The National Security Council has now been cut to 110 policy professionals, half the number under the previous administration, said National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien, as he underlined U.S. military prowess as a cornerstone of President Trump’s America First policy.
O’Brien explained how the U.S. military was pivoting away from counter-terrorism to tackle renewed great power competition, particularly with China in the Pacific.
During a wide-ranging speech and discussion at the Heritage Foundation on March 11, O’Brien said that the Space Force had attracted an “incredible” number of talented Americans for recruitment, praised the Marine Corps for tearing up their playbook to focus on China, emphasized that the role of the National Security Council was to serve the president, and said that Beijing had covered up the coronavirus outbreak for two months.
“President Trump has done more for the national security in three years than any other president in a three year period,” said O’Brien, pointing to the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy documents, which underpin the shift in strategy to tackle an era of renewed “great power competition with Russia and China.”
He said that like Reagan, Trump sought “peace through strength,” noting the rapid development of U.S. hypersonic missiles, the push towards a 355-ship Navy, and the establishment of the Space Force.
“A defining aspect of the president’s tenure in office and a core principle key behind America First is the need to maintain overwhelming military power,” said O”Brien.
O’Brien explained that he had continued to trim down the National Security Council (NSC), which had ballooned in size during the previous administration and taken on operational responsibilities which he has since been stripping out.
“I felt it was time to get back to the Brent Scowcroft model,” said O’Brien, in reference to a more limited advisory role for the council.
Asked about Beijing’s response to the coronavirus, O’Brien said that a cover-up had “cost the world” two months.
“There’s lots of open-source reporting from China, from Chinese nationals, that the doctors involved were either silenced or put in isolation or that sort of thing, so that word of this virus could not get out,” O’Brien said.
“I think we could have dramatically curtailed what happened in China and what’s now happening across the world,” O’Brien said.
One of the modernization priorities of the military is tackling space, which is seen as an increasingly significant domain of warfighting and security.
“In space, America is leading the world,” said O’Brien. “The world has changed and what happens in space will affect the outcome of future conflicts. What happens in space, does not stay there.”
He said that the newly-minted Space Force–the first service to be established since the Air Force–had drawn great interest for recruits, something recently mentioned by the head of the air force.
“The number of talented Americans, both inside and outside of the armed services, that want to be part fo the space force is truly incredible,” said O’Brien. In establishing the space force, the President and Congress “captured the imagination of the American People,” he said.
Narrowing the Size and Role of the NSC
Asked about the role of the NSC, O’Brien said that he had been cutting down the number of policy professionals since he took on the role six months ago.
“Under President Obama, the NSC staff had ballooned to almost 250 police professionals,” he said. “When I assumed office, that number was still over 175. six months into my tenure we’ve streamlined to between 110 and 115,” he said.
O’Brien said that he stresses to the staff that their role is to serve the president with advice.
NSC relies on staff on detail from other departments, such as the Pentagon, said O’Brien, because it has a very small budget.
“The detailees are coming over not to represent the organization at the NSC, but coming over to staff the president of the United States and to give him advice,” he said.
“It’s not there to be operational, ” said O’Brien. “I think that’s maybe a fundamental change from the perhaps where the last administration was.”
“When I got there I was told there were folks making calls from NSC out to forward operating bases, I was told they were folks making calls out to ships. There were folks who were regularly calling embassies and that sort of thing. It had become a very operationalized organization.”
O’Brien said that some staff appeared to think the NSC was a career opportunity and tried to stay as long as possible. “I think that there were some folks who probably had the idea that they knew better how to conduct the foreign policy of the United States better than the elected president of the United States.”
He said that if NSC staff couldn’t put their disagreements with the president aside, then the NSC wasn’t the right fit for them. He said that such people would be better off back in their agencies, “not trying to make policy or thwart policy, or make policy” or perhaps “going to run for Congress or state senator.”