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Editor’s Note: The Trump administration, more than any of its predecessors, is relying on serving and retired military leaders to staff key civilian positions, including much of the National Security Council. Too often this is caricatured as a militarization of foreign policy, but the effectsfor better and for worseare probably far more complex. Loren DeJonge Schulman and Amy Schafer of CNAS assess the likely impact of the prominent role of military figures and argue that their perspective is a valuable one but that countervailing points of view are also necessary for U.S. foreign policy to be effective.


From the moment President Trump nominated James Mattis as his secretary of defense, the swamp has made hand-wringing over civil-military relations a fine art. There are veterans on the NSC staff! There are generals in the West Wing! There are no political appointees in the Office of the Secretary of Defense or the State Department! The president is delegating to the military!

Reasonable people might rightfully inquire: So what? If the president—particularly an inexperienced one such as this—is staffed with competent professionals, what difference does it make if they wear, or once wore, a uniform?

Good question. Most assessments of Trump’s appointees have focused on the long-term effects a militarized leadership team and staff might have on civil-military relations. But few have discussed the basics of the national-security process and how the mix of personalities achieves—or doesn’t—an alchemy that leads to good decision-making. Few have talked about why civilian policy perspectives and military advice are necessarily different, and most valuable when distinct. Some who have raised this issue have been dismissed for relying on clichés and stereotypes: Veterans are warmongers. Civilians are destructive micromanagers. The military doesn’t appreciate soft power. Civilians held the military back.

Clearly, these are extreme interpretations. But there is a small hint of truth to each of them, which is why the practicalities of national-security staffing and the decision process relies on mixing archetypes from across government.

The NSC in General

The Situation Room’s a stage, and the National Security Council functions best when the players understand each other’s roles while mastering their own. It is the primary tool at the president’s disposal to organize the disparate perspectives and advice from his national-security team. By statute and presidential memo, it involves over a dozen agencies and White House offices. The national security advisor—a non-statutory position—manages a process that is ideally impartial and hierarchical that she or he uses to evaluate and present options to the president. Most other member roles are delineated in the Constitution, later statutes including the National Security Act of 1947, and the proclivities of each president. The most frequently lauded NSC “model” is that of LTG (R) Brent Scowcroft under President George H.W. Bush, described in detail by Michele Flournoy:

Scowcroft saw the role of the national security advisor and his staff as that of an honest broker, developing and assessing options for decision, ensuring the president had the benefit of the full range of perspectives when making decisions, and then, once a decision was made, providing oversight to ensure that it was executed by agencies according to presidential intent….This relies on being explicit with each NSC principal, individually and as a team, as to expectations of their respective roles, responsibilities, decision rights, and accountabilities.

Beyond the inclusion in, then removal of, Steve Bannon from his NSC, the most concrete way President Trump has shifted the dynamic of the NSC is by placing a greater number of retired and active military officers in critical national security posts (Mattis, McMaster, Kelly, Waddell), and seeding the leadership of the National Security Council staff with the same (at least 10 current or former military officers out of 25 senior posts). Regardless of your political leanings, veterans now have a larger influence on national security decision-making than in the past, and this bears consideration (in the same way similar numbers of, say, experienced female human-rights lawyers would raise eyebrows).

This matters on account of the roles President Trump asks these current and former uniforms to play. For example, to the layman, the distinction between the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs is not obvious. The differences between, say, defense strategy and military advice are easily waved away by old friends who know each others’ views well, or a president who cares less about civilian control than the prestige of his GOFOs, or a junior enlisted Marine with a Mattis religious icon on his wall. They shouldn’t be. Each NSC stakeholder has his or her own staff and should come to the table with different rationales or views on the best options available. Their distinct advice derives not only from their expertise but from the full analytic weight of their separate institutions. For example, it is useful for McMaster, Waddell, Mattis, and Kelly to understand the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, but commenting on it or being asked by the president to freelance from their new perches minimizes the distinction between military and policy advice.

Simply putting several smart men and women in the room—without caring about what equities they are representing or what biases they maintain—serves the president poorly. Groupthink is their worst enemy.

