Two recent White House directives, read together, should help decrease chances for Americans to be taken hostage, increase opportunities for better outcomes for those who are, and contribute to making the United States and the world a safer and more secure place.

The announcements on a revised hostage response and a streamlined National Security Council (NSC) may seem filled with inconsequential process details. Both are consequential precisely because details matter. And lack of attention to process can put a heavy thumb on the scale toward bad outcomes.

With his hostage response directive, the president has been clear about where and how he expects the NSC to prioritize. He then further directs agencies with the expertise and resources to create and fill the new positions that will report to the NSC group, and he asks for a progress report on implementation within six months. This is how change is made.  

It is a welcome step forward for this White House. Historically, the NSC functions best when it is shaped to focus on advising the president and coordinating among and between the national security agencies, and is sized appropriately for that role. The hostage response directive reflects that view. 

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Smaller and leaner is better at the epicenter for coordinating U.S. national security challenges. The White House NSC staff will be streamlined significantly according to the June 22 White House statement.   

Consider that an ever-expanding NSC staff still reports to one national security adviser who reports to one president. The NSC principals, who lead our national security agencies, and their deputies regularly meet to discuss, shape and implement strategies and make recommendations to the president. No matter how fast the world seems to be spinning, there remain only 24 hours in a day, seven days in each week for those meetings to occur. And around these important principal and deputies discussions, they have agencies to run to be sure decisions made, are implemented. 

With respect to hostage response, President Obama recognized where the U.S. government was not operating effectively or compassionately, and made systemic fixes. He did so within the existing NSC architecture. So his NSC counterterrorism adviser will chair a regular hostage response group.  Participants will include newly designated positions from appropriate agencies such as a special envoy for hostage affairs at the State Department to coordinate diplomatic engagements on hostage-related matters, someone from the Intelligence Community to manage relevant issues there, and someone responsible for coordinating all family engagement.

In many cases, those most qualified to lead, who have the ability, for example, to operate in the field, are in the agencies. So the inter-departmental “fusion” cell, focused on hostage recovery, with primary responsibility for freeing hostages, is based at the FBI under the new directive. 

Left largely unstated is the reduction in NSC staffing that should accompany increased reliance on agencies carrying out designated responsibilities. Challenges lay ahead in right-sizing (read down-sizing) the current Obama NSC, now with an unwieldy staff of well over 400. It is viewed to have stepped into many areas typically seen as more appropriately handled by various national security agencies.   

Even accounting for the absorption of the Homeland Security Council, the NSC has expanded considerably from my time working on the Obama NSC transition in early 2009. This number represents more than a doubling in size from the NSC that I helped former President Clinton transition to George W. Bush.

Resisting the impulse to appoint a new NSC ‘czar’ for each new crisis, and create a mini-bureaucracy around the position, increases the chances to achieve results on the underlying challenges. Each new senior NSC position multiplies meetings and papers that exponentially increase time demands on those from other agencies who are invariably also tasked with other critical NSC efforts.    

The NSC should seek to maximize the opportunity for real discussions that turn ideas into workable policies that can be implemented successfully when the decision-makers meet at the NSC Situation Room at the White House. That means focused meetings on priority issues, and quality paper prepared timely. That is best achieved with a leaner NSC staff.

The White House is going in the right direction with revisions to its approach in hostage situations. If it continues to be disciplined, and the administration works together and sticks to its commitments, we should start seeing much needed improved policy outcomes from more effective process, throughout the Middle East and in other regional, global and sector challenges.

Refocusing the president’s NSC staff on its core mission and appropriately right-sizing it in so doing will not be easy, but it is necessary and important. Obama said it best: “Sometimes your job is just to make stuff work.”

 

Rudman served as deputy assistant to the president and National Security Council chief of staff from 1999-2001, and deputy assistant to the president and National Security Council executive secretary in 2009. She also held senior positions at the U.S. State Department and USAID from 2009-2013.