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A successful national security policy-making process involves careful assessment of the international environment. Based on such analysis, government leaders formulate the short-term and long-term foreign policy goals, the attainment of which requires the leaders to select the most appropriate instrument or a combination of several of them. The global arena of the second half of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries facilitated the growth of responsibilities that involved diplomacy, intelligence agencies, as well as military forces. Therefore, the United States had to establish effective organizational machinery to analyze the international environment, prioritize foreign policy issues, and advise on the most appropriate policy option for crisis management and long-term planning.

Hence, the importance of the National Security Council has increased as it became an entity tasked with creating an interagency body within the White House to offer recommendations to POTUS regarding national security matters. The purpose of this paper is to identify the best practices for the establishment of the NSC by comparing the National Security Council structures of two former U.S. Presidents: George H. W. Bush and Barack Obama. The successes and failures of both of their administrations demonstrate that the Council has to be of a manageable size, include experienced members, and foster cooperation between different departments.


The structure of the National Security Council established by the Bush administration is rightfully considered the “standard,” which is why there are numerous similarities when comparing the structure of George H. W. Bush’s NSC with that of any of his successors (Gwerzman, 2008). Firstly, the Council under President Obama consisted of the three same types of committees utilized by Scowcroft: a Principals committee (PC), a Deputies Committee (DC), and Policy Coordination Committees (PCCs), also known as Interagency Policy committees (IPCs) (Specialist in National Defense, 2011). The PC under both Presidents remained the Cabinet-level senior interagency forum, which allowed the attendees to discuss the primary national security policy concerns. The DC of President Obama’s NSC continued to be the sub-Cabinet senior interagency forum (Specialist in National Defense, 2011). PCCs oversaw day-to-day interagency coordination and managed the implementation of a national security policy by different departments (Specialist in National Defense, 2011).


One of the major differences between the two models of NSC established by George H. W. Bush and Barack Obama is the size of the Council (Bobroske, 2016). During his time in office, President Bush ensured that the National Security Council is of a manageable size of 50 members, which allowed Brent Scowcroft to personally chair most of the key committees and take into consideration all the opinions of the POTUS’s advisors (Specialist in National Defense, 2011). However, the size of the NSC started to increase gradually under President Clinton who decided to create a National Economic Council (NEC) and include some of its staff into the ranks of NSC officials (Bobroske, 2016). Since 9/11, the NSC has grown even more due to the wars the United States was involved in as well as the rise of global threats to the country (Bobroske, 2016). As a result, the Obama administration increased the number of NSC staffers to nearly 400 (Bobroske, 2016). It was a conscious effort of President Obama to limit the decision-making process to the White House, aiming to micromanage the execution of policy.

George H. W. Bush’s considerable domestic and foreign affairs experience distinguishes him from Barack Obama and his approach to national security (Ries, 2016). The Bush administration was exemplary in terms of the NSC staffers who possessed a wealth of experience, having already served in similar positions (or at least as directors in various departments). President Obama, on the other hand, filled the majority of nearly 400 seats allocated to the NSS with junior personnel who required additional training (Bobroske, 2016). For example, Obama chose James L. Jones as his first National Security Advisor (Specialist in National Defense, 2011). Jones was a Marine Corps general who had little experience for the position unlike Bush’s pick, Brent Scowcroft. Scowcroft served as the National Security advisor during the Ford Presidency and the Military Assistant to President Richard Nixon (Wanis-St. John, 1998). Although Obama reconsidered his national security team, its members lacked the qualifications and experience of Bush’s NSC attendees.

Another difference between the NSC models of Bush and Obama is the integration of the Homeland Security Council (HSC) and the National Security Council by the Obama administration (Specialist in National Defense, 2011). In May 2009, President Obama announced the staff of the HSC and the NSC into one National Security Staff (NSS). His administration explained the reasoning behind the decision as it being a conscious effort to end “the artificial divide between White House staff who have been dealing with national security and homeland security issues” (Specialist in National Defense, 2011, p. 23). President Obama viewed the creation of the NSS as the solution to the hostility between intelligence agencies and law enforcement, which experts pointed out had existed prior to 9/11 (Specialist in National Defense, 2011).

