Derek Chollet’s Testimony on Capitol Hill: Reforming the National Security Council
Derek Chollet, counselor and senior advisor for security and defense policy at The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), testified before the full House Foreign Affairs Committee on reforming the National Security Council (NSC) with a particular focus on efficiency and accountability.
Chollet’s extensive knowledge of the NSC system stems from his experiences on the NSC Staff during President Obama’s administration and on President-Elect Obama’s NSC transition team in 2008. Chollet has also held senior position in the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Defense where he was the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs at the department of defense. Testifying along with Chollet were Ambassador David C. Miller, Jr. of the Atlantic Council and Ambassador Lincoln P. Bloomfield, Jr. of the Stimson Center.
The House Committee on Foreign Affairs had several overarching concerns regarding the NSC, namely that the council had become too large and too operational, whereas the committee feels that its primary function should be limited to formulating strategy and policy options for the president to consider. When addressing these issues in his testimony, Chollet suggested that the next presidential administration should take advantage of the “space […] to make some change,” such as making the NSC more accountable. In response to Congressman Gerald Connolly’s (D-VA) subsequent concern that the problems with the NSC may not merit “draconian legislation,” Chollet cautioned the incoming administration against implementing reforms too quickly, without having a sufficient understanding of the current NSC system.
In addressing Congressman Dana Rohrabacher’s (R-CA) concerns about the growth of the NSC, Chollet noted a current trend toward downsizing in the NSC. Although the staff doubled in the past two decades, the current NSC team has fewer than 200 leadership and policy staff. With a 13 percent reduction in staff in the past 18 months alone, the staff will be “roughly the same [size]” when President Obama leaves as when he took office in 2009. According to Chollet, the NSC staff is already relatively small, and any noticeable growth in the past few decades can be attributed to growing policy needs that reflect increasing “global complexity.” To illustrate this point, he pointed to newly emergent and evolving threats such as cyber security and climate change that demand a great deal of the president’s attention. In order to maintain the level of flexibility necessary to respond to these new challenges, Chollet advised against “arbitrary caps” on the size of the NSC staff.
When questioned about oversight and the extent of authority the NSC holds, Chollet remarked that President Obama’s expansion of the NSC’s operational duties is not unprecedented and is partly justified by the aforementioned growing policy concerns. As for encouraging strategizing over micro-managing, the nature of the NSC’s work does not often allow for long-term strategizing, due to the focus on crisis management. Limiting the size and authority of the NSC staff through reforms may further hinder senior officials’ ability to concentrate on long-term strategy.
According to Chollet, the goal in reforming the NSC is to improve the process by which the NSC addresses national security policy while ensuring that it maintains the purpose of advising the President of the United States effectively and strategically.
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