Biden Often Rejects Unanimous NSC Advice

An interesting statement from his National Security Advisor.

President Joe Biden participates in a virtual call with the NASA Mars 2020 Perseverance Mission team members Thursday, March 4, 2021, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Defense One (“Biden Rejects Unanimous NSC ‘More Often Than You Might Think’“):

President Joe Biden regularly deviates from the recommendations made by his national security team, one of his top advisors revealed Thursday. 

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Biden overruling decisions from top national security officials, including when there’s agreement between Sullivan, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, is not uncommon and is “one of the humbling things” about his job. Sullivan argued the president’s questioning of his aides improves the overall decision-making process. 

“We can run a whole process that involves multiple layers of review and decision and a lot of people who are pretty smart and very knowledgeable on the subject all coming together collectively around a consensus recommendation,” Sullivan said at an event hosted by the Economic Club of Washington, D.C. “We can take it to the president, who will have spent that day focused on domestic policy or something totally different, and he will look at it and then he will ask a question that makes you think, ‘Oh wow, we didn’t even really get to that.'”

“He’ll get to the heart of the matter, and say, ‘I question this underlying premise of the decision you just came out with.'” Sullivan continued. “That happens more often than you might think.”

Leaving aside the idea that Biden often instantly comes up with objections that eluded the entire staff, which I find incredibly implausible, it’s obviously his right to overrule them. He, not they, answers to the voters and the judgment of history. He is, as a predecessor infamously dubbed himself, The Decider.

The most public example is Biden rejecting top generals’ advice not to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, which led to the rapid Taliban takeover of the country, an Afghan international refugee crisis, and the deaths of 13 troops during a dangerous evacuation mission. Biden pursued his plan to remove all American troops from the country by September 2021, regardless of conditions on the ground, despite advice from current and former military leadersdiplomats, and outside experts that America should maintain a small counterterrorism force in Afghanistan or at least withdraw more gradually.

The withdrawal process was initially a debacle, although it was righted pretty quickly. We left Afghanistan in shambles, with nearly two decades of nation-building essentially for naught. But it’s not clear that keeping a partial force there would have prevented that or that that outcome wasn’t inevitable no matter when the withdrawal came.

Regardless, the ascribed reason for Biden’s boldness here is what one would have expected:

Biden may feel confident in his own decisions in part because of his extensive foreign policy leadership experience. In the Senate, he was a leading lawmaker voice during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, and later served for more than a decade as either chairman or ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, even counseling then-Senator Obama on nuclear policy. Biden grew a reputation for offering bold if unpopular solutions to international crises, such as proposing to divide Iraq into three semi-autonomous regions. Obama later assigned Biden an active role in foreign policy while serving as his vice president, including overseeing the drawdown of American troops from Iraq. Biden continued to give his unfiltered and countervailing advice to Obama, including opposing large U.S. troops surges into Afghanistan and disagreeing with Obama’s decision to proceed with the Osama bin Laden raid. 

“There is something about having a chief executive who has perspective, experience, the ability to kind of see things from multiple different angles who just brings a different level of capacity to decision making,” Sullivan said. “It does mean that we will prepare consensus recommendations and he’ll say, ‘I don’t buy that. You need to improve that,’ Or, ‘I’m on the other side of that,’ and then obviously he’s the boss. But I think it makes for a more effective decision-making process.”

Despite former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Bob Gate’s assessment that Biden has “been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” he’s bound to be confident in his own judgment. And, at 79 years of age, a determination to do things his own way.

But here’s the thing: He assembled this team. Sullivan was his advisor as VP and was therefore hand-picked to run the staff. Austin, who was on nobody else’s radar for SECDEF, was chosen because Biden had a working relationship with him and trusted his judgment. Presumably, that’s true of all the senior NSC officials.

If they’re unanimous about something and he disagrees, it should be a giant red flag. That doesn’t mean he should go along. Saying, “I don’t buy that. You need to improve that.” is sound executive management. Simply say, “I’m on the other side of that” and pressing on is impetuous. At very least, it’s a sign that you need to make changes to the advisory team.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Matt Bernius says:

    Two thoughts:

    President Joe Biden regularly deviates from the recommendations made by his national security team, one of his top advisors revealed Thursday.

    Here’s a case where I desperately wish “regularly” would be quantified. Is it 20% of the time or 50% of the time? Is it typically on big issues–see the “Afgahistan Withdrawl”–or small ones?


    Leaving aside the idea that Biden often instantly comes up with objections that eluded the entire staff, which I find incredibly implausible…

    Granted I have never served in a security advisor capacity, but I’ve been involved in enough executive-level strategy sessions (and the work that goes into them) to appreciate the impact of groupthink. There are a lot of potential objections that folks come with that are either never shared (due to self-censoring that’s tied to the cultural values of an org) or are weeded out at lower levels. Blind spots are a hell of a drug.

    That said, I agree that if this is really happening at the rate that this suggests, something in this process or this team needs to change.

  2. Cheryl Rofer says:

    As usual, the media choose to present as conflict what is in fact a rational and responsible methodology.

    Biden’s working relationship with his hand-picked staff is, from this telling, to thoroughly consider issues from multiple viewpoints and discuss them. Sounds like he is determined to avoid groupthink. Sullivan’s comments seem to indicate he understands this.

    What the NSC comes up with is very likely the best of what the bureaucracy can produce. That includes a lot of agency self-promotion and “we’ve always done it this way.” Some degree of blobbish thinking, no doubt. And sometimes that will stick us in the bad place we’ve come to.

