Peter Bergen notes the White House is confronting serious foreign policy crises
It has a strong team in place at the NSC, while State and Defense are understaffed, he says
Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of “United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists.”
The news that President Trump’s chief strategist Stephen Bannon no longer has a permanent seat on the “principals committee” of the National Security Council comes at a particularly opportune time.
The NSC is increasingly becoming the locus of the key decision-making about the United States’ place in the world, in part because the State Department under the Trump administration is barely functioning, while almost all of the key policymaking positions at the Defense Department remain unfilled.
Bannon should never have had a permanent seat on the NSC as he is a political operative and the NSC has traditionally been a place where American interests are considered rather than narrow Republican or Democratic interests.
In late January, White House spokesman Sean Spicer tried to justify Bannon’s seat on the NSC because he had once served in the US Navy, but Bannon left the Navy as a lieutenant in the early 1980s. The military and the world have changed quite a bit since Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” was a No. 1 song and Ronald Reagan had recently become president.
Another NSC official who may be sidelined is deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland. McFarland is a longtime Fox News talking head who had been out of government since she was a speechwriter in the Reagan administration and who has scant relevant expertise or experience for her present role. McFarland has been offered the soft landing of US ambassador to Singapore, although it’s not clear if she will take that job or some other role at the State Department or simply remain in place.
The key role of the NSC in making national security policy and foreign policy was a pronounced feature of the Obama administration and it seems this will also be the case for the Trump administration.
Trump’s national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster inherited an NSC team from his predecessor Michael Flynn that is quite formidable in three areas that are key to American national security interests: China (and by extension North Korea), the Middle East and Russia.
This is fortuitous because the United States faces gathering foreign policy crises. In Syria the Russian-backed Basher al-Assad regime is credibly charged with using sarin gas against its own civilians, while the mercurial North Korean leader Kim Jong Un continues his saber rattling.
The top NSC official on Asia is Matthew Pottinger, who spent many years in China working as a Mandarin-speaking reporter for the Wall Street Journal. After leaving the Journal, Pottinger then joined the Marines and served as a captain in Afghanistan and is now a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves. Pottinger has been deeply involved in the planning for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit with President Trump that begins on Thursday. What to do about North Korea will be one of the top agenda items for their meetings.
When it comes to the greater Middle East, McMaster brings to the table his own deep knowledge of Iraq and Afghanistan, countries where he served for many years.
Serving under McMaster is a triumvirate of well-seasoned Middle East hands. The senior director at the NSC for the Middle East is retired Col. Derek Harvey, an Arabic-speaking intelligence officer with a Ph.D. who served as the head of the US military cell examining the insurgency in Iraq in 2003.
It was Harvey who first laid out for President George W. Bush at the White House in the winter of 2004 the real scale and nature of the Sunni insurgency at a time when the Bush administration wouldn’t use the word “insurgency,” because it implied they were facing something much more serious than the “dead enders” Vice President Dick Cheney was then publicly talking about.
The NSC director for Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Syria is Col. Joel Rayburn who served in Iraq as an adviser to Gen. David Petraeus. An intelligence officer and historian, Rayburn published a 2014 book, “Iraq After America,” which is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand how Iraq descended into chaos in the years after the American troop withdrawal at the end of 2011.
Finally, there is Michael Bell, another retired colonel with a Ph.D. who also served under Petraeus as the leader of his Initiatives Group, which acted as Petraeus’ internal think tank when he was the commanding general in Iraq. Bell is now the director at the NSC for the Gulf States and Yemen.
Meanwhile, the top official on Russia at the NSC is a frequent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin: Fiona Hill, who joined the Trump administration last month. Hill previously worked as a US intelligence officer focused on Russia under both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Since McMaster has assumed the role of national security adviser, he has beefed up the NSC in other areas. McMaster now has a new top deputy for strategy, Egyptian-born Dina Powell, who served in the George W. Bush administration, speaks Arabic and also worked at Goldman Sachs. Powell is widely respected and is close to Ivanka Trump.
McMaster also brought on defense expert Nadia Schadlow to the NSC to write the Trump administration’s national security strategy.
Schadlow just published a book, “War and the Art of Governance,” which examines how to turn “combat success into political victory,” an enormously relevant question right now as ISIS begins to crumble and the Trump administration looks to what the “day after” ISIS looks like in Iraq and eventually Syria.
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The visit to Iraq by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner on Monday received a lot of attention, but what went unremarked was the presence of the American official pictured next to him in the group photo that was released of the US delegation that met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
The man on Kushner’s right was Tom Bossert, who served on George W. Bush’s NSC and is an expert in cybersecurity. Bossert is now Trump’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser. Bossert has kept a low profile and is not a regular on cable TV, but he is well regarded by his peers in the national security field.
(Full disclosure: I know to a greater or lesser degree a number of the officials mentioned in this article, including McMaster, Rayburn, Harvey, Bell, Pottinger, Schadlow and Bossert.)
The significance of having an NSC staffed with officials with real expertise and experience cannot be underestimated at a time when both the State Department and the Defense Department are only thinly staffed in their top echelons. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, for instance, is the only senior Pentagon official to be confirmed at the Pentagon.