Washington’s Missing China Strategy
To Counter Beijing, the Biden Administration Needs to Decide What It Wants
Ever since National Security Adviser James Jones told The Washington Post in early February that the Obama administration's National Security Council would be "dramatically different" from its predecessors, Washington has watched and waited. Jones' words sent a message: that the NSC would act as the White House's integrator for an unprecedented range of policy issues -- security, military, economic, energy, environmental. To do so, however, this key White House body would need to overcome the constraints that have limited its role in prior administrations in international security issues.
Count me skeptical. There are two unanswered questions: How wide a range of issues will the NSC's jurisdiction cover, and will Jones himself be able to develop an operating style that is consistent with President Obama's informal, substantively intense, and rapid decision-making?
On February 13, several days after Jones' widely reported interview, Obama issued Presidential Policy Directive 1, which codifies formal procedures for managing national security issues in the White House. At first glance, the order seemed to confirm Jones' declaration: it names 11 senior members of the Obama administration as regular members of the NSC, reaching beyond its long-standing statutory core (the vice president and the secretaries of state and defense) to include the secretaries of the treasury and homeland security and, "when international economic issues are on the agenda," the U.S. trade representative, the secretary of commerce, and two senior White House economic aides. And it defines the scope of the NSC as "all aspects of national security policy as it affects the United States -- domestic, foreign, military, intelligence, and economic (in conjunction with the National Economic Council)."
This sounds broad. But it is not all that new. The original National Security Act of 1947, signed by President Harry Truman, gave the NSC responsibility for "the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security." In February 2001, George W. Bush's National Security Presidential Directive 1 defined the NSC's jurisdiction in essentially the same terms as Obama's directive did. The only officials Obama has added to Bush's NSC participants are the secretary of energy (now mandatory under a statute passed in 2007), the secretary of homeland security (a position that did not exist when Bush took office), and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (who served on the NSC in the Clinton administration). The formal expansion of the NSC's authority under Obama is incremental, not fundamental.
More important, even when the NSC has had a far-reaching mandate in the past, it has not given priority to issues beyond those centered on the United States' political-military and diplomatic relationships. From Richard Nixon onward, American presidents have established alternative policy staffs to handle international economic policy, the most prominent being the National Economic Council (NEC), which Bill Clinton created in 1993.
Obama has gone even further in building alternative centers of policy strength in the White House. He appointed Larry Summers, Clinton's brilliant treasury secretary, as the director of the NEC. And he has named influential figures to oversee policy-making on other issues with strong international dimensions: Carol Browner is assistant to the president for energy and climate change, a newly created position, and John Holdren is the head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Given such a strong cast of advisers outside of the NSC with direct access to Obama, it is unlikely that the council will be a focal point for addressing such questions. The only area where the NSC's jurisdiction may soon expand is homeland security -- an ongoing NSC study is likely to recommend folding the Homeland Security Council into the NSC proper.
Within its traditional sphere of foreign and security policy, senior NSC officials are playing important roles. Tom Donilon, the deputy national security adviser, runs an effective interagency deputies committee that meets frequently, engaging, in particular, his counterparts at the State and Defense departments. Two long-standing Obama aides now at the NSC, Denis McDonough and Mark Lippert, are also active in advising the president.
But Jones remains something of a question mark. The most successful national security advisers -- McGeorge Bundy, Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, and Sandy Berger -- were effective thanks to strong personal and policy relationships with their presidents, and it remains unclear whether Jones will establish a similarly close connection with Obama. The retired marine general has garnered widespread bipartisan respect for his integrity, but he had met Obama only twice before being appointed to the job.
History suggests that this is not an insuperable obstacle: Bundy built his relationship with Kennedy, and Kissinger his with Nixon, only after moving to the White House. But both Bundy and Kissinger immersed themselves in the substance of presidential policy, and their operational styles (Bundy's was open and casual, while Kissinger's was tight and controlled) were natural fits for their respective bosses.
Jones's personal style does not seem to be so good a match for Obama's. Jones is a career military man accustomed to operating within a hierarchical structure, where rank matters and information and recommendations move through predictable channels. Even at its most structured, policy-making in the White House is never like this, and it appears to be particularly far from it under this president.
For Jones, Bundy's experience may be the most relevant, since Obama resembles Kennedy more than any other U.S. president since World War II. He is cool, cerebral, and substance-oriented. Like Kennedy, he is a former senator and accustomed to informal processes, going to individuals rather than large organizations for advice. As a onetime community organizer, he has had additional experience with fluid situations that Kennedy never had. And as a former law professor, Obama is attracted to disputation as a means of garnering facts and making decisions instead of relying on the counsel, however well grounded, of a single aide, or having others' views channeled through a particular aide.
Before running his presidential campaign, Obama had never managed a large organization. Still, he has broad confidence in his capacity to make the right decisions on complex policy issues. As Leslie Gelb, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, put it, "He is so self-confident that he believes he can make decisions on the most complicated of issues after only hours of discussion."
If so, then Obama needs someone to offer a corrective, to be sure that all alternatives are raised and their consequences examined prior to his making a possibly irrevocable choice. Jones does not seem to be playing that role. A pattern is apparently developing in the Obama White House whereby other NSC staffers brief and advise the president while Jones oversees the process in a formal sense. Meanwhile, Vice President Joseph Biden intervenes in discussions from time to time to balance the debate and expand the president's policy options. (Like Dick Cheney but unlike most vice presidents before him, Biden attends NSC principals committee meetings.) It is he, not Jones, who seems to have taken on the national security adviser's role of guarding against premature presidential decisions.
Does Obama need someone else, another Bundy -- a man as quick as he is, who is empowered rather than confounded by openness and rapid-fire discussion? Or will Jones find a way to adapt? Only time will tell. One thing, however, is already certain: it will take more than one broad presidential order and claims of enhanced jurisdiction to make a "dramatically different" NSC.