Voice

A National Security Council everyone can love, or at least be a member of

One area in which the Obama administration is carrying forward a long tradition has to do with the vital issue of national security memo naming and acronym establishment (NSMNAE). Administration after administration has felt it was absolutely vital to discard the memo names and acronyms established by their predecessors in order to make their mark with brand new and different memo names and acronyms that communicate that it is a new day in America, a safer day, a more powerful day.

In Washington, everything tastes better wrapped in a new acronym. In Presidential Security Directive 1, President Obama memorably asserts:

This document is the first in a series of Presidential Policy Directives that, along with Presidential Study Directives, shall replace National Security Presidential Directives as instruments for communicating presidential decisions about national security policies of the United States."

So now, knowledgeable insiders will refer in short-hand to PPDs and PSDs instead of outré and so-five-mintues-ago NSPDs or even more outmoded Clinton Era Presidential Decision Directives (PDDs) and Presidential Review Directives (PRDs). Not to mention the antiquated National Security Decision Directives (NSDDs), National Security Decision Memorandums (NSDMs), National Security Presidential Directives (NSPDs), National Security Study Directives (NSSDs) or National Security Study Memorandums (NSSMs) or Presidential Review Memorandums (PRMs) of the past. Clearly, we are all, deep inside, the children we once were and this whole memo-naming exercise is a message from each President to the world that "it's my NSC and I will play with it any way I want to."

Of course, PPD 1 does more than just carry forward this great American tradition of leadership. Like other such establishing memos, it importantly determines who will have their seat at the situation room conference table reserved for them by a small nameplate that whispers (authoritatively) that they are a member of the inner circle. At least, that's what they think it whispers. In the case of this NSC, maybe not so much. Because the most notable take-away from PPD 1 is that the Obama administration is going to be really inclusive. Too inclusive, in fact, to work as laid out in the memo.

The NSC shall have as its members the President, Vice President, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and Secretary of Energy, as prescribed by statute. In addition, the membership of the NSC shall include the Secretary of the Treasury, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Representative of the United States of America to the United Nations, the Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff (Chief of Staff to the President), and the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs (National Security Advisor). The Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as statutory advisers to the NSC, shall attend NSC meetings. The Counsel to the President shall be invited to attend every NSC meeting, and the Assistant to the President and Deputy Nation Security Advisor shall attend every meeting, and serve as Secretary.


When international economic issues are on the agenda of the NSC, the NSC's regular attendees will include the Secretary of Commerce, the United States Trade Representative, the Assistant to the President for Economic Policy, and the Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. When homeland security or
counter-terrorism related issues are on the agenda, the NSC's regular attendees will include the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counter-Terrorism. When science and technology related issues are on the agenda, the NSC's regular attendees will include the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The heads of other executive departments
and agencies, and other senior officials, shall be invited to attend meetings of the NSC as appropriate."

That's quite a group. But if history is any indication, official meetings of the NSC will take place infrequently at first and then become even less frequent. Principals Committee meetings (which are meetings of the NSC at which the president is not present and where the National Security Advisor chairs) happen more often and in the Obama years, these will also include, in addition to everyone cited above, the participation of the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Deputy Secretary of State and the Assistant to the Vice President for National Security Affairs.

They may have to add stadium seating in the situation room. Now, bloating the membership of the NSC is not an Obama administration innovation. (And it is getting pretty bloated, particularly when you consider that the NSC's statutory membership started out as the President, Vice President, Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense.)

The group has, over time, consistently gotten steadily bigger, even as specifics ebbed and flowed with each administration. As a consequence, what also has happened over the years, as the group gets bigger and bigger, is that these bigger formal structures have proved unwieldly and the really key work has been done in smaller groups whether they are informal lunchtime conversations with the President or small regular phone groups between the National Security Advisor, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense, which have been a common feature in recent administrations.

The other group where the heavy lifting of policy making is done is the Deputies Committee. As in the past, this memo indicates that this group will consist of Deputy Secretaries and agency heads, but it won't. Soon under secretaries and others who actually know the briefs being discussed will work their way in and ultimately will be far more regular attendees at most of these meetings.

Reading between the lines, this memo further underscores what is already becoming apparent -- this is very much a White House centric administration. Obama, Biden, Jim Jones, Rahm Emanuel, Greg Craig (who one imagines might be behind the language that specifies the White House Counsel "shall be invited to attend every NSC meeting"), and Jones Deputy National Security Advisor Tom Donilon will be fixtures at every meeting. Then, given the nature of the world, the heads of the big White House economic team will also be in many. Notably, also, the PPD also sets up Jones to be the real driving force behind these processes which puts him in a position to be, after Obama, the single most important voice in shaping U.S. national security policy. (A role he is strengthening via his shrewdly managed lowish profile, emulating the gold standard among National Security Advisors, Brent Scowcroft.) Adding U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, formerly one of the President's top campaign advisors, and some of these other White House voices to the mix while also firmly establishing Jones's primacy in terms of process coordination might be seen as something of a dilution of the power of the Secretary of State who is certainly one among many in this throng. While you might say the same about the voice of DoD, with Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen and two former four-stars, Jones and Denny Blair, in every meeting you imagine the voices of the defense community will be heard.

In a related development, the White House has also produced its first Presidential Study Directive (PSD-1), launching an internal review to be run by counter-terror advisor John Brennan designed to evaluate whether or not to trash can the Homeland Security Council and fold its operations into the NSC where they belong. This is kabuki theater designed to protect the White House from anti-terror zealots who will inevitably criticize them for being soft on terror when they do the right thing and get rid of this duplicative council. Nobody, including some of the folks who served on the council with whom I have spoken, thought it added much value (beyond the appearance of elevating the issue) and the idea of separating overseas threats (most of which are covered by the NSC) from defending the homeland is, well, absurd and rather dangerous.

