I’ve known Robert O’Brien for over ten years, socialized with him, and worked with him in a variety of different political and policy endeavors. He and I share an instinctive enthusiasm for strong tools of American power, especially the armed forces, and especially the Navy.
O’Brien is an inspired choice for national security adviser. To understand why, it’s necessary to understand what the job is and what it isn’t.
The national security adviser is a staff position: a tremendously important staff job to be sure, but still a staff job. The NSA is not a statutory officer with statutory authority. In fact, the position of National Security Adviser wasn’t even mentioned in the original National Security Act in 1947. I don’t believe it’s in the statutes even today.
That’s why the national security adviser isn’t a Senate confirmable position; it’s also why the NSA doesn’t testify before Congressional authorizing or oversight committees. He’s the president’s personal staff. His advice and opinions are by definition covered by executive privilege.
The NSA isn’t in the national chain of command; he doesn’t sign orders or execute the law; he has no direct legal authority except over his own subordinate staff in the White House. In fact, it was only with the advent of Henry Kissinger in the Nixon Administration that people in Washington even paid much attention to who the NSA was.
So if you ask for the job description of the NSA, the answer is, both technically and practically: whatever the president wants it to be. The president could eliminate the job if he wanted.
That said, there is a classic model for the NSA that has evolved over time and that most administrations subscribe to in one form or the other.
The primary responsibility of the national security adviser is to assure a timely and effective two-way flow of information, and decisions, between those who are statutory national security principals and the president. In short, the NSA organizes the president’s regular access to, and control over, the national security process.
Typically, the NSA also has a role in making sure that the executive departments are carrying out the president’s policy, but that shouldn’t be or become the same thing as trying to run the departments. One of the criticisms of the Obama national security staff was that it interfered with the day to day functioning at State and Defense.
Of course the NSA offers his own views if and when the president wants to hear them, and because of his proximity to the Oval Office, he has tremendous influence. But that influence has to be managed carefully or the NSA can become a target of fire, and not just from outside the administration, as many NSAs have found out.
So a good national security adviser needs to do an incredible amount of work quickly, to process enormous flows of information and organize the key points for the president, and to be, and be seen as, an honest broker by the actors who run the State Department, the Defense Department, the CIA, and the other national security agencies. He must make the decision train run on time, under tremendous pressure, and keep his head when everybody else is losing theirs. Typically the NSA also defends the administration policy in the press and helps sell the policy to other actors in Washington.
Those tasks are well suited to O’Brien’s skill set and temperament. He has a prodigious capacity for work and the ability to adapt quickly to new domains and platforms. That’s why he was able to succeed as the Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs, where he was instrumental in bringing home a dozen American hostages — one of President Trump’s personal priorities, and no doubt what brought O’Brien’s abilities to Trump’s attention.
Like all good litigators, O’Brien learns his brief quickly and thinks well on his feet. He has a lot of experience dealing with the press and handling tough interviews, he can conduct, or manage, arguments without getting personal, and his training has acculturated him to representing the opinions and interests of his client, who in this case will be the president.
O’Brien will be criticized for having a foreign policy resume that is not as deep as some other NSAs. I think that’s an advantage. His perspective will be fresher and more independent than it would be if he was aligned with any camp, and he won’t hesitate to ask tough questions challenging the status quo on behalf of the president. I think he’ll be able to do that without embarrassing any of the big players, but if O’Brien has to expose a weakness in order to better serve his boss, he’ll do it without any qualms.
O’Brien is an affable character with a sunny disposition, but it would be a serious mistake for anyone to underestimate his toughness.
Knowing O’Brien as I do, I’m certain that he will throw himself heart and soul into the position, and that he is looking forward to the challenge President Trump has asked him to undertake. The country, and the president, will be the beneficiaries. Donald Trump has the toughest job in Washington, but he just made it a little easier by picking Robert O’Brien as his national security adviser.