Revamp the NSC

The somewhat obscure NSC can potentially improve top-level decision making, precisely addressing some disturbing aspects of our current situation.

netanyahu 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
netanyahu 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
As the cloud of scandal and haplessness continues to swirl around our national leadership, a discussion of plans to revamp the National Security Council has been largely ignored. This is unfortunate, given that this somewhat obscure body has the potential to improve top-level decision making, and therefore to precisely address some of the most disturbing aspects of our current situation. On Wednesday, the Knesset State Control Committee, chaired by NU-NRP MK Zevulun Orlev, met to consider State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss's report on the NSC issued on September 28. That report stated that "the prime ministers of Israel have preferred to have their own intimate forum for making decisions rather than a special body that would be responsible for providing orderly staff work for making decisions." Hence, perhaps, the locating of the NSC in distant offices outside Tel Aviv. Lindenstrauss recommended that the NSC be made more central, and given the sole responsibility for preparing the agenda regarding national security issues for the security and full cabinets. Ilan Mizrahi, who currently heads the NSC, told the committee that he had submitted a draft bill to better define the council's responsibilities. Orlev endorsed the comptroller's report and pledged to press for the new draft law's passage. It is not clear, however, how a legislated restructuring can really change the way in which the pinnacle of the executive branch operates. As Binyamin Netanyahu, who attempted to establish the NSC in 1999, pointed out to the committee, what really matters is the relationship the prime minister decides to have with the NSC. "It has to be in the prime minister's blood [and in] his concept of leadership," he said. Netanyahu, though clearly a believer in the NSC, admitted that it did not become the instrument that he envisaged even when he was prime minister. Given this experience, the questions must be asked: Why do many developed democracies find some form of NSC necessary, above and beyond the ministries and bodies charged with maintaining national security? How is an NSC supposed to work? And what can be done to make it work that way? Democracies naturally suffer from the fact that decisions must be made by the elected leadership, even as the store of knowledge needed to make those decisions, and the people charged with implementing them, sit in a dizzying array of separate and often conflicted bureaucracies. An effective NSC is supposed to bridge this gap, in both directions. The prime minister needs a somewhat independent source of information and analysis in order to coherently interact with the security bureaucracy and the bureaucracy needs an orderly channel to convey its concerns and recommendations. Finally, the premier needs to have people who work for him, not for the ministries, to ensure that decisions taken are properly carried out. For some, the purpose of an NSC seems to be to provide an "objective" source of decisions - one not tainted by lack of professional knowledge or political influences from the top, or by parochial bureaucratic considerations from below. Indeed, the NSC is supposed to represent something of a golden mean between politics and substance, and between the bird's-eye and specialized perspectives on the issues. An NSC, however, is not a panacea for bad decision making. It cannot and should not be expected to remove the burdens of the judgement and responsibility that a democracy invests in its elected leadership. Though there is still much we do not know about how decisions were made during last summer's Lebanon war, one problem seems to have been the inability of the civilians to ask the generals the right questions. Neither generals nor prime ministers have a monopoly on proper judgment. The standard line of elected officials - "I relied on the recommendations of my generals" - is no defense for mistakes. But if prime ministers cannot rely on generals, who can they rely upon? The answer is that the public elected its leadership precisely to make such difficult judgements, but those leaders need trusted professionals around them who work to give them the tools to assess the recommendations of the security establishment. Policies are supposed to come from the top, not from the bodies tasked with implementing them, but it is very difficult for the top level to make coherent decisions without the help of professional analysts based in the Prime Minister's Office. This is why an NSC is so necessary, and why it is hard to see how decision making can improve dramatically without an effective NSC, regardless of who is prime minister.