David Rothkopf

The axis of stability

At my summer camp in Maine -- which was really the equivalent of that South Pacific manhood ritual where they attach vines to a teenaged boy's testicles and throw him off a tree -- on the very first day they would gather all the new campers around and teach them the camp song. It was entitled "Oh, Camp We Love" and, as the budding concentration camp guards they called counselors used to point out, "it's sung to the same tune as the Canadian national anthem, "O Canada.'" Naturally, this generated confusion and blank stares from all the boys present because the comment was roughly as helpful as suggesting the camp talent show utilize the same narrative technique as The Tale of Genji. I mean, for goodness sake, we were from New Jersey. We knew Canada was up there somewhere between Boston and the North Pole and that they played hockey there, but beyond that, details were scarce.

Since then, throughout my life, I have always found that when giving a talk, a reference to Canada is reliably good for a laugh. Making fun of Canada seldom offends any American and Canadians tend to be too polite to object. And it it's funny because Canada is so darned unthreatening, bland enough to make your average bowl of tapioca seem muy caliente. (The only thing more boring than Canada? Coldplay. "Viva la vida?!" Seriously. Viva la sominex.) Of course, I'm not the only one who has gone after Canada. Take for example the greatest song ever written about international relations, "Blame Canada." (Which song clearly kicks the ass of anything Coldplay has ever written. Of course, so too does anything ever done by that immortal Canadian-Egyptian-Armenian, Raffi.)

It's all a bit unfair actually. A lot unfair. And I was thinking this as I was watching President Obama's press conference with Prime Minister Harper. Harper's year has been as politically star-crossed as Obama's has been seemingly guided by a lucky star. But together yesterday, these two were the picture of what good allies should be. They were polite, respectful, at times deferential, honest about areas of concern and seemingly sincere in their desire to work through potential trouble spots whether they be sclerotic border crossings or the potential for turbulence on trade. Both were gracious, articulate, and statesmanlike.

The U.S.-Canada Clean Energy Dialogue they announced was an excellent step to strengthen an already rock-solid relationship by collaborating on an issue where common interests abound.

During the news conference held by Harper and Obama, each of the men warmly characterized the state of the relationship between the two countries. Framing his remarks in the context of Obama's ascendancy to office, Harper said:

His election to the presidency launches a new chapter in the rich history of Canada-U.S. relations. It is a relationship between allies, partners, neighbors, and the closest of friends; a relationship built on our shared values -- freedom, democracy, and equality of opportunity epitomized by the President himself."

Obama, speaking next said:

I came to Canada on my first trip as President to underscore the closeness and importance of the relationship between our two nations, and to reaffirm the commitment of the United States to work with friends and partners to meet the common challenges of our time. As neighbors, we are so closely linked that sometimes we may have a tendency to take our relationship for granted, but the very success of our friendship throughout history demands that we renew and deepen our cooperation here in the 21st century.

"We're joined together," he continued, "by the world's largest trading relationship and countless daily interactions that keep our borders open and secure. We share core democratic values and a commitment to work on behalf of peace, prosperity, and human rights around the world."

Usually such words exchanged between political leaders are empty rhetoric. But, in the case of the U.S. and Canada, even with the ups and downs the relationship has been through, they ring true.

It underscored a reality that doesn't earn magazine covers in the way problems such as those highlighted in FP's Axis of Upheaval do. It is natural to focus on problems and threats. But throughout human history and especially in the current era, instability and failed states are really "dog bites man." 

What is rare, exceptional really, are the cases of the special relationships, the alliances that transcend treaties and become true and enduring partnerships. In many of the most important elements of life and foreign policy, boring is good. Boring is the foundation that allows us to stand the upheaval. Boring is constant in an inconstant world and as such is indispensable and invaluable. (The very best marriages for similar reasons, are sometimes perceived as boring. My wife for example, likes both Canada and Coldplay very much. Come to think of it, I'd probably better move on to the next thought...)

I would go further, it may well be that among the relationships of neighboring states, particularly among comparatively powerful neighbors, the U.S.-Canada relationship may be unique in history.  Oh sure, once, long ago, we had that little "Fifty-four Forty or Fight" issue, but that was with the British and frankly with all that manifest destiny testosterone pulsing through our then adolescent veins we were bound to get into trouble with anyone we encountered.

To put it into context, go through history in your mind. Pick two neighbors anywhere. Now find a pair that have gotten along better, avoided war (save for the conflicts depicted in "Canadian Bacon" and that in the aforementioned classic "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.")

Go further, in the vein of my post last week on America's worst alliances, make a list of America's best alliances. Canada tops the list so easily that it is hard to find anyone else that is close. There's the United Kingdom, of course, but we did get off to a bit of a rocky start with them and there was that pesky War of 1812 and they were, despite being officially neutral, not entirely constructive during the Civil War.

And then the next best ally? Ah, while the choices are few they are so tempting. Readership-baiting is so gratifying. (Really, you guys are so easy to toy with. It's like having a dog that always goes after the stick.) I guess the next best ally we have had is Israel. (There, I've said it. Come on all you "realists" time to line up and give it your best shot. I'll even provide your first line for you: "Some of my best friends are Jews, but...") Or, offering the kind of paradox that makes such analyses so much fun (and explains everything about our relationship with the French) perhaps number three is actually France. Ah, this really is too enjoyable.

I think I will stop writing and just warmly contemplate your reactions out there in Wonkavia, land of the Foreign Policy geeks. (And congratulate myself for having gotten through an entire piece about Canada without a single joke about Celine Dion.)

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