Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts How National Security Decisions are Made
How National Security Decisions are Made

How National Security Decisions are Made


National Security Council Meeting

National Security Council Meeting

Most Americans believe that they have an understanding of how the President makes important national security decisions, influenced by the depictions they see in Hollywood movies, from Dr. Strangelove to Independence Day. Experts send options and information upward, and the President convenes Cabinet officials and senior military officers who cluster in the Oval Office or the Situation Room to thrash out appropriate solutions, which are then transmitted to the responsible agencies of the U.S. government for implementation. This perspective aligns with what Robert Cutler, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first National Security Advisor, dubbed “Policy Hill”—that in making policy, “recommendations travel upward … where they are thrashed out and submitted to the President. When the President has approved a policy recommendation, it travels down the other side of Policy Hill to the departments and agencies responsible for its execution.”[1]

The “Policy Hill” analogy, however, rests on two unstated assumptions: first, that the President is personally interested and involved in the decision-making; and second, that the key advisors surrounding the President happen to be the heads of the relevant agencies and departments. Over the last several administrations, these assumptions have been increasingly challenged by the actual realities of how policy is made.

Even though all U.S. government decisions are made in the name of the President, in actuality, however, the President only has time and energy to make a fraction of the national security decisions in a personal capacity. As Ben Heineman points out, “a President can have only five to 10 top priorities on which he makes virtually all decisions. He can set general direction for perhaps 25 secondary priorities.” Yet, the Constitution makes no provision for a collective Presidency or for Presidential deputies to share the burden of Executive authority. At the same time, as another former National Security Advisor, Robert C. “Bud” McFarlane has noted, there is a strong preference not to have to bring “minor matters”—especially the whole host of day-to-day, routine issues—to the President for resolution and authorization.[2] The challenge, as yet a third former National Security Advisor, Jim Jones, has observed, is that there must also be a way to determine whether a matter needs to be brought personally to the President for his or her intervention, since “not everything has to go to the President for a decision” while, at the same time, ensuring a high degree of fidelity “with the President’s wishes” in terms of policy outcomes.

So far, so good. There is no intrinsic contradiction between a pyramidal organizational chart that stipulates that all national security decisions are made in the name of the President and a system that allows for the Chief Executive to transfer authority for routine decision-making further down the duly-constituted chain of command. Where the question gets far murkier is what happens when a President opts for what is termed by Robert Durant and Paul Diehl a “counterbureaucratic” solution—that is, assigning policymaking functions to units within the White House staff rather than the permanent departments and agencies of the executive branch.[3] Increasingly, over the last several decades, the “counterbureaucratic” approach has steadily gained in popularity in successive administrations. Since the Presidential staff, in theory, can coordinate policy across the government and thus not be captured by any one agency or department’s interests, instead will focus on what the President wants to achieve.[4] Presidents also like the appeal of centralizing national security oversight within the White House staff because, as Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s current National Security Advisor, has complained, leaving matters to the bureaucracy meant that policy “wasn’t working until we sucked it into the White House and the President put his personal muscle behind it.”

But what this results in is an increasing shift away from the formal officers charged with overseeing the various parts of the executive branch entrusted with national security matters towards a White House circle of advisors and staff. It is no longer automatic that the Secretaries of State and Defense will be “in the room” when the President makes a final decision, and there have been growing concerns that recent administrations have kept senior Cabinet officials, as well as their departments, in the dark about critical national security initiatives started by the White House and managed by the President’s personal staff.

Thus, when considering what sort of Presidency a future Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump administration will produce, it is becoming more important to introduce what we have termed the “palace politics” perspective. This places a great deal of emphasis on understanding who has the most influence with the President and therefore focuses on who has access (and who does not); who serves as a gate-keeper (and which views are kept out); whose judgment and perspective the Chief Executive trusts (and whose he or she does not).   In the past, those individuals might have been the Senate-confirmed officials at the helm of the Departments of State and Defense, but in more recent years, individuals who have little or no statutory authority or bureaucratic base have emerged as the principal members of the immediate entourage around the President.  Indeed, the role of key figures in the White House serving as Presidential “gatekeepers” can be a subject of concern for Cabinet officers because West Wing staff can block access to the President and prevent those officers from offering advice and counsel on policy. The “palace politics” perspective cautions that formal titles and places on an organization chart may not carry as much weight in understanding who influences policy decisions. Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta offers this observation: “You have a lot more staff people running around at the White House on these foreign policy issues. And very frankly, proximity is everything, when you’re operating at the White House. The person that’s closest to the president has greater influence than even a cabinet member, who may be located elsewhere in a department.”

The Presidential staff occupies an ambiguous position with regards to national security decision making. They enjoy the virtues of proximity to the “sole organ”—the President—but are not part of the chain of command. White House staff requests are transmitted in the name of the President (even if done so without the President’s own explicit knowledge or approval) by people not in the formal chain yet who are steps away from the Chief Executive. Cabinet officers may fume at this—and even, as Don Rumsfeld or Bob Gates did, issue orders to their subordinates to ignore tasks from the White House staff—but nevertheless, senior officials increasingly must deal with the reality, expressed by the unnamed senior sub-cabinet State Department official who fumed to Washington Post reporter Karen de Young, that “any little twerp from the NSC can call a meeting and set the agenda” without regard to rank or experience—and thus control and influence how policy is shaped.