The NSC’s decision process relies on debate rooted in the lack of consensus among these different perspectives (even stereotypes!). Participants are in the Situation Room less to demonstrate their individual brainpower and more to effectively guide the unique interests, capabilities, and risk assessments of their agencies in pursuit of national security. These roles are profoundly difficult to learn and unlearn; to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, there is no NSC school. Simply putting several smart men and women in the room—without caring about what equities they are representing or what biases they maintain—serves the president poorly. Groupthink is their worst enemy. One of the national security advisor’s roles is to coax out the most robust versions of different perspectives and associated tools without leading the debate toward his or her own bias. Equally important, he or she has to manage the debate in a way that leads to options, not paralytic problem admiration.

Similarly, NSC staffers are usually brought on due to their ability to access and balance the perspectives of the agencies that work within a portfolio (like Afghanistan or nonproliferation). The staff itself consists of a couple hundred uniformed military officers and civil servants who are temporary detailees from their individual agencies, plus political appointees, all led by the president’s national security advisor. Their primary role is to coordinate the development of policy options as impartial arbiters of their interagency counterparts. That they have operational (or diplomatic, or development, or academic) experience is less important than their ability to understand their own biases, as well as the full range of other equities. This requires understanding the reality of interagency stereotypes and trying not to privilege their own tribe. The clichés about these dynamics may be simplistic, but they’re not completely exaggerated. For example, diplomats do have a bias toward softer options and talk. USAID experts shy away from politics and lean more toward longer-term solutions. Intelligence analysts are cynics and slow to change judgments. Defense types are reluctant to start new engagements but quick to escalate. And the high expectations associated with each—diplomats can talk anyone into anything, intelligence analysts are all knowing, DOD staff have miraculous capabilities or are strategic geniuses—are just as influential.

For good reason, some stereotypes and expectations tend to show up more in the military. Many will have attended the same junior and senior service school, and at the highest ranks often share the same military occupational specialty. Their formative professional experiences—in Iraq, Afghanistan, and training—are very different than many civilian counterparts, and they often deliberately avoid stints in DC’s shark-infested waters in their careers. This on-the-ground perspective, which McMaster, Kelly, Waddell, and Mattis shared as a cohort in many ways, is invaluable to abstract DC policy debates. As a result, these officials are understandably not just wary of but also inexperienced in the DC politics game compared to their civilian counterparts, as Dr. Kori Schake recently wrote about McMaster. “This difference of experience, coupled with divergent views of the deliberative process, can prime military leaders and civilian appointees for conflict before they even meet,” Dr. Janine Davidson writes.

General Messiness

In typical NSCs, these dynamics usually add up to a policy decision and development process that is meant to be messy—a concept that many colleagues do not enjoy, to say the least. The multiple stakeholders involved in any decision serve as a speed bump and a de facto perspective check on any administration. Each entity is responsible for their “lane” and focused on a particular lens on any national-security issue, for which their understanding may be very different. They don’t come from common experiences or training, don’t share the same incentives, don’t acquire similar patterns of thought and speaking; they measure time, victories, and failures differently. And they don’t always understand one another well.

To senior NSC members or staff tired of definitional debates, creating a national-security leadership team and staff that speaks the same language in terms of risk, plans, resources, and outcomes is appealing. As is correcting for the supposed flaws of the Obama NSC (too micromanaging of military operations and wary of those in uniform) and its staff (too politicized and lacking on-the-ground experience). And the U.S. military, with its shapeshifting willingness to take on any mission with gusto, is more than up to the task. After a shaky start, Trump has made clear that he trusts the military establishment, and though he perhaps does not understand DOD roles and missions, he is respectful of their judgment. With the U.S. military popularly regarded as the most trusted American institution, and its leaders highly esteemed and trained, overloading Trump’s NSC and NSC staff with active-duty military and veterans seems logical.

By relying heavily on current and former military for advice and staffing—even ones with so diverse a set of experiences as this group—this administration is adding blind spots to their policy decision and development process.

