How Biden aims to revive the NSC Trump let atrophy
February 10, 2021
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President Joe Biden has spent his first weeks in office repudiating much of his predecessor’s foreign policy. But it’s not just the decisions he’s made that separates him from Donald Trump — it’s how he’s made them.

Biden has so far relied on the results of policy reviews and interagency meetings — when key members of different departments gather to discuss options for their bosses and the president — before choosing what to do next. It’s what led him to shift America’s approach toward Yemen after weeks of discussion, and his administration to label Myanmar’s military takeover a “coup d’etat” a full day after it happened.

But Trump rarely adhered to such a process, preferring instead to guide foreign policy by diktat. Often after talking with an aide or foreign leader, Trump would issue a statement or tweet forcing his team either to retrofit or scrap a developing policy. That ever-looming possibility sparked confusion, consternation, and chaos throughout his government.

“It was an absolute joke,” said Olivia Troye, who served as an adviser to former Vice President Mike Pence before publicly breaking with the administration over its botched Covid-19 response. “Trump’s whims would outweigh the actual process.”

By going back to how the US historically formulates policy, Biden is implicitly sending a message to his staff and the country: He will take action based on counsel from experts and officials, not solely because an idea popped into his head.

Biden and his team are reviewing what to do about Russia, US troop levels around the world, and sanctions, among other policies. Those efforts are as normal as they are unremarkable on their face. But it’s precisely Trump’s careless style that’s made Biden’s penchant for a traditional policy-review process seem like an innovation.

“He is demonstrating, with every review and meeting, that America is back on foreign policy and that there’s somebody on watch, making decisions, thinking things through, and behaving responsibly,” said John Gans, author of White House Warriors: How the National Security Council Transformed the American Way of War. “That’s a big change from the last four years.”

Biden administration officials I spoke with wouldn’t go into specific policy details, but stressed the president’s desire to benefit from a functioning system underneath him.

The early signs are encouraging. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan held the first National Security Council (NSC) all-staff meeting in over a year on January 28, three officials said. Cabinet members like Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Tony Blinken have been invited to attend Biden’s daily intelligence briefing.

And there’s an early emphasis on having government agencies work closely with one another. White House officials told me they were encouraged to see Austin want to partner with Blinken on a Defense Department project during a recent NSC meeting.

That’s the kind of teamwork Biden wants to see. “It’s hard to name a big issue that doesn’t have cross-cutting equities across the executive. Look at Covid, look at climate, look at China,” said Yohannes Abraham, the NSC’s chief of staff. “They require breaking down barriers across policy-making apparatuses wherever you can.”

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan during a press conference at the White House on February 4.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A good process can’t guarantee good policy, Biden officials admit. And any administration risks overly centralizing decision-making or holding meetings for meetings’ sake, thus freezing the bureaucracy until something gets decided. That was a charge frequently leveled against the Obama-Biden White House, and some fear that problem could return in the current administration.

Still, the biggest difference between Trump and Biden is arguably the most important: Where Trump made critical foreign policy decisions on a whim, Biden, for now, has embraced and encouraged the system meant to help leaders make responsible, deliberate choices in foreign policy.

There’s a process in place to help presidents make smart decisions. Trump ignored it.

The NSC, the White House directorate charged with coordinating foreign policy across the government, was created in 1947. Its founding was partly in response to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s personalist handling of World War II.

“He kind of ran foreign policy by the seat of his pants,” said Gans. FDR led America’s wars in two theaters while keeping his own vice president, advisers, and US allies in the dark as to his plans.

When he died in April 1945, FDR took with him policy knowledge few in government possessed, leaving his successor Harry S. Truman somewhat clueless as to his inheritance. Most notably, Truman only learned of the Manhattan Project — the US effort to build the first atomic bomb — two weeks after becoming president. America would drop two of those bombs on Japan four months later, prompting the war’s end.

Few in Washington wanted to see a FDR-to-Truman scenario again. With the NSC, officials hoped the White House would share foreign policy guidance with government agencies, which in turn would help those bodies provide their best policy advice to the president. It was cumbersome, but it kept those responsible for implementing the president’s decisions on the same page and provided some continuity across administrations.

It’s why every commander in chief since 1947, Republican and Democrat, mostly adhered to that process during their time in office.

Well, every president except the last one.

“The Trump administration was process challenged from the beginning,” said Tom Shannon, who served in 2017 as the State Department’s No. 3. “There was a lot of stuff that was done on the fly.”

The main reason, experts and former Trump administration officials said, was that Trump rarely concerned himself with policy details, and caused problems when he did. That inspired great frustration among his staff.

Then-National Security Adviser John Bolton listened as former President Trump met with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte at the White House on July 18, 2019.
Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Trump doesn’t do facts, he doesn’t do chess moves. He does what his gut tells him to do,” John Bolton, Trump’s third national security adviser, told me. “You cannot do process with a man like that.”

It didn’t help that Trump’s indecision and erraticism made it hard for the government to implement policies he’d already agreed to. For example, the administration announced its support for replacing Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro with a pro-democracy leader in 2019 — but Trump waffled afterward.

“Day one he wants Maduro removed. Day two he’s not so sure. Day three he wants Maduro removed. Day four he’s not so sure,” Bolton, who wrote a tell-all book criticizing the president’s grasp of foreign policy, told me. “That’s one problem: That he doesn’t know what he wants.”

And there was the ever-present concern of the Trump years: that whoever spoke to him last often influenced the president’s decision-making the most. Sometimes that person ran another nation.

“Foreign leaders interfered all the time,” Kirsten Fontenrose, who oversaw Gulf issues on Trump’s National Security Council, told me. “A call from Egypt’s [President Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi or Turkey’s [President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan could completely shift things.”