    Biden and his NSC are facing a very different situation from what the past several presidents have faced. Or rather, they recognize that many policies of the past forty years have brought us to the brink of losing our democracy. We have to change, or the country will die.

    Sounds to me like Biden is handling this well.

  3. Jay L Gischer says:

    I’m kinda suspicious of this whole take. GWB, it seems, went against his generals a lot, like, you know, the whole “we don’t have enough troops to occupy Iraq” thing. I don’t see Gates complaining about that, for instance. This is not a complaint about how Gates was at his job, just about how he sells a book.

    And with this story, we don’t really know who is selling this story, and for what reason, do we?

  4. Slugger says:

    Fire Sullivan now. The job of advising the President on national security necessarily entails not airing differences in the press. No job I ever had including the option of complaining to the press about the boss. Mr. Sullivan can write a memoir detailing his views.

  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    I’m with @Cheryl Rofer: on this. I’d say this is a tempest in a teapot, but I don’t really see a tempest, or even a teapot. It looks like an experienced manager soliciting expert input and making his own decisions after absorbing various viewpoints. With the net result being pretty damn good policy.

  6. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Given the masterful way Biden has handled Ukraine, who gives a flying f*ck what his process is? It’s working.
    If Trump were still President Putin would have been having cocktails in Kyiv within 48 hours.
    As for Afghanistan; Biden was dealt a shitty hand and did the best he could. And before you argue with that, point to a single other example of a total Government collapse that went as well as you think Afghanistan should have gone.

  7. Joe says:

    @Slugger: I don’t see this as airing differences. While this thread bears out that different people hear this message different ways, I can entirely see this as a positive or even calculated statement that my boss is the boss and not some figurehead.

    As a particular example, I can see lots of planning for how to leave Afghanistan “carefully” or “thoughtfully” to which one possible response – I think Biden’s – is “you are all kidding yourself; this is a mess and we need to take the hit, which I understand will have many significant negative consequences, and get on with it.” Biden’s decision, love it or hate it, was a political calculation. I can totally understand the differing goals of his bureaucracy and his conclusion.

  8. drj says:

    We got a single example (the Afghanistan withdrawal) in the Defense One article.

    I’m not buying their take.

    It seems not improbable that Sullivan was just trying to extol Biden’s virtues a bit (“Oh, what a marvellous independent thinker!” – as a loyal subordinate might do) and that is all there is really to it.

    But “Dems in disarray” is always good for some clicks, I guess.

  9. steve says:

    First, I think this is likely propaganda. Someone decided it would make Biden look more in charge and mentally intact. Second, I have run our corporation for about 15 years now. Everyone that works for me has an advanced degree and a goodly number of my younger docs are smarter than I am. Still, they dont have the experience and they dont have the ultimate responsibility. Most of the time they are right. Often they come up with better ideas than I do. Every now and then they want to do something stupid usually because they have not thought about all of the consequences. Its just the nature of leadership. You are also correct that if someone in the leadership team consistently comes up with bad ideas you get rid of them. Being wrong occasionally should not get you booted.


  10. JohnSF says:

    IIRC Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower would consult advisors, but were perfectly prepared to reject that advice.
    The President must be the decider, in the American system.
    British PM overriding the Cabinet would be a different thing: different systems; UK one is more consensual, by design (if design is the right word for it).

    I was critical of the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan.
    In hindsight, I think, on balance, I was wrong.

    President Biden seems to have good instincts, and a great deal of knowledge and experience to back it up.

  11. Steve says:

    This article is ridiculous. The leaving of Afghanistan was a complete mess and was not “rectified quickly”. We pulled our troops and left innocents to die. The country has fallen into chaos and the Taliban has removed all rights of women to things like education and even restricted their ability to move around the country w/o a male escort. Why aren’t the women’s rights advocates in this country screaming and the White House about this? Regarding the NSC in general, that the NSC didn’t “think of things” means that are not doing their job. Their job is to consider ALL possibilities. If they can’t do this, get folks who can. Please, realize this man and this administration is endangering is all.

  12. JohnSF says:

    I was opposed to the withdrawal from Afghanistan initially.
    (Just search this site for my comments at the time)

    But though I still have some quibbles as to the speed and tactics (i.e. the Bagram bugout) I have come round to the view that Afghanistan was, unfortunately, unsalvageable.

    There was simply not a critical mass of the population willing and able to resist Taliban rule; or rather, the Taliban as an arbiter above semi-independent clan/warlord groups.
    Especially given the commitment of Pakistan to having a regime obligated to them and amenable to their strategic interests.
    Afghanistan was a isolated and vulnerable position surrounded by hostile or at best ambivalent countries.

    It is unfortunate that a “federalised” Afghanistan with a relatively “liberal” local government in Kabul and environs was not achieved, similar to the old monarchy.
    But by 2021 that chance was gone, due largely to the insensate corruption of the Afghan government (the parallels with South Vietnam in that regard are pretty striking)
    And to the decision by the Coalition c.2005 to attempt to impose centralised control on the southern and south eastern provinces.

    It is very sad that Afghans, especially Afghan women, should suffer for the failures of the west, and the cruel ambitions of Pakistan.
    But ultimately, Americans could not fight a war for Afghan freedom that Afghans themselves were unwilling to do on the scale required.

    From a rather cold strategic calculus, Afghanistan was a liability, an isolated ulcer with little upside and minimal hope of resolution, locked away from US maritime power, at a time when the US needs to focus on core strategic zones: East Asia/West Pacific; S.E. Europe-Black Sea; Persian Gulf.

  13. Thomm says:

    @Steve: yup…just another 20 years and it might have been an idyllic paradise.