Running the world

The National Security Council: The administration has far-reaching plans for the NSC

Published: February 18, 2009 11:23:37 pm

One of the favourite sayings in Washington,DC,is that “people are policy”. But equally important is where those people sit in the organisational charts that define access to power. James Jones,the retired marine general who Barack Obama put in charge of the National Security Council (NSC),is drawing up an ambitious plan to reorganise his fief. Given that the NSC has broad responsibilities for shaping and co-ordinating national security policy—one insider portrait of the NSC is simply entitled “running the world”—this reorganisation could have big consequences.

Mr Jones is planning a significant expansion of the NSC’s role. The NSC’s purview can no longer be limited to the traditional stuff of defence and foreign policy,he argued this week in an article in the Washington Post and a speech at the Munich Security Conference; it must deal with a much wider set of threats,including terrorism,proliferation,cyber-security,overdependence on fossil fuels,disease,poverty,corruption and the economic crisis.

Mr Jones argues that the NSC can fulfil this expanded role by co-ordinating the work of an expansive list of government departments. This will mean that the NSC will be at the table when the administration shapes its policy towards issues that require broad co-operation across agencies,such as climate change and energy security. It will even mean that the NSC has a role in economic policymaking. All this may mean a significant expansion in the membership of the NSC.

Mr Jones wants to tidy things up as well as expand his council’s power. He insists that he must be the primary channel of national-security advice to the president. (One of the reasons why policymaking was such a mess in 2000-04 is that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld constantly went behind Condoleezza Rice’s back.) He wants to encourage the departments of Defence and State to harmonise their organisational maps (the former treats Israel as part of Europe whereas the latter calls it part of the Near East). He also wants to take over some of the responsibilities of the White House homeland-security council.

How this will go down with other parts of the administration,particularly the State Department,is unclear. Mr Obama’s foreign-policy apparatus is already overcrowded with big personalities,such as Hillary Clinton,Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell,who may not take kindly to their assigned roles in Mr Jones’s organisational chart.

© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009

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