Like most of the president’s MAGA base, I was pulling for Col. Douglas Macgregor to replace John Bolton as National Security Adviser (NSA). It seemed the perfect opportunity for the president to select an NSA who fully supported his instincts and would fire up the base in 2020. It was with some surprise, then, that I read the news yesterday that the president had chosen Robert O’Brien, who has been described as “Bolton lite,” to be the next NSA. There are reasons to think, however, that O’Brien, despite political instincts that put him at odds with the president and his electoral base, might be a good pick.
Jennifer Jacobs at Bloomberg reported a few days ago that the president was giving Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “wide latitude” in determining the next NSA, and O’Brien works directly for Pompeo in his capacity as the current Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. Some had floated the idea of having Pompeo himself serve as NSA while also remaining secretary of state. That possibility, and now the choice of O’Brien, suggests that the role of the NSA could be diminishing, with the secretary of state taking the lead.
There are two principal functions for the NSA. The first function of the NSA is to advise the president on national security and foreign policy matters. To the extent Pompeo and Trump see eye-to-eye on policy, having O’Brien as NSA can help the federal government speak with one voice. Trump routinely notes that he is the single decision-maker in government, but in this case, there is an opportunity for the National Security Council (NSC) staff to be downsized, because picking someone close to Pompeo could mean the real analysis and decision-making occurs at the State Department in Foggy Bottom and not at the White House. This could streamline government and free up resources.
The second function of the NSA likely cannot be outsourced to the State Department, however, without major headaches: the policy coordination role of the NSC. If there is a disagreement between the Department of State and, say, the Department of Defense, it ordinarily should take a neutral assistant to the president to adjudicate. The choice of O’Brien, who squarely aligned with State (his prior government experience including work on a few State Department advisory committees and with the United Nations), does risk sidelining, even slighting, other agencies. But O’Brien’s 2016 book, While America Slept, does apparently call for increasing the size of the American military and expanding our role overseas. This should endear him to some in the Pentagon. Whether or not he appears neutral, however, could be beside the point if Trump makes it clear that on even domestic matters with foreign policy implications, Pompeo is first among equals in the Cabinet, so that State wins in any interagency dispute.
O’Brien will undoubtedly be different from Bolton. Both are hawks, but Bolton was known as a competent bureaucrat (or at least presented himself as such). O’Brien, with less experience (and lacking the Ivy League pedigree the president is reputed to favor), might be more tightly reined in and less inclined to “manage down” problems rather than escalating to Pompeo and the president. He will probably not be tempted to build interagency coalitions or to interfere with agency staffing. All this meshes well with Trump’s apparent management style.
One benefit to the president of having John Bolton as NSA was that he was a civilian with an anti–State Department stance. He was known first as a hawk, even a neoconservative, and as a distant second he was reputed to be an accomplished bureaucrat. His advice to the president could be relied on, then, because it would always prioritize good management, even if the preferences would be tilted in the hawkish direction. The information he conveyed to the president provided value because it was consistent, even if consistently skewed. As the president joked, “John has never seen a war he doesn’t like.”
The president and his MAGA base want withdrawal from Afghanistan as fast as possible. O’Brien will have to help manage this scale down, and having him as a hawkish devil’s advocate for the State Department and international governance might provide the president with the strongest possible counterarguments that the Swamp can provide, improving the decision-making process. O’Brien appears to have no substantial foreign policy portfolio outside the Middle East, so this might be precisely why he was chosen.
It remains to be seen how long O’Brien will last. Presumably he will remain at his post through the remainder of the Trump presidency. Pompeo, however, is reputed to be considering a run for the open U.S. Senate seat in Kansas. This pick might suggest a trial run for O’Brien to serve as Pompeo’s replacement at State. That would enable Trump to make a more flashy pick in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, should he need a reason to fire up his base and highlight his America First foreign policy against a more hawkish Democratic candidate — say, Pete Buttigieg or Kamala Harris.