A Sorting Hat for National Security Advisors

In an attempt to keep my class on American Foreign Policy Process relevant to the youths, I ask them to apply a sorting hat to National Security Advisors. The sorting hat is the magical device from the world of Harry Potter that tells wizards arriving at Hogwarts which House suits them. I blatantly stole the idea, from this awesome article in War on the Rocks that applies the Harry Potter lens to the Department of Defense and compares the military services to the different Houses of Hogwarts.

I realize that, first, JK Rowling is being cancelled, but my students grew up on Harry Potter so this still works. Second, Harry Potter will not be current soon and I’ll need to find a newer pop culture reference to make this work. In class, when I compared Obama to Spock and the students looked at me quizzically, I died a little inside.

Each House at Hogwarts reveres a particular virtue. Gryffindor, home of the main characters in the Harry Potter books, admires bravery. Hufflepuff is loyal. Ravenclaw is smart and Slytherin is ambitious. We face some analytical problems applying the sorting hat to National Security Advisors (NSAs).

Really, there’s an analytical problem in using a device from a fantasy series for children to understand the role of the top national security staffer to the president of the United States?

Actually, there are two problems. First, each House has its virtues, and every national security advisor must possess a measure of these virtues. Every NSA is very smart, must be loyal to the president (or they’ll get fired), must be ambitious (how else do you get a top White House job), and has to be brave (at least brave enough to stand up to the various formidable figures at the top of our nation’s political hierarchy).

But there’s another problem. Although the Harry Potter series heroes were from Gryffindor, there isn’t a self-evidently best house, but there is a generally regarded “best” approach to being NSA.

In the Shadow of the Oval Office 1st edition 9781416553205 1416553207
Best history of the evolving role of the National Security Advisor – you should read it.

Since Brent Scowcroft held the position under President George H.W. Bush, every National Security Advisor has at least claimed to adhere to the “Scowcroft” model. In the previous several decades, the NSA, and the National Security Staff had been through a number of crises – from the overpowered Kissinger, to the divisive Brzezinski, to the inconsequential Dick Allen, and then the scandal-ridden and Poindexter. Scowcroft instituted the National Security Advisor as honest broker who focused on making sure that the president had the information needed to make decisions, that all points of view received a hearing, and only then weighed in himself. He recognized that the advisor role was more enticing, but that the coordinator role was more important. The administration of the elder Bush was generally seen as a foreign policy success, presiding over the end of the Cold War, the reunification of Germany, and the successful first Gulf War.  In contrast to previous administrations, the first Bush administration’s foreign policy process model, named for its architect Brent Scowcroft, was so firmly admired that the Clinton administration adopted it. Generally new administrations reject the practices of their predecessor, but Clinton’s National Security Advisors Tony Lake and Sandy Berger continued it.

To make this little thought experiment work, we’re arbitrarily determining that Ravenclaw are the NSAs who followed the Scowcroft model. They weren’t necessarily the smartest people to hold the role, but the coordinator first, advisor second is the smartest way to play it. It actually improves your status as an advisor if both the president and the other players don’t think you are manipulating the process in your own favor. Besides those mentioned above, examples would include pre-Scowcroft NSAs Goodpaster, Bundy, Carlucci, and Powell. More recent NSAs including Hadley, Donilon, Susan Rice, and now, by most accounts, Jake Sullivan are also acolytes of the Scowcroft process (if not his policy).

Given that there is, in this case, a “best” house, here is how we’ll make the sorting hat fit. Every virtue has its opposite vice. Gryffindor is about bravery and glory. Hufflepuff is about loyalty. Ravenclaw is about brains. And Slytherin is about ambition.

Of course, NSAs are loyal, but are they loyal to a fault in which they don’t tell presidents what they need to hear, implement decisions that are unwise and not properly vetted. That could be Walt Rostow and his full-throated advocacy of Vietnam or Condoleezza Rice who similarly became the administration’s spokesperson for the war in Iraq. They, perhaps along with Reagan’s first two NSAs Dick Allen and William Clark, were the Hufflepuff National Security Advisors.

Bravery is good, but glory-seeking is unwise for a staffer. Looking at you Brzezinski and MacFarlane, both of whom, in the shadow of Kissinger’s public triumphs, sought to emulate them. Obama’s first NSA, General Jim Jones, who saw himself in a Secretary of State type role, joins them as Gryffindor National Security Advisors.

Ambition is not a bad thing, but too much leads to deviousness. If Kissinger was the archetype of the Slytherin NSA, but so was Admiral Poindexter who keeping his own counsel, operating in the shadows, ran a secret operation out of the White House.

Sorting the Trump NSAs

Trump had four National Security Advisors. It seems that each one sorts at least somewhat neatly into a different house. HR McMaster sought to run a normal NSA process (to limited success), that makes him a bit of Ravenclaw. Bolton, in his incredibly candid memoirs, outlines how he maneuvered around the president to shape policy – very Slytherin. Flynn, who loved the spotlight, relishing speaking at rallies, was a bit of a Gryffindor. Finally, O’Brien, who frankly had a thin resume for NSA, was a Hufflepuff, seeking to carry out presidential orders.

Feel like Bolton would relish being Slytherin

All in good fun, but things are never neat. Maybe Flynn was the loyal Hufflepuff, remaining close to Trump even after being fired. O’Brien carefully positioned himself to become NSA from the less than prominent Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. O’Brien made a point of attending the trial in Sweden of rapper ASAP Rocky, at the president’s instruction, supposedly under his mandate to assist unjustly detained Americans. Defense Secretary Esper posited that O’Brien was plotting to take his job. So maybe he was more Slytherin than Hufflepuff.

This problem extends to previous NSAs as well. If there is a lesson to be drawn from this fun little exercise, perhaps it is that for NSAs, each virtue in moderation lest it become a vice.

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