There is never a dull moment with President Trump. Scandal chases scandal as this weekend’s travel ban overshadowed yet another highly controversial decision: On Saturday, Trump issued an executive order to reshuffle the National Security Council. The controversy around this memo, which supersedes Obama’s 2009 directive, was somewhat limited to D.C. insiders and national security professionals. But it should trouble every single American citizen.
There are two particularly problematic portions of the memo. First, there is the nomination of Trump’s most senior political advisor, Steve Bannon, to the Principals Committee – the top interagency group for discussing matters of national security.
Many observers highlight the fact that a political figure will sit alongside professionals with national security responsibilities. However, it would be naive to believe that such decisions are ever made in an isolated environment quarantined from political motivations. There is no such thing as objective decision-making, even in issues related to national security. Political and professional figures alike are always subject to inescapable biases.
Most troubling is the identity of the individual: an “alt-right” activist lacking any desire to reach public consensus – a key part of national security. Moreover, Bannon lacks any professional experience in the field.
Publicly putting such a political strategist in the inner sanctum is an exceptionally antagonistic jab at the traditional security establishment. But this is the president’s style, and a promise to his voters.
Even more troubling from a long-term point of view is the demotion of the Director of National Intelligence and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to “statutory advisers” rather than the regular members they have traditionally been. Henceforth, the two will be summoned “when issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed” rather than by default at any strategic discussion, regardless of the topic. This decision narrows the role of the intelligence and military establishments to issues related directly to defense and security.
Had this decision truly marked a new vision of intelligence and the military which limits their power in American life and reduces it to strictly security-related issues, liberals and Democrats should have given their blessing.
The big problem isn’t the act itself, but the motivations behind it – none related to national security.
Trump’s recent decisions are motivated by two factors. First, he wishes to reshape the political landscape, including the foundations of the U.S. government and its three branches. He promised this during the campaign – and unlike many other presidents, he acts immediately upon his promises. There’s nothing wrong with that. He is, after all, the American public’s lawfully elected choice. And so in order to make sure his policy is indeed implemented, he isn’t secretly “planting” someone who will “supervise” the professionals – he’s putting this individual up front. Here again, one can resent the style, but let’s not kid ourselves: Everything is politics, including national security.
The core of the problem resides in the second reason behind this change at the NSC: a deep suspicion of and disbelief in the national security apparatuses (mainly the intelligence community) – and probably for personal reasons. One might expect a U.S. president to be able to overcome these personal feelings, especially after winning the election. Well, that’s simply not Trump.
To that, one should add the hasty manner in which Trump has ordered such changes. He stormed in with all guns blazing, without the appearance of a systemic and educated decision-making process. This is disrespectful of not only previous administrations, but also the security apparatuses that have developed since the 1947 National Security Act.
From the intelligence community’s perspective, there are several possibilities – assuming Trump doesn’t make a hard reversal.
It can accept that there’s a new sheriff in town and the new rules of the game, limiting itself to the domains that Trump has left untouched (so far). That will be a bitter pill to swallow, given the dominance of the intelligence community in previous administrations.
Alternatively, it can break these rules and engage in open conflict with the president, leaking sensitive information to the press and applying pressure on him through third parties, hoping that public sentiment will move against him. That would be an “all-lose” war: Not only would Trump lose his credibility, but also the intelligence community itself.
But there’s a third way: The intelligence community could (and should) work as a lawyer serving a client regardless of whether he or she agrees with or believes in them. It should do the best it can to enable the policy of this president, who was elected democratically by the American people.
And just like a lawyer, if the intelligence community’s leadership reaches a point at which it cannot longer defend the president’s policy, these individuals must resign.
Shay Hershkovitz, Ph.D., is chief strategy officer at Wikistrat, Inc. and a political science professor at Tel Aviv University specializing in intelligence studies. He is also a former IDF intelligence officer whose book, "Aman Comes To Light," deals with the history of the Israeli intelligence community.
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