I want to call attention to a WaPo article from Sunday on the emerging structure of Obama’s national security council–it was front page, but largely lost among the coverage of the Stimulus package. Indeed, only Rozen really seems to have picked up on it. While largely an interview with new National Security Adviser James Jones about organizational charts and workflows, it nevertheless offers a substantial insight into the new Administration’s ability to deal with foreign policy–both crises and long-term issues.

Students of foreign policy analysis focus on the decision-making process that Administrations use to make foreign policy. At the heart of that process is the NSC. Since the Kennedy Administration (remember Ex-Comm?), the NSC has largely taken over from the cabinet agencies as the President’s main source for foreign policy management, planning, and coordination. Any introductory foreign policy course covers the evolution of the NSC (as Daalder and Destler do in the most recent Foreign Affairs), noting how the organization and function of the NSC reflect the President’s decision-making style. JFK had a collegial group, Nixon a rigid hierarchy, Bush I an well organized coordinating system, and so on.

Jones tells the Post that:

President Obama plans to order a sweeping overhaul of the National Security Council, expanding its membership and increasing its authority to set strategy across a wide spectrum of international and domestic issues.

The result will be a “dramatically different” NSC from that of the Bush administration or any of its predecessors since the forum was established after World War II to advise the president on diplomatic and military matters, according to national security adviser James L. Jones, who described the changes in an interview. “The world that we live in has changed so dramatically in this decade that organizations that were created to meet a certain set of criteria no longer are terribly useful,” he said.

A couple changes are worth pointing out.

1. Obama plans to radically alter membership. By law, the only standing members of the NSC are the President, VP, SecState, and SecDef. The CJCS is the military adviser and DNI intelligence advisor. By design, its a flexible structure, allowing the President to add members as he sees fit. Traditionally other agencies have attended as required–Justice, Treasury, etc. Jones plans to draw in members from across the executive branch, involving any agency relevant to an issue. In part, this reflects the increasing role that other agencies, from law enforcement to energy to agriculture play in foreign policy. The potential pay-off is greater coordination and a greater ability to focus the government’s actions on a topic. The downside, of course, is that more people in the room always makes for a more difficult meeting.

2. Jones will assert greater control over access to the President and Presidential involvement in decision-making. Largely, this is a reaction to the Bush II NSC, where back-channels and unilateral action, especially among State, Defense, and the Vice President’s office, undermined effective coordination. (Do note the comparison between Bush Administrations–largely composed of the same cast of characters. Bush I is widely regarded as having had a model NSC, while Bush II is widely regarded as having had a highly dysfunctional NSC).

3. He plans to re-draw agency maps. Yes, maps. Each department divides the world into region–State has its regional bureaus, DoD has its Unified Command Plan, and the NSC has its Senior Directors. These regional division, however, reflect Agency-specific needs and do not correspond in any way to each other. State’s South Asia bureau includes Afghanistan and India, while in DoD, CENTCOM runs the show in Afghanistan while PACOM has jurisdiction over India. His goal is to have parallelism within agencies, creating peers who oversee policy with the same group of countries. It would certainly make it easier to know who to pick up the phone and call.

The point here is that, from a foreign policy analysis perspective, this stuff really matters. A significant chunk of foreign policy theory asserts that the decision-making process has a substantial influence in the quality of decision made, and thus effectiveness of US foreign policy.

The NSC is how Presidents do this. A functional NSC can provide the President with options, information, and advice to make the best possible decision when faced with a foreign policy choice. A functional NSC can make sure that government agencies work in concert to carry out the President’s chosen course of action. A dysfunctional NSC process can rapidly reproduce its dysfunction across the government and embed itself within US foreign policy.

So, take note of Jone’s comments, as his success in creating the working NSC structure he describes will be a sizable indicator of the Administration’s ability to handle the myriad of critical foreign policy issues it faces.