In addition, the very role of the National Security advisor has transformed since the end of Bush’s time in office (Gwerzman, 2008). Brent Scowcroft was exceptionally close to the President, which reflected in the entirety of NSC as a whole (Specialist in National Defense, 2011). The tight partnership between POTUS and Scowcroft allowed them to coordinate their efforts efficiently in pursuit of the administration’s goals. The fact that, in 1991, Bush sent Scowcroft to the Middle East and China, not Secretary of State Baker demonstrates how influential the National Security advisor has been (Specialist in National Defense, 2011). Moreover, it is crucial to recognize that Scowcroft was personally a chairman of the majority of key committees, which were usually chaired by Presidents (Specialist in National Defense, 2011). The Obama administration, on the other hand, diminished the role of the National Security advisor and created a political environment where the Council has little to no power.

Strengths of Each Structure

When it comes to the NSC model created by the Bush administration, it is crucial to acknowledge its impact on the National Security Council structure in the decades that would follow. The main strength of George H. W. Bush in the NSC formation is the experience he has gained serving as a Vice President for 8 years (Bobroske, 2016). The insights he accumulated during his time in the White House allowed him to choose the right person for the position of National Security Advisor (Ries, 2016). Equipped with considerable foreign policy experience, Brent Scowcroft managed to reform the NSC structure, making the Council a key player during such major foreign affairs successes as the collapse of the USSR, the unification of Germany, as well as the deployment of the US troops in Iraq and Panama (Specialist in National Defense, 2011). Scowcroft preferred a collegial approach within the NSC regarding national security matters and successfully avoided public confrontations with the Cabinet officers (Wanis-St. John, 1998). Although the advisor expanded the NSC membership, he ensured that the number of regular attendees remained limited. This allowed Scowcroft to create a reasonably effective policy-making model, which included a set of advisors close to George H. W. Bush who shared the same views as the POTUS (Bobroske, 2016). As a result, a small set of loyal and committed staffers improved the Council’s efficiency and effectiveness.

Another important strength of the Scowcroft model is the ability of the NSC to coordinate policies among various departments (Bobroske, 2016). Cooperation between different agencies facilitated the development of the necessary conditions to ensure there was a balance between day-to-day crisis management and long-term strategic assessment of risks and opportunities in pursuit of the administration’s goals. Eight policy-coordinating committees established by Bush efficiently communicated short-term objectives and long-term plans to numerous department heads who remained an active part of the national security decision-making process (Wanis-St. John, 1998). Thus, one of the most prominent strengths of Scowcroft’s NSC structure is its ability to coordinate a variety of agencies without disturbing the established chain of command.

The Obama administration’s efforts to integrate the NSC and the HSC into the new structure referred to as NSS were partially successful (Specialist in National Defense, 2011). Firstly, combining the staff of the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council proved to be a somewhat good idea to overcome the divide between intelligence departments and law enforcement agencies (Specialist in National Defense, 2011). Moreover, the newly created NSS model facilitated closer partnerships of Federal agencies and state entities regarding the issues of homeland security.

The Obama administration has certainly done a number of great things overseas. The idea behind the pivot to Asia was exceptional, according to Rothkopf (Goldberg, 2014). In addition, the President’s first speeches set an important tone; the coordination with the EU during the global economic crisis was well-executed; the Syria chemical deal could be considered a success. The distinguishing factor of Obama’s policy-making machinery is its focus on crisis management. However, the administration’s commitment to long-term planning and strategic risk assessment could be deemed somewhat questionable.

Weaknesses of Each Structure

Whereas Bush’s model was successful, Obama’s NSC structure was chaotic and confusing in terms of responsibilities, roles, and authorities (Bobroske, 2016). The lack of strategic planning facilitated by the absence of a well-coordinated national security apparatus negatively affected President’s efforts to battle the Islamic State (Ries, 2016). The structure established by the Obama administration let departments operate in isolation from each other, which resulted in a relative lack of cooperation between agencies. Hence, no long-term policies were designed to defeat the ISIL (Ries, 2016). There was no strategic campaign plan due to the NSS structure that limited partnerships between departments.

President Obama’s decision to integrate NSC and HSC into one organizational entity facilitated the development of interagency relationships that derived from separate missions (Specialist in National Defense, 2011). During Barack Obama’s Presidency, relevant senior officials were isolated from each other in an effort to micromanage them, which led to them having no understanding of the grand mission of the national security apparatus (Collet, 2016). Establishing a new entity might have seemed like an easier way to breach the divide between intelligence agencies and law enforcement, as well as the hostility between Federal and state agencies. However, the efforts of the Obama administration were a failure since the ability of different departments to cooperate on strategic planning and program development nearly seized to exist during 2009-2016.

