Friends have asked me about my take on the announcement this weekend that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is not going to be a regular member of the National Security Council's Principal Committee and that Steve Bannon will be. My first reaction is:
To be honest, I am more freaked out by Steve Bannon's presence than the Chairman's absence. Why?
Steve Bannon wants to burn stuff down, so I have little doubt that he will foster crises, rather than manage or mitigate them. Oh, and he's a white supremacist and abets anti-semitism. People are criticizing his spot on the NSC because it should be a body focused on the national interest rather than the domestic political interest of the President, and rightly so. But Bannon is no David Alexrod, or even, dare I say it, Karl Rove. He is more than a political operative--he is an arsonist.
Ok, enough about that, what about the Chairman and the Joint Staff's role in foreign policy-making? In theory, having the Chairman only appear when military issues are raised does not seem so problematic for a couple of reasons. First, for damn near most national security issues, there will be some "military equities" in play, so it is hard to imagine many meetings where the Chairman is not present. Second, given how close the SecDef and the Chairman are (both are Marines and all that), as long as the SecDef is present, then the Chairman's views are likely to be represented (one of the jobs of the Chairman is to advise the SecDef). Third, if a meeting starts without a military representative and then strays into military issues, then it would probably lead to a delay the Chairman or the Vice-Chairman can get there. And with this administration, delay is probably a good thing.
Of course, in reality, given Trump's respect for folks in uniform (we have to take the advantages we can get), having the Chairman present and having him present reality-based views, including the benefits of multilateralism, is important. And symbolism is important, so diminishing the role of the Chairman and of the Director of National Intelligence is very bad. Sure, we can National Security decisions without getting the best military advice and, no, we don't need to have the best intelligence either. I have long sat on an article which argues that bureaucratic politics is a good thing as competition among agencies leads to vetting. This government is likely to produce half-assed policies that damage American interests.
What does this mean for the DC's and the other meetings down the chain of command? Damned if I know. In my year in the Pentagon, the Principals Committee--National Security Adviser, Sec State, SecDef, Chairman, etc--met to deal with specific issues that needed the attention of those at the top of the various chains of command. They used to meet quite regularly on the Balkans with my crew quite busy preparing for a PC my first week in the Pentagon. Thanks to 9/11, we didn't have another one of those until April of 2002. Deputies Committee--Deputy NSA, DepSecState, DepSecDef, Vice Chairman--meet to work out issues that are significant but don't need the attention and scare time of the Principals. Below were all kinds of working groups with various initials that I forget. Much of Balkan policy was made at these lower levels in 2001-2002 after 9/11, and I think we did ok. Indeed, when we briefed the Chairman in April in prep for that next PC on the Balkans, he complimented the lower ranking generals and colonels for doing a good job without "us".
The key is that US military, represented by the Joint Staff, was in the room for all kinds of stuff even when the use of force was not being considered. For the Balkans, this meant stuff like how to deal with downsizing the Bosnia armed forces, how to improve the justice system, and so on. The Joint Staff had the chance to "chop", give its take, on guidance cables, papers and other stuff that were relevant to the military. Given a keen awareness of how much military stuff is political and how much political stuff has implications for the military, having the Joint Staff involved made sense. And, from my perspective, a good thing since the US military tends to be conservative (small c) in that it cares about risks, it wants to leverage resources via alliances and other multilateral forms of cooperation, and is sensitive to second and third order effects.
What does the removal of the Chairman from the PC mean for these lower level working groups? I have no idea. The Trump Administraiton is making shit up as they go along, and no commitment, no process, no promise is binding. The willingness to issue executive orders without getting input from DoD and DHS is suggestive--that on the things this administration cares about, everyone else will be cut out of the process. So, the NSC organizational stuff represents rather well the future of US foreign policy making--and it will be a shitshow.