The White House National Security Council (NSC) has no shortage of crises at the moment. Nuclear and missile proliferation on the Korean Peninsula, Islamic State-inspired attacks in western countries, the political and economic crisis in Venezuela and Russian military intervention in Ukraine, Georgia and Syria, to name just a few.
The NSC is where all of these incredibly dangerous and ever-evolving issues collide, an inter-agency coordinating body where national security professionals across the U.S. government are responsible for providing recommendations to the president. The people who staff the NSC are chronically sleep-deprived, but managing U.S. foreign policy and containing crises that could quickly spiral out of control require nothing less. As Loren DeJonge-Schulman, a former senior director in President Barack Obama's NSC described the experience, the NSC melds "existential terror with physical deprivation and feats of strength."
Being a White House national security staffer is a tough job in the most ideal of circumstances. But if colleagues are afraid of backstabbing or unable to establish productive working relationships with one another, the environment becomes unbearable. In their respective memoirs, former Secretaries of Defense Robert Gates and Leon Panetta both griped about how coordination between the U.S. national security bureaucracies can be slowed or stopped over personality differences and individual self-interest.
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This is why all of the staff changes, resignations, and score-settling in the media between top NSC and White House officials in the Trump administration are so concerning. If left unchecked, the healthy competition and inter-personal rivalries that often give the president more policy options can breed mistrust, hindering workflow and coordination. The NSC must nip this problem in the bud before it grows any worse and negatively impacts the president’s work.
The past few weeks of NSC activity have been so dizzying that it is becoming difficult to monitor who retains the confidence of the president and who is falling out of favor. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, the man at the top of the hierarchy for ensuring the president is properly briefed, has removed several officials he believed were either undermining his authority or suspected of leaking to the press. Derek Harvey, the NSC's top Middle East adviser, was shown the door in late July and reassigned to another part of the government. Rich Higgins, the man responsible for strategic planning at the NSC, was let go after distributing a controversial memo about government bureaucrats allegedly attempting to destroy Trump's agenda. Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior intelligence director, who the intelligence community considered too inexperienced and too close to former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, is no longer working in the White House. The staff turnover is apparently something McMaster views as a necessity in order to streamline the process and eliminate threats to his own power.
Even more disconcerting than the resignations and firings, however, is the ongoing smear campaign against McMaster himself, a three-star Army general who has served his country with distinction in numerous war zones across multiple deployments over a span of decades.
In just a few short days, former administration staffers - likely affiliated with the nationalist camp in the White House - have spoken to reporters to dish dirt on the general and damage his credibility with the president. One anonymous official told the Daily Caller last week that "[e]verything the president wants to do, McMaster opposes." In a personal post on her Facebook account, Jerusalem Post reporter Caroline Glick reported that several senior anonymous officials believe that McMaster is insufficiently supportive of Israel. Hashtags like #FireMcMaster are picking up steam on Twitter.
Intra-NSC spats, of course, are hardly unprecedented. Like in any modern organization, NSC employees can get on each other's nerves for many reasons, including working in a highly stressful environment where life and death decisions are made. During the Obama presidency, cabinet members and senior staff fought vehemently over U.S. policy in Afghanistan and the wisdom of deploying tens of thousands of additional U.S. soldiers to the country. During the first term of the George W. Bush years, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney were legendary for getting into sparring matches with Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice — all four of whom were principal members of Bush’s NSC and critical stakeholders in the national security policymaking process. Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger and Secretary of State George Schultz were hardly in agreement on anything, so much so that the New York Times Magazine devoted an entire article to the bickering between the two men.
However, the difference between those instances and the current one is that all of the other administrations had a relatively orderly - if spirited - national security decision-making process. After the heated arguments and feuding, final decisions would eventually get made.
The Trump administration, in contrast, is still hobbled by a lack of staffing in the State Department, a development that will reduce Foggy Bottom’s influence on the NSC if not rectified. The vicious innuendo, personality-laced leaks to the press, and the anonymous public airing of grievances that has dominated the Trump White House during its first six months is placing the ego of government officials above what is most important: giving the president sound recommendations.
New White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s campaign to instill some internal cohesion in the ranks will depend in large measure on whether President Trump supports the effort. For a man who despises negative media coverage, cracking down on the White House infighting should be highly appealing to Trump. Otherwise, the news cycle will continue to revolve around disorganization and palace intrigue.
H.R. McMaster and his nationalist rivals in the National Security Council and in the administration more broadly can disagree over policy matters without resorting to ad hominem attacks that do nothing but introduce more stress into an already stressful environment. Keeping America safe and developing sound, pragmatic, and smart foreign policy is difficult enough without having to maneuver around the unnecessary baggage.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities. The opinions expressed here are his own. @DanDePetris