Another important weakness of Obama’s NSC model is the lack of experience possessed by the members of his national security team (Collet, 2016). As the number of attendees allowed continued to grow, the structure of the Council grew to be more chaotic and inefficient. Many of the staffers had to go through “on-the-job training,” which wasted the NSC’s resources. Having little to no experience in a certain position can breed insecurity, miscommunication, and bad performance. Hence, the Obama administration faced the absence of a proper command chain as well as “current problems like micromanaging junior NSC staffers giving directives to U.S. military commanders or ambassadors” (Bobroske, 2016). David Rothkopf, a best-selling author and an avid critic of Obama’s policy-formulation process, argues that the most prominent role in the NSC is that of the National Security advisor (Goldberg, 2014). President Obama’s picks for the position had little foreign policy experience, which made it harder for them to do their jobs effectively.

Although it is easier to put the entirety of the blame for Obama’s NSC failure on his advisors, the President was the one responsible for developing a close relationship with the National security advisor (Goldberg, 2014). An advisor needs the backing of POTUS in order to fill the gaps of missing expertise or experience in a certain area. The partnership between the President and his National Security advisor needs to be symbiotic. President Obama underestimated the impact of an experienced and well-connected advisor on the efficiency of the NSS (Goldberg, 2014).

Proposing a New Structure for the Current President

The current administration should further decrease the number of NSC staffers to improve the Council’s efficiency and effectiveness (Bobroske, 2016). In order to deal with the rise of foreign policy challenges, the President can employ additional staff members such as detailees on loan from Federal departments. This would allow the President “to sidestep NSC budgetary restrictions and has led to the expansion in NSC staff in recent years” (Bobroske, 2016). The President should consider returning to Scowcroft’s model of policy coordination among various agencies, which would allow the NSC to manage emergencies and formulation of long-term strategic objectives.

In addition, the National Security advisor needs to be an honest broker among Cabinet departments in order to avoid troublesome public confrontations with Cabinet officers and ensure the attendees of the NSC are united by the same goals and grand mission set by the President’s administration (Bobroske, 2016). Other recommendations for the President include “the full inclusion and empowerment of the cabinet to harness the resources of the administration; the formulation of good policy options for the president; the effective implementation of the choices the president makes” (Goldberg, 2014). The President’s administration has to facilitate the appropriate conditions for efficient communication between White House positions (Holmes, 2016). Moreover, the Council needs to create a balance between crisis management initiatives and long-term strategic planning, which are both required to ensure the NSC’s success. Lastly, it is important to separate political and national-security decision-making procedures, which is where micromanagement can be utilized (Holmes, 2016).


To sum it up, the formation of the National Security Council is one of the most crucial responsibilities of the President. George H. W. Bush set a “gold standard” of the NSC structure by limiting the Council members to a small set of close advisors led by an experienced foreign policy expert, Brent Scowcroft. Barack Obama, on the other hand, expanded the NSC to include over 400 members, most of whom did not have the experience required for their positions. As a result, Obama’s national security efforts suffered from the administration’s micromanagement and relative isolation of different departments. Thus, the current POTUS has to accept the fact that while the national security system can offset his weaknesses, it is also capable of reinforcing those weaknesses if he does not have strong, experienced, and empowered advisors surrounding him. The size of the National Security Council should be limited to a reasonable number of attendees. However, the rise of foreign policy challenges creates a need for a bigger Council than that established by the Scowcroft model. All in all, the president has to ensure departments cooperate with one another in order to maintain a balance between crisis management initiatives and strategic planning for potential threats.


Bobroske, A. (2016). Reforming the National Security Council. American action Forum.

Chollet, D. 92016. What’s wrong with Obama’s National Security Council? Defense One.

Goldberg, J. (2014). A withering critique of Obama’s National Security Council. The Atlantic.

Gwerzman, B. (2008). Presidents and the National Security Council. Council on Foreign Relations.

Holmes, K. (2016). Memo to a new President: How best to organize the National Security Council. Heritage Foundation.

Ries, C. P. (2016). Improving decisionmaking in a turbulent world: Strategic rethink. RAND Corporation.

Wanis-St. John, A. (1998). The National Security Council: Tool of presidential crisis management. Journal of Public and International Affairs, 9(1), 102-127.

Specialist in National Defense (2011). The National Security Council: An organizational assessment. Congressional Research Service.

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