Mashuqur Rahman and Sikder Haseeb Khan
Published in the Forum (Feb 2008)
Preserving and protecting national security is one of the most important responsibilities of any government. As foreign policy and national security challenges have become more complex, governments have looked to devise appropriate analytic and decision-making bodies. One such innovation has been the National Security Council.
In democracies that have adopted the National Security Council, the council acts as an advisory body on national security policy to an elected head of government. It is subordinate to the head of government (which in Bangladesh would be the prime minister), and has no authority over the decisions of the government’s chief executive. In its more severe form, however, the National Security Council is often used to exert military control over policy, even after power is handed over to civilian governments (Thailand is an example of this).
munem wasif/ Driknews
There has been some discussion recently about forming a National Security Council in Bangladesh. This article aims to add to that disccussion by reviewing the role and structure of the National Security Council (NSC) in the United States, which is considered the prototypical example of such a body under a democratic system. While security is the council’s area of concern, the three key features of the US NSC are its restrictive role as an advisory body, its focus on external, not internal, issues, and its mechanism to assert civilian control over security affairs in a democracy.
A purely advisory role
In the United States, the chief executive authority in the government rests with an elected president. The president is also the commander-in-chief of all armed forces of the United States and is responsible for executing the national security policy of the country. To facilitate the president’s decision making, an advisory group called the National Security Council was created in 1947 by a law passed by the US Congress. The law, known as the National Security Act of 1947, was a consequence of lessons learned during the military campaigns of World War II and an anticipated need to coordinate the different “hard” and “soft” dimensions of security during the Cold War. According to the act, the NSC was created to “advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security so as to enable the military services and the other departments and agencies of the Government to cooperate more effectively in matters involving the national security.”
Like its economic counterpart (the National Economic Council), the NSC is part of the Executive Office of the President. Its meetings are chaired by the president, or a person designated by the president, and attended regularly by the vice president and key members of the cabinet, including the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, and the secretary of treasury. Heads of other departments are often invited to attend NSC meetings when appropriate. To help coordinate national security policy and response among the different departments of the government, the president appoints a national security advisor, who acts as White House’s top analyst and focal point on security-related issues.
A focus on external security
In the United States, a strong system of checks and balances keeps foreign and domestic security apart and civilian command firm. There has also been a legal and political tradition of keeping the military out of domestic policy and domestic deployment. James Madison, one of the founders of the American political system, wrote powerfully in 1788: “A standing force, therefore, is a dangerous, at the same time that it may be a necessary, provision. On the smallest scale it has its inconveniences. On an extensive scale its consequences may be fatal. On any scale it is an object of laudable circumspection and precaution. A wise nation will combine all these considerations; and, whilst it does not rashly preclude itself from any resource which may become essential to its safety, will exert all its prudence in diminishing both the necessity and the danger of resorting to one which may be inauspicious to its liberties.” The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 and its update of 1956 formally limited government authority of using the military for enforcing domestic law and order.
This tradition of separating foreign and domestic security has influenced the design of the NSC. The NSC deals mostly with external threats to national security, such as the Soviet threat during the Cold War or the threat of terrorism now. During the Clinton administration, the NSC’s main concerns were the Balkan Wars, Somalia, consequences of the first Gulf War, and the expansion of Nato. In the current administration, the War on Terror is the main concern and the Middle East the primary focus, with secondary concerns around North Korea, China, Pakistan, and an increasingly assertive Russia. In all this, the NSC advises the president and the cabinet on external security — and it is the president who ultimately makes policy decisions to the extent permitted by the Congress.
Control by civilians
It is the same type of checks and balances that keep the control of the NSC in civilian hands. In addition to the civilian heads of departments, the director of National Intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff attend National Security Council meetings. The Joint Chiefs of Staff consists of the service chiefs of the four major branches of the United States military: the army, the navy, the air force, and the marine corps. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is one of the service chiefs and is appointed to his position after being nominated by the president and confirmed by the United States Senate. The chairman is the only non-civilian member who is a regular attendee of NSC meetings. The chairman attends the meetings in his capacity as the principal military advisor to the president of the United States.
All the service chiefs of the US military, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, report to the civilian secretary of defense, who in turn works for the president. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, though they are service chiefs, do not have any command authority over the US military. To separate military advice from military command authority, the US Congress passed a law known as the Goldwater-Nichols Act.
Goldwater-Nichols ensures that the military chain of command in the United States runs firmly from the civilian president, to the civilian secretary of defense, directly to the military combatant commander in the theater of military operations. The service chiefs (Joint Chiefs of Staff) do not have any operational control over the US military and act, through the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in an advisory role to the president of the United States. This separation of military advice from military chain of command is one of the crucial mechanisms to safeguard civilian control of the military, and thereby national security affairs, in the United States.
A mixed record
In more than half a century of existence the US National Security Council has had a mixed history. Each American president has molded and used the National Security Council according to his own personal style. Some presidents, such as John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, made little use of the National Security Council, relying instead on ad-hoc policy making sessions and personal relationships with department heads. Still other presidents, such as Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush, relied heavily on the council to gather information and shape national security policy.
Often the effectiveness of the council has depended on the strength of the national security advisor and the advisor’s ability to balance the competing agendas and personalities of the secretary of defense and the secretary of state. Strong national security advisors, such as Henry Kissinger, have had significant influence in using the National Security Council to provide the president with national security policy options, although the policies so formed did not always meet with success and at times led to spectacular failures.
Most recently under President George W. Bush, a weak national security advisor faced with a powerful secretary of defense and a weak secretary of state resulted in a National Security Council that was ineffective in providing the president with informed national security advice. The outcome was a foreign policy blunder and a march to war based on one of the most significant intelligence failures in United States history.
Democratic and the non-democratic parallels
All in all, even in the most powerful country in the world, the NSC has been neither indispensable nor unquestionably successful. But what remains unquestionable is that in the US, the NSC’s role has been restricted carefully to prevent military interference in elected authority. In contrast, in countries like Turkey and Pakistan, such councils are set up essentially to retain and exert military control over a wide range of policy. This is potentially dangerous: it creates an unaccountable authority, compromises the value of democracy, and undermines the professional purpose and integrity of the military by thoroughly politicising it. But one thing that Pakistan and Turkey have in common is that they both face troubling external security environments. Bangladesh faces a far less complex external threat environment; therefore, any perceived benefit of setting up a National Security Council should be weighed carefully.
Tanvir Ahmed/ DRIKNEWS
Even in the United States, which faces the most complex external security environment in the world, the National Security Council remains a purely advisory tool for elected governments to use, with a focus on external, not domestic, issues, and commanded in both letter and spirit by civilians, not the military. In a country where power belongs to the people, national security policy has been no exception, even in times of turbulence and war.