One question many of us have had since the announcement that President Obama’s foreign policy team would include Hillary Clinton as State and Jim Jones at NSC was which of these two strong figures would emerge on top.  As I noted last week, “Realistically, one or the other will dominate.  My money’s on the general.”  A front page story in today’s WaPo by Karen DeYoung makes me want to raise my bet.

President Obama plans to order a sweeping overhaul of the National Security Council, expanding its membership and increasing its authority to set strategy across a wide spectrum of international and domestic issues.  The result will be a “dramatically different” NSC from that of the Bush administration or any of its predecessors since the forum was established after World War II to advise the president on diplomatic and military matters, according to national security adviser James L. Jones, who described the changes in an interview. “The world that we live in has changed so dramatically in this decade that organizations that were created to meet a certain set of criteria no longer are terribly useful,” he said.

Jones, a retired Marine general, made it clear that he will run the process and be the primary conduit of national security advice to Obama, eliminating the “back channels” that at times in the Bush administration allowed Cabinet secretaries and the vice president’s office to unilaterally influence and make policy out of view of the others.  “We’re not always going to agree on everything,” Jones said, and “so it’s my job to make sure that minority opinion is represented” to the president. “But if at the end of the day he turns to me and says, ‘Well, what do you think, Jones?,’ I’m going to tell him what I think.”

There was never any doubt on that point.

The new structure, to be outlined in a presidential directive and a detailed implementation document by Jones, will expand the NSC’s reach far beyond the range of traditional foreign policy issues and turn it into a much more elastic body, with Cabinet and departmental seats at the table — historically occupied only by the secretaries of defense and state — determined on an issue-by-issue basis. Jones said the directive will probably be completed this week.  “The whole concept of what constitutes the membership of the national security community — which, historically has been, let’s face it, the Defense Department, the NSC itself and a little bit of the State Department, to the exclusion perhaps of the Energy Department, Commerce Department and Treasury, all the law enforcement agencies, the Drug Enforcement Administration, all of those things — especially in the moment we’re currently in, has got to embrace a broader membership,” he said.

Including “domestic” agency heads on the NSC on a situational basis isn’t novel; the idea goes back at least as far as George H.W. Bush’s administration.   Institutionalizing the process, though, and especially a radical expansion of what constitutes a “national security” issue is a much-needed break from the past.

New NSC directorates will deal with such department-spanning 21st-century issues as cybersecurity, energy, climate change, nation-building and infrastructure. Many of the functions of the Homeland Security Council, established as a separate White House entity by President Bush after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, may be subsumed into the expanded NSC, although it is still undetermined whether elements of the HSC will remain as a separate body within the White House.

The whole concept of “Homeland Security” as something distinct from “national security” was a bizarre, knee jerk, “do-something” response to the 9/11 attacks.  Ideally, we’d go beyond scrapping the HSC and dismantle the Department of Homeland Security, too.

Organizational maps within the government will be redrawn to ensure that all departments and agencies take the same regional approach to the world, Jones said. The State Department, for example, considers Afghanistan, Pakistan and India together as South Asia, while the Pentagon draws a line at the Pakistan-India border, with the former under the Central Command and the latter part of the Pacific Command. Israel is part of the military’s European Command, but the rest of the Middle East falls under Central Command; the State Department combines Israel and the Arab countries surrounding it in its Near East Bureau. “We are going to reflect in the NSC all the regions of the world along some map line we can all agree on,” Jones said.

This, too, is hardly a new idea.  Indeed, it was a hot topic in my early days as a graduate student as Bill Clinton was setting up his team.  The fact that something so obvious hasn’t been done is likely a testament to the difficulty of changing entrenched bureaucratic habits.

The national security process, he said, will also be “transparent to its clients” inside the administration, with meeting agendas and outcomes made available to “the whole community” in real time. Each department will appoint someone to monitor the NSC process, enabling senior officials across the government to be ready to jump into issues without steep learning curves.

Directorates inside Jones’s NSC staff will oversee implementation of decisions. “It doesn’t mean that we micromanage or supervise,” he said. “But you have to make sure, . . . particularly if it’s a presidential decision, that the president is kept abreast of how things are going. That it doesn’t just fall off the end of the table and disappear into outer space.”

Again, a seemingly obvious step.  Despite my confidence in Jones (who chaired the Atlantic Council immediately prior to taking on this gig) I’m extremely skeptical of this going smoothly.  Information is power in bureaucracies and national security bureaucracies — particular those in the intelligence community — are loathe to share.

This is interesting:

“I believe in collegiality . . . in sounding out people and getting them to participate,” Jones said. “I notice the president is very good at that.” But he made clear he plans to apply military-like discipline to the NSC. “The most important thing is that you are in fact the coordinator and you’re the guy around which the meetings occur. When we chair a principals meeting, I’m the chairman.” One of the first of many internal Bush administration clashes occurred when Cheney proposed that he, rather than Rice, chair NSC meetings.

In his initial conversations with Obama before taking the job, Jones confirmed, he insisted on being “in charge” and having open and final access to the president on all national security matters. “We engaged in about an hour-long discussion about what I was already thinking about the NSC; it happened, I think, to mesh pretty well with what his instincts were. He was clear about the role of the national security adviser,” Jones said of Obama. The NSC will take on all national security matters that are strategic in nature and “of such importance that the president of the United States would care” about them, he said.

If anyone can achieve this, Jones can.  But I just can’t imagine Hillary Clinton smiling and going along with this.   She gave up a prominent Senate seat to be Secretary of State and almost certainly thinks that she, not young Obama, should be in the Oval Office. Similarly, while I’m less familiar with his personality, it’s hard to believe Leon Panetta would give up his lucrative “consulting” and speechmaking lifestyle to take on CIA if he intended to be merely a bureaucratic cog in the NSC machine.  He was, after all, White House Chief of Staff under Bill Clinton, not only having daily access to the president but actually setting his boss’ schedule. 

Atlantic’s Megan McArdle argued, in the context of Obama’s economics advisors, that this is “the problem with dream teams.”  If the idea was to run everything through Jones and NSC, it might have made more sense to get people used to taking orders to head up the other agencies.   A team of rivals, on the other hand, is unlikely to be so acquiescent.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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