The Erdoğan example is instructive. The Turkish president called Trump in December 2018 and said American troops could leave northern Syria and let Ankara’s forces take over. Erdoğan’s wasn’t a selfless act: Controlling northern Syria would give Turkey more influence in the war and more facility to kill US-allied, anti-ISIS Kurdish fighters, whom Erdoğan sees as terrorists and a threat to his country’s stability.

Trump acquiesced, as he’d long wanted to extricate US troops from wars in the Middle East. “It’s all yours,” the president told Erdoğan. “We are done.” Trump then publicly announced his decision, against the advice of his aides, in a now-deleted Twitter video: “Our boys, our young women, our men — they’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now.” He never followed through, and today a few hundred US service members remain in Syria.

Still, Trump’s split-second decision demoralized staff who’d spent months working on Syria policy, said Fontenrose. “There was a feeling of ‘Why are we bothering?’ when that stuff happened.”

None of that is to say Trump was entirely disengaged from his own foreign policy. He spent his first year tussling with advisers over whether or not to send more troops to Afghanistan. And throughout 2020, according to officials at the time, Trump spoke at length and in depth with aides about efforts to rein in Russia’s and China’s nuclear arsenals.

But overall, Trump left Biden an atrophied policy process — one the new president is determined to revive.

Biden wants a return to “good order.” But there’s a downside to that, too.

During his first interview as secretary of state on February 1, Blinken conveyed that the Biden administration was in no rush to announce new foreign policies.

Should the US punish Vladimir Putin over the arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and the regime’s crackdown on protesters he inspired, asked MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell? “We’re reviewing that. Actually, we’re reviewing a series of Russian actions that are deeply, deeply disturbing,” Blinken said.

How about lifting Trump-imposed tariffs on China? “We’re reviewing all of that,” the secretary responded, saying any move must benefit Americans more.

A new North Korea policy? Under review. The future of US-Saudi Arabia relations? Under review. Keeping Yemen’s Houthis on the terrorist list? You guessed it: under review.

It was jarring to hear. After all, Biden had spent much of his campaign asserting that what Trump had done in the world was “erratic” and a “threat” to national security. The then-Democratic nominee also had a large brain trust advising him and writing detailed foreign policy papers he could use the second he got into office. Why not just just dust them off and start making changes right away?

Biden did, to a certain degree. On his first day in office, he reentered the US into the Paris climate accord and World Health Organization with the stroke of a pen. But rejoining existing deals and global bodies is one thing; formulating new policies and strategies toward major countries and thorny problems is another.

To find the right policies, the Biden administration sought to leverage the old process. “There’s a real thirst to return to good order,” said Matan Chorev, principal deputy director of the State Department’s policy planning staff.

Plans that had been developed during the campaign and transition served as starting points, Biden officials said. But only after reading briefing books left by predecessors, talking to foreign counterparts and US lawmakers, researching applicable laws, and digesting intelligence would Biden’s team actually know how on point or wildly off those plans were.

“There’s a whole world of policy and information that you just don’t see from the outside,” said Fontenrose, now at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, DC. “There are also a ton of surprises.” Multiple Biden staffers echoed that sentiment in interviews, telling me they wanted to be humble and recognize they didn’t know what they didn’t know.

That’s partly why the Biden administration keeps reiterating that its earliest foreign policy decisions were the result of thorough reviews. It’s meant to assure US staff and the public that, now privy to all the information, the course Biden and his team chose was well considered.

“After a review of all the facts,” a senior State Department official told reporters on February 3, the US assessed that the actions by Myanmar’s military last week, “having deposed the duly elected head of government, constituted a military coup d’etat.” As a result, the US will stop providing aid to the now military-run regime.

Two days later, a State official told me the US would remove Yemen’s Houthis off America’s terrorist list — reversing a last-minute decision by the Trump administration — after undertaking an “expeditious” and “comprehensive review.”

Then-President Barack Obama holding a 2009 strategy review on Afghanistan in the Situation Room of the White House.
Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

This is all well and good, experts say, but a heavy reliance on process could bog down any administration. Meeting after meeting, policy paper after policy paper can turn into more of an intellectual exercise than a functional policy-making one. Sometimes it’s better, particularly in fast-moving situations, to eschew the bureaucratic rigamarole and have a few top aides quickly hash out a response.

That’s a problem that often plagued the Obama-Biden administration. The NSC then was “widely seen as the place where policy becomes immobilized by indecision, plodding through months and sometimes years of repetitive White House meetings,” the Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung reported in 2015.

A Defense Department official complained to DeYoung that the process then was “sclerotic at best, constipated at worse. … Time seems to be all this process produces. More time, more meetings, more discussions.”

Obama’s Afghanistan policy review in 2009 is case in point. It took months and 10 endless, lengthy meetings before the president decided to surge 30,000 US troops into the country. “I’ve got more deeply in the weeds than a president should, and now you guys need to solve this,” the then-president joked. After all that, America’s war effort in Afghanistan proceeded to be a bloody mess, and the US remains engaged in that conflict 20 years later.

The fear is the Biden administration might fall back into the habit of holding interminable meetings, especially since many of the same officials from the Obama days are back in government. But Biden staffers reject those concerns.

“There’s a determination not to do a review for review’s sake, but to drive toward decision and action,” said the State Department’s Chorev.

It’s too early to know if Biden and his team will abide by that, though NSC officials I spoke with pointed to Sullivan, the national security adviser, purposefully ending the first meeting he chaired one minute early.

But after four years of foreign policy by tweet, what feels remarkable is that Biden’s administration is thinking about and emphasizing a decision-making process at all. That underscores the yawning chasm between how this president wants to handle foreign policy and how the last one did.

In these early days, it’s what really separates the two men.

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