another likely impact will be corrosive leaks from inside the still-forming team. Leaks tend to happen when the team is not set, trust not established, and when the process leaves players feeling unheard, undercut or surprised. The result is even further erosion of trust.
Despite a halting start, there is some reason for optimism. The team is set at the top. McMaster has three decades of experience in transitions during his military career, which featured changes in positions every few years. He knows well the importance of setting the team and the process, and is expert at it, but this is altogether a more complex, higher stakes challenge.
An effective NSC steadies the ship of state. The White House addresses complex issues of highest priority while delegating others to the departments and agencies to manage. There is discipline to distinguish the most important issues from those that appear most urgent based on news cycles. There is a balance between time spent on decision-making and overseeing implementation. Beyond current policy issues, time is set aside for longer-term strategy.
We pay a heavy price for the ongoing extended transition. Without the team in place and procedures set, decision-making becomes ad hoc and unpredictable, leading to mistakes and poor execution. Coordination suffers, as the players are not on the same page, leading to misstatements and a perception of internal disputes. Because the NSC staff settles in first (in part, because these positions do not require Senate confirmation) while vacancies persist at Defense and State, power gravitates to the White House, distorting the process from the outset and unbalancing relationships between the White House and the rest of the national security players. Such an imbalance will be difficult to reverse, even as new players later join the team upon confirmation. Today’s security challenges cannot be managed from the White House alone.
While we undergo this too-slow transition, the world continues to spin. Without our national security team and process in place, we are living on borrowed time before we confront a significant national security crisis that overnight becomes our first priority. Opponents deliberately will test us, friends will move on in their own interests, natural disasters will happen. No one will wait for us to get our act together. We cannot afford 2017 to be a year of endless transition. This issue is our top national security priority today.