The Corner

National Security & Defense

New National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien Makes Promising Progress

President Trump with his national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, in Los Angeles, September 18, 2019 (Tom Brenner / Reuters)

The Trump administration’s national security policy has, on the whole and especially at a strategic level, been quite good, and now Robert O’Brien, the new national security adviser, is implementing a promising reorganization of the NSC staff.

In its first two and a half years, the administration has:

  • Made great power competition, and especially the competition with China, the top priority of American foreign policy. The process of shifting attention to Asia began in the Obama administration, but President Trump catalyzed it in the National Security Strategy, which was completed within a year after he took office;
  • Energized the various agencies of the Executive Branch to inventory, adapt, and vigorously use the tools at their command to prosecute the administration’s policy towards China and build a national security architecture structured for that purpose. In particular Trump has recognized and realized the potential of American economic power to put adversaries off balance and on the defensive.
  • Refocused our Middle East policy on the greatest threat — Iran — and reassembled the formal and informal partnerships with Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and the Gulf States that for forty years had been the foundation of American policy in the Middle East.
  • Succeeded in lifting the defense sequester and injecting more money into the defense budget. That hasn’t accomplished as much, in practical terms, as the White House claims, but it’s a step in the right direction.

I also like the administration’s top national security personnel going forward. Mike Pompeo has been a consistent force and effective messenger for good policy and Gina Haspel is a top professional at the CIA, where professionalism is essential. It took too long for the Administration to settle on Mark Esper as Defense Secretary to replace Jim Mattis, but it was an outstanding choice that will continue to pay dividends as the DOD realigns its priorities to deal with China.

I’ve already written about how good a choice Robert O’Brien was as national security adviser. I thought that O’Brien would gravitate towards the best model for his job, in which the NSA focuses on organizing input from the national security principals — the Cabinet and sub-cabinet officials with statutory authority — and ensuring that timely decisions are made and carried out.

The NSC staff should be about organizing and integrating advice and options for the president rather than interfering and duplicating the roles of the agencies which have statutory authority over foreign policy.

That’s what O’Brien is doing now. He’s been at his post for only a month, but he’s implementing a reorganization plan that will reduce the number of staff billets by about a 40%, eliminate certain directorates, and orient the focus and expertise of the staff more towards Asia in a way that reflects the priorities of the National Security Strategy.

The idea isn’t to eliminate waste so much as to return the national security council, and the national security advisor’s position, to its roots.

The NSA, though a tremendously influential position because of its proximity to the president, is a staff job, and the first responsibility of a good staff officer is to organize his office in a way that empowers the boss. In O’Brien’s case, that means ensuring that the right cabinet and subcabinet officials focus on the right priorities, work plans, and options up for the president to consider, and are accountable to the White House for carrying out policy.

O’Brien’s focus on organization in his first few weeks shows that he is self aware enough to adapt to the job and decisive enough to act quickly. It remains to be seen how the reorganization will play out, but it’s encouraging that O’Brien is moving with such speed.

So the administration has a good strategy and good people and is reorganizing the process within the White House by which the people execute the strategy. All of that is good, but as the controversy over Syria shows, the tactical decisions are still hard — and harder than they should be and would have been if three successive administrations had not enervated the tools of American hard power.

The brutal fact is that Trump is playing a weaker hand than his predecessors, and a weaker hand than anybody inside or outside the Administration will admit, for one simple reason: other countries do not fear the United States as much as they did twenty or even ten years ago.

Yes, they respect our economic power; Trump’s use of sanctions, tariffs, and export controls has reinforced that. Yes, they know that America has enormous reservoirs of strength which, when fully engaged for a sufficient period of time, will crush any threat. But they also know that since the end of the Cold War our government has not tapped those reservoirs to size and shape the armed forces so that they can quickly defeat aggression at low levels of risk; and they know that at the point of crisis, even the United States of America cannot wave a wand and pull ships and planes and brigades and technologically superior weapons out of thin air.

Policy, people, and process all matter a lot. But so does power, and the want of it is tempting adversaries to test us, and partners to doubt us, all over the world.

Jim Talent, as a former U.S. senator from Missouri, chaired the Seapower Subcommittee. He is currently the chairman of the National Leadership Council at the Reagan Institute.


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