After a whirlwind week for the National Security Council, the future of the NSA post within the Trump administration remains unclear. After his departure, former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn turned the desk over on an interim basis to Keith Kellogg, Executive Secretary of the NSA.
This substitution was supposed to be a short-term stop-gap assignment while the administration picked a permanent replacement. Instead, the search for a new advisor continues after President Trump’s first pick, retired Vice Admiral Robert Harward, declined the president’s offer to serve as his chief national security aide.
Further complicating matters, the Wall Street Journal reported that another potential candidate for the position, retired General David Petraeus, also dropped out of consideration.
What is going on?
The deeper story behind General Flynn’s resignation is fascinating yet troublesome, and Liberty Nation covered this situation earlier this week. The conflict between the new administration and the intelligence community has been simmering since before the election results were called. Occasionally, the fallout from this tension spills over into public space, as was the case with General Flynn’s fall from power. The chief liaison between President Trump and the intelligence community as a whole is the National Security Advisor. Serving as that crucial link and acting as the president’s representative to the intelligence and defense community is hard enough. Doing it while simultaneously operating as a neutral advisor to the president makes the job even more daunting.
General Flynn was an intelligence community insider. He spent his entire career as an intelligence officer, ascending to the position of Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (making him the nation’s highest-ranking military intelligence officer). During this time, General Flynn forged deep and meaningful relationships with other members of that community. However, he developed a reputation as an outsider and an independent thinker, which eventually led to his ouster from the military during the Obama administration. He was an early and vocal supporter of Donald Trump during the election cycle. While building his team on the National Security Council, General Flynn staffed various roles with his own set of loyalists.
Admiral Harward was a Navy SEAL and an operations commander. His career ended without controversy after achieving the level of deputy commander of the US Central Command (arguably the most “mainstream” part of the military, responsible for the Middle East and Central Asia, among other hotspots). He grew up in pre-revolutionary Iran, has received praise from both sides of the political aisle over his life, and after retiring from the Navy in 2013 took a chief executive position at Lockheed Martin. It is hard to imagine a more qualified yet safely establishment candidate for the post.
If President Trump is looking to install a more mainstream presence at the top of his national security apparatus, he will have to look elsewhere. Whether it was due to the existing staff of General Flynn loyalists, the presence of Steve Bannon on the National Security Council, or truly just a matter of personal conflicts, Admiral Harward will not be a part of this administration.
Over the weekend, President Trump announced he would choose his selection for National Security Advisor in the next few days. In addition to General Kellogg, the short list includes former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, General H.R. McMaster, and General Robert Caslen.
General Kellogg is another long-time loyalist to the President and participated in the presidential transition as the leader of the defense team. However, his long absence from both the military and the intelligence community handicaps him. After retiring from the Army in 2004, he worked solely in the private sector. Relationships are currency inside the beltway, and after a dozen years away, General Kellogg may be too poor in the influence department to be an effective leader.
John Bolton was the US Ambassador to the United Nations for two years during the George W. Bush administration. Interestingly, Mr. Bolton was already passed over by the president as a choice for Secretary of State. He would fall squarely on the side of neoconservative establishment ideology, more in the vein of General Flynn. However, unlike General Flynn, Mr. Bolton is rumored to be a bit less loyal to President Trump, and would likely act independently more often than not. Depending on your view of ideal foreign policy, this could be a positive or a negative. Fans of the Iraq War and proponents of regime change would be pleased with Bolton as National Security Advisor — he approves of both of those things.
Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster currently serves on active duty as a senior leader in the Training and Doctrine Command. This assignment places him not in intelligence or operations, but rather in a position where he can contribute to and influence the Army’s education, structure, and plans for the future. General McMaster forged a reputation early in his career as a critic of authority. In 1998 he published a book, Dereliction of Duty, which places the blame for the failure in Vietnam largely on the weakness of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Controversy also surrounded McMaster during the time he was up for promotion to Brigadier General. Despite a stellar record and tremendous praise for his performance in the Middle East as a combat commander, he was passed over for selection twice. This snub was rumored to have happened due to General McMaster’s desire to make radical changes to the Army. His presence on the National Security Council would not just be as an insider but also a change agent — potentially the best of both worlds.
Lieutenant General Robert Caslen currently serves as the commanding officer at West Point. Operational roles fill his career, but General Caslen’s achievements pale in comparison to those of his peers under consideration for the National Security Advisor position. Instead of combat performance or leadership prowess, General Caslen is most famous for a 2006 ethics breach in which he was filmed, in uniform, promoting a religious organization. He has avoided such controversy since then and admitted that a post-football game prayer in 2016 “crossed the line” after being questioned about the event. It is unclear what kind of military or intelligence expertise General Caslen would bring to the table. If selected, he would likely be the least influential or independent of all the potential candidates.
The future of President Trump’s relationship with the nation’s intelligence network will rest in the hands of his new National Security Advisor. Whether the president fills the post with an establishment darling or a maverick outsider, this individual will have one of the most challenging jobs in the administration. Time is of the essence since each day that passes drives a wedge deeper and deeper between the president and the intelligence community.