There is nothing to indicate that either of the two Presidential candidates will change this dynamic. For different reasons, both Clinton and Trump will have strong predilections to continue to weight and prioritize the influence of the “palace” over that of the bureaucracy. As I noted in a recent observation for the National Interest:

For Trump, the #NeverTrump movement forces the candidate both to search elsewhere for expertise and to distrust the “establishment” as uncommitted to his agenda. A President Trump and his close associates could very easily and eagerly fall into the temptation that former national security advisor Brent Scrowcroft warns against: “not to replace departments. . . . That’s always the instinctive thing—well, ‘These guys aren’t doing a good job on something, we’ll just do it ourselves.’” This tendency could be further reinforced if a President Trump finds that a hostile or suspicious Senate is not prepared to confirm his preferred nominees for key positions. If officials are “forced” upon him in this way, why wouldn’t Trump and his team simply continue the trend to downgrade the importance of the cabinet and subcabinet in favor of retaining a larger White House operation?

Hillary Clinton is in a different position, with thousands of Democratic staff and experts (not to mention some Republicans as well) all eager to offer their services in a Clinton administration. Yet Clinton has consistently shown a preference for managing via a small circle of dedicated loyalists who, in turn, act as her gatekeepers and enforcers. The consistent reconstruction of the “Hillaryland” structure—from the White House in the 1990s to her Senate office in the 2000s to Foggy Bottom in the first term of the Obama administration—all strongly suggests that no matter the formal setup of National Security Council and cabinet meetings, the real focal point of decisionmaking will remain that inner circle.

Either Clinton or Trump will inherit a large Presidential apparatus, given the dramatic increase in the size of the National Security staff, from the some one hundred personnel that Bill Clinton relied upon in growing the size of the leaner George H. W. Bush staff of fifty, to the two hundred slots bequeathed by George W. Bush to Barack Obama, to the more than four hundred today (even with some recent trimming by National Security Advisor Susan Rice).  This increase in staff size has occurred because of the suspicions held by previous Chief Executives that the national security bureaucracy “is doing too much and going beyond what the president has decided, or that it is doing too little and not fulfilling what the president wants done.”[5]  

One way forward may be for a President Trump or Clinton to continue to delegate authorities to the staff as a way to develop new linkages between the White House and the bureaucracy. Early in the first term of his administration, President Obama decided that White House/NSC staff, not departmental officials, would chair the interagency policy committees (IPCs) where the “meat and potatoes” of much of U.S. national security and foreign policy is made, thus giving the staff formal rights to convene meetings and request briefing materials and position papers from the different departmental and agency representatives.[6] Expansion of the special envoy/White House coordinator/“czar” model may also hold promise for reconciling a Presidential desire to maintain control over the policy process on key issues in the White House by creating formal channels to connect the White House staff to the permanent bureaucracy and officers in the field. This model ensures that both the vertical reporting chain (within a particular organization) and the horizontal one (connecting to the White House) are engaged at the same time.[7] This might avoid the issues that Rumsfeld and Gates raised about information being solicited from DoD by the President’s staff without their consent or knowledge of what was being shared.

Faced with the reality of the rivalry between the West Wing and the departments as well as staff politics within the White House, it is easy to yearn for a return to the simplicity of the George Washington or even the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration by radically paring down the size of the White House staff and returning to a reliance on the Cabinet officers who are in the chain of command to serve as the principal advisers and staff associates to a President.

Two decades ago, Samuel Kernell, in assessing these claims, argued why they were impractical: “To assume that the governability of the modern presidency simply required reducing the staff and returning it to its original size and import would be to ignore the pervasive environmental forces that have transformed presidential leadership.” The end result, he argued, would be to leave the President “incapacitated.”[8] Even if subsequent administrations make some reduction in the size of the White House operation and fight against the urge to centralize the national security policy process, Dan Drezner warns, “This is a problem that will not go away.” The President will remain in charge—but the struggle over who acts as the President’s agent and who has the President’s ear will continue.

[1] Robert Cutler, “The Development of the National Security Council,” Foreign Affairs 34:3 (April 1956), 448.

[2] Robert C. McFarlane with Richard Saunders and Thomas C. Shull, “The National Security Council: Organization for Policy-Making,” in The Presidency and National Security Policy, ed. R. Gordon Hoxie (New York: Center for the Study of the Presidency, 1984), 266.

[3] Robert F. Durant and Paul F. Diehl, “Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policy: Lessons from the U.S. Foreign Policy Agenda,” Journal of Public Policy 9:2 (April 1989), 183.

[4] William W. Newmann, “Reorganizing for National Security and Homeland Security,” Public Administration Review 62:S1 (September 2002), 130.

[5] Derek Chollet, The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World (New York: PublicAffairs, 2016), 83.

[6] Paul D. Miller, “Organizing the National Security Council: I Like Ike’s,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 43:3 (September 2013), 595, see also Alan Whittaker, Shannon Brown, Frederick Smith and Elizabeth McCune, The National Security Policy Process: The National Security Council and Interagency System (Washington, D.C.: Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University, 2011), 35.

[7] See, for instance, some of the comments on the operation of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, in United States Department of State and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Office of Inspector General, Inspection of the Office of the United States Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Report Number ISP-I-11-48 (June 2011), 1, 6, 17. 

[8] Samuel Kernell, “The Evolution of the White House Staff,” Can the Government Govern? eds. John E. Chubb and Paul Peterson (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1989), 235.