Participant of Washington's policy-making process speaking to Azeri.Today
former senior adviser to the special representative of the US State Department in Afghanistan and Pakistan, former adviser to the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan, ex-director of the Program for Peace and Conflict Studies
“What do you think about policy Trump in the Middle East?” - a reasonable question, but one with no answer. If we take only the Israel-Palestine conflict as an example, the U.S. has for several decades, through both Republican and Democratic administrations, supported as a solution the establishment of two states, Israel and Palestine, living in peace with each other. The U.S. advocated direct negotiations between the two parties, represented by the government of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization as the means to that end and has offered to assist in any way. This policy entailed other, more specific policies on a range of territorial, security, political, and economic issues. Everyone working on this issue in the U.S. government knew and understood this policy, and all statements about the issue reiterated this policy in one way or another.
This week, at a White House press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Trump said: “I’m looking at two-state and one-state” formulations, I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.”
Good idea or bad idea, this is a reversal of a major policy of the U.S. government. I will draw on my experience participating in the U.S. government policy making process to describe how such a policy shift would be adopted in a normal administration.
One day, during their daily meeting, when they get to the part of the agenda on the Middle East, the President tells his National Security Advisor that he would like to consider whether there might be alternatives to the two-state solution that the U.S. could support. The NSA turns to his deputy and asks him to “task that out.”
Back in his office, the DNSA calls in the NSC staff director for the Near East and tells her she is in charge of steering the process. The DNSA sends a classified email to the office of the Secretaries of State and Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Permanent Representative to the United Nations, the CIA, and the Directorate for National Intelligence, copied to their deputies and relevant regional bureaus asking them to name participants in an NSC working group which will meet at a given time and place. RSVPs are to be sent to the Director.
The Director writes a short concept paper for the WG meeting. The working group discusses it and chooses one or two people as drafters of the policy document. That policy document is then circulated among all departments for comments and edits. The office of the Director then redrafts based on those comments and calls another working group meeting to discuss the rewritten paper.
The WG might approve it or send it back for another round. Once the WG agrees on the draft, the Director gives it to the DNSA. The DNSA may send it back for further work or go to the next step, which is convening the Deputies’ committee. This is a meeting chaired by the DNSA and including the deputy secretaries of the abovementioned departments and agencies as voting members. Subject matter experts may also participate. The Deputies’ Committee is usually where the main political questions about the policy change are thrashed out. There could be more than one such meeting, and the paper may be redrafted.
The DNSA then transmits the paper to the NSA, who either sends it back for more work or uses it at the basis for a Principles’ Committee meeting. That is a meeting chaired by the NSA and including the Secretaries of State and Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the CIA Director, the Director of National Intelligence, the Permanent Representative to the UN and other cabinet level officials as needed. The purpose of the principle’s meeting is to reach consensus that the paper on the proposed policy change is in good enough condition to be sent to the President.
The NSA then transmits the paper to the President. After reading the paper and questioning his NSC staff and perhaps cabinet members about it, he decides whether to move forward. If so, he convenes a meeting of the National Security Council, chaired by the President and including the same cabinet-level officials as the Principles Committee. Thought the participants are almost the same, the dynamics of PC and NSC meetings are very different. At the PC the NSA, an appointee of the President, facilitates discussion among Cabinet members appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate in order to reach a consensus or decision. The NSA is not confirmed by the Senate and is not a decision maker. At the NSC, the ultimate decision maker, the President, chairs the meeting and uses it to discuss whatever questions, doubts, or objections he may have to the paper that has come to him. He may also discuss relevant intelligence reports.
After the meeting, back in the Oval Office, the President either approves the paper or sends it back. If he approves it, the legal office prepares whatever documents are needed and he signs them. It is then up to the NSA to distribute the President’s decision to all relevant departments for implementation. The implementation document would include recommended language that all government officials should use in describing the new policy.
At this stage of the Trump Administration there is no NSA or Deputy secretary of Defense or State. Many if not most of the other positions needed for this process are also unfilled. In addition, the President does not trust the professionals who run either the intelligence agencies or the State and Defense Departments and is not interested in their opinions. So the President has dinner with his son-in-law and just says whatever comes into his mind. The rest of the government scratches its collective head, as it has received no information about any policy change, its substance, how to talk about it, and therefore is liable to continue working from the old policy. At this point the whole world is completely confused, which I guess is why this Azeri journalist asked me the question.
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