Yesterday the President explained, “The new ‘National Security Staff’ will support all White House policymaking activities related to international, transnational, and homeland security matters. The establishment of the new National Security Staff, under the direction of the National Security Advisor, will end the artificial divide between White House staff who have been dealing with national security and homeland security issues.”
Notice the President’s focus on “policymaking activities.” Policy sets out the government-of-the-day’s intention and purpose. Policymaking decides, articulates, and shapes how the government’s intentions and purposes are achieved.
Whereas objectives are “strategy,” the concentration decision is “policy.” It is, so to speak, the decision in what theater to fight a war. Without such a policy decision, there can be rules of warfare but no strategy, that is no purposeful action. (Peter F. Drucker)
In his statement the President offers five bulleted paragraphs as a broad framework for how the new National Security Staff will be organized. Then he closes with a truism, “The United States faces a wide array of challenges to its security, and the White House must be organized to effectively and efficiently leverage the tremendous talent and expertise of the dedicated Americans who work within it.”
Hard to disagree. Is this policy? No. It is a management principle.
The closest the President’s statement comes to policymaking is at the end of his first paragraph, “the challenges of the 21st Century are increasingly unconventional and transnational, and therefore demand a response that effectively integrates all aspects of American power.”
We are beginning to understand that the policy of this Presidency will tend toward the integrative, holistic, big picture. Each policy element is connected to and depends on other parts. This is a White House with a clear right brain bias.
The visionary has often characterized Presidential rhetoric. But in actual practice, Presidents have been inclined to focus on a few carefully defined and, whenever possible, preordained wins. Candidate Obama had a reputation — largely derived from his 2004 Convention Speech — for soaring rhetoric. President Obama has tended toward careful, modest, and nuanced expositions. Perhaps he has decided our challenges and his high-risk interventions are dramatic enough.
Democracy is finding proximate solutions to insoluble problems. (Reinhold Niebuhr)
What I have been slow to recognize is the President’s reluctance to articulate his intentions and purposes with much detail. I have been waiting and, it is becoming clear, waiting in vain. But this is my problem, not his, and — I am ready to suggest — not ours.
Some have said the President’s favorite word, and most common stance, is “pragmatic.” He is interested in what works, what has practical results. His first and foremost principle is to learn from and adapt to outcomes. Accordingly, his policy initiatives are more often exploratory than explanatory. In yesterday’s White House statement are vaguely enticing references to new Global Engagement and Resilience Policy Directorates within the National Security Staff.
No doubt further details are forthcoming. We should not, however, underestimate how the current lack of detail is purposeful. This is, in effect, an expression of policy.
I never had a policy; I have just tried to do my very best each and every day. (Abraham Lincoln)
A couple of years ago when the University of Chicago decided to publish a new edition of Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, someone was smart enough to ask a recent member of the law school faculty and local State Senator, Barack Obama, for a blurb. He wrote, “He is one of my favorite philosophers. I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away . . . the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard.”
President Obama is capable of precisely articulating his intentions and purposes. When he is less than explicit, I am beginning to understand that we should hear what is implicit: I don’t pretend to know precisely how this will turn out. There is serious evil in the world. Spiritual humility and intellectual modesty, combined with thoughtful action, are among the tools we have to confront this evil. Here is how I am trying to do my very best today.
Other responses to the announcement:
Obama combines security councils (Washington Post)
US revamps national security posts (Wall Street Journal)
Early Wednesday morning I could not find any related coverage at CNN or Politico. Maybe I didn’t search hard enough. But, so far, their attention to the President’s decision is either null or deeply buried. Another implicit message?