But there are flaws in this approach, particularly with record-setting lows of experienced political appointees in place and, as evidenced by Trump’s recent budget proposal, an undervalued civilian national-security apparatus. By relying heavily on current and former military for advice and staffing—even ones with so diverse a set of experiences as this group—this administration is adding blind spots to their policy decision and development process. That they bring similar perspectives to problem sets feels beneficial, but will be problematic in practice. And with a president so new to foreign policy and national security, it’s not clear that the White House will realize the difference—or care. An unfortunately predictable example of this dynamic is the administration’s still-pending Afghanistan review, in which many officials are playing the wrong roles and others aren’t showing up. President Trump has apparently delegated authority to Secretary Mattis for setting troop levels for any renewed efforts, despite the lack of clear strategy and still-pending review, echoing his desire to delegate both authority and blame for January’s Yemen raid. Press reports indicate that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has not been a strong participant in this debate and key meetings were held without him; with minimal participation from State, the options under consideration underweight civilian equities, and NATO allies remain in the dark. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, a seasoned Iraq veteran, is participating—despite a minimal DHS role in the matter. Congress continues to ask for someone, anyone to explain the strategy. And Gen. McMaster—though an aficionado of the neutral arbiter “Scowcroft model” and supposedly a bulwark against NSC micromanagement—is apparently pushing his own military options. All of this may make perfect sense given the personalities and experience of the senior national-security team, but it is not conducive to the deliberate friction of governance.

In the General Interest

“Why shouldn’t the country’s most informed defense experts transition to civilian roles?” Dr. Kori Schake has rightfully asked. But perhaps the question should be whether them doing so in this particular administration is doing them more harm than good. Despite everyone’s palpable relief at what McMaster, Mattis, Kelly, and Waddell bring to the table, there’s also unease with how they and more junior NSC counterparts may be inadvertently shifting civil-military norms. Mattis is being Mattis, which is to say he still talks like a senior Marine commander (for example, his brash “I keep other people up at night” quip), not a civilian secretary of defense. McMaster—an active-duty three-star general—is offering increasingly politicized cover to the president in his statements about the disclosure of sensitive intelligence in Trump’s meetings with the Russian foreign minister and his Wall Street Journal op-ed defending the president’s recent foreign trip. And there is a sense that all these men are in some way being used. While each appointment had the feeling of an exception for an exceptional man, the formation of this national-security team is both cumulative and zero sum. Alternative voices are heard less and veteran voices are being associated with an increasingly damaged administration.

The risks of politicizing the military have been well debated. But validating today’s civil-military dynamics may have more immediate impacts, including the generation of even uglier stereotypes. Some view military dominance in the Trump administration as a sort of revenge for the stresses of civil-military relations under Obama—an unhealthy perspective that could leave lasting effects. There are also some for whom the concept of military advice has gone from a vital and iterative function of the policy process to a sanctified rite that extends to all currently or previously in uniform. Announcing “best military advice” has in some circles become a by-word for telling civilians their policy perspective is not welcome. In turn, some civilian experts have come to believe their perspective is irrelevant to senior NSC officials and take military advice less seriously due to these tensions. Such divisions diminish both the military and civilian perspectives, which should be both distinct and frequently intertwined.

Civilians, service members, and veterans were already struggling to re-establish a workable equilibrium when the Trump administration began, and the circumstances in which he is placing them aren’t helping.

General Idea

Left out of civilian and military education and expectations is that certain kinds of friction are an expected, even good, part of their decision-making process—if all the roles are played and managed properly. If either side is winning or dominating a debate, then they have missed the point. One of the surest signs of trouble is that there’s not more tension emanating from the civil-military divide in the White House; fights have been more politics-policy.

Does this mean that current or retired career military are incapable of serving in traditionally civilian political roles? Of course not, no more than diplomats, intelligence analysts, or businessmen are unable to be effective in those offices. But having their field disproportionately dominate influential civilian roles places a burden in two ways. First, it places a responsibility on the individual serving to do everything possible to play their new role rather than their old one. Second, McMaster must create a dynamic in which he hears and balances all perspectives, and pushes his staff to play the stereotypes of their current job, not past experience. They’ll know it’s working if it feels uncomfortable.

Loren DeJonge Schulman is the vice president of research, evaluation and modernizing government at the nonpartisan, nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. She previously served in senior staff roles at the National Security Council and the Department of Defense from 2005-2015.
Amy Schafer is a Research Associate for the Military, Veterans, & Society program at the Center for a New American Security.

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