National Security: A Better Approach

Sunday, October 30, 2005

The United States lacks the organization required for effective national security. We need a structure that enables the president to implement the policies he has been elected to carry out. We also need a process that allows the government to focus all its resources on a strategic objective, no matter where in the executive branch those resources reside.

Unfortunately, the current structure seems designed to confound both these objectives. It does not easily enable the president to assign a single official the authority and responsibility for achieving a strategic objective or integrate the capabilities of the departments within the executive branch that the president supposedly commands. In the process, too many decisions are relegated to the departments, which view issues from their own perspective rather than that of the national interest. We need an organization that allows the president to direct his administration effectively, makes departments and agencies work together better, and ensures accountability.

We believe that nothing short of radical measures that rebalance the influence of departments with the authority of the White House will provide our government the ability to orchestrate national power effectively. Until we create presidential directors with command authority to produce results, the nation will lack the means needed for effective security.

 

Who’s in Command?

The basic problem is that the president does not have the kind of command and control structure that we take for granted in large organizations. No major corporation would make decisions and implement plans the way the president does today for national security. Currently, executive branch departments—the Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Treasury, and Homeland Security, and the agencies within the U.S. intelligence community—act as autonomous players. This leads to two problems.

First, policymaking has become a process of bureaucratic competition and negotiation, rather than direction and management. Witness how often the press reports how one department or another is fighting for control over U.S. policy—as in the present conflict in Iraq, where the State Department and Defense Department supposedly wrestled for control. The State Department wanted more time to build support at the United Nations. The Defense Department argued that delay only gave Saddam Hussein greater opportunity to pry apart the coalition supporting sanctions against Iraq.

Most bureaucratic power struggles have a lower profile than the Iraq war, but that’s part of the problem. Every meeting to coordinate policy adds to delay; every compromise to accommodate one department or another waters down decisive action. Day by day, national security policy is smoothed down to a common denominator that all agencies can accept. We take these bureaucratic squabbles for granted, yet rarely does anyone ask why anyone would treat a department of the U.S. government like a political constituency whose point of view must be accommodated. Vigorous debate can flush out information and issues that might otherwise be overlooked, but the nation’s interest suffers when such debates between departments dominate the decision-making process. The bureaucracy may have expertise, but it should have no standing—it is there to carry out the president’s policies and programs authorized by Congress.

The second problem the current structure creates is the piecemeal implementation of policy. Each agency operates independently, communicating too little with its counterparts and acting too much in isolation. The result is that one agency can duplicate the efforts of another or—even worse—may take actions that make it harder for their counterparts to operate. Or it may believe that another agency’s plans do not apply to it. Organizations overlook opportunities to cooperate or fail to do so unless specifically directed.

Ideally, each department or agency should know exactly what its assignment is under an integrated national security strategy. But there is no place in the U.S. government where all these activities are brought together. The president cannot manage such a strategy; the task is too big, given all the other demands on his time. True, the president does have the national security adviser and the NSC and its staff. But the NSC is not a command system; it is an advisory body. The national security adviser and the NSC staff—who do act on behalf of the president—lack the legal authority or bureaucratic clout to command people within the departments. Thus we lack a means to pull together the diplomatic, military, intelligence, and other resources needed to meet strategic goals.

 

Lessons from Defense Reform

These problems in our current approach to national security no doubt sound familiar to anyone who follows military affairs. The process (and its failings) resembles how we planned and executed combat operations before 1986, when Congress passed the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act. Before Goldwater-Nichols, the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps all acted as autonomous organizations. The civilian service heads and uniformed chiefs were supposed to develop an integrated U.S. defense policy, but, lacking authority, each service protected its own turf. Thus each service not only developed its own equipment, training, and doctrine but also developed its own war plans. Service commanders were obliged only to coordinate with the others, not plan jointly. Working out the terms for the services to cooperate with one another in a joint operation was almost as arduous as working out the terms of engagement with the enemy.

In other words, the situation closely resembled how departments and agencies in the national security community work today—no single boss for an operation and no clear chain of command. After a series of disasters—the unsuccessful 1980 rescue mission of U.S. hostages in Iran, the 1982 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, and the disjointed intervention in Grenada in 1983—the stage was set for the passage of Goldwater-Nichols.

The problems of the national security structure—parochialism, infighting, lack of direction, and an ambiguous chain of command—beg for reform along the lines of Goldwater-Nichols. This new structure would reformulate the White House’s relationship with the departments and concentrate policy development in the White House.

First, the president should create the national security equivalent of combatant commanders: “presidential policy directors” who would be based in the Executive Office of the President. Each director—four to six should be sufficient—would be empowered with Cabinet rank and expected to report directly to the president, and each would be responsible for the execution of some component of the president’s National Security Strategy. The president should have these appointments confirmed by a resolution of the Senate so they are peers of the department heads and understood by Congress to be the president’s representatives.

Second, the president’s National Security Strategy would become an instrument to direct the departments, rather than a statement of intent and ideals, which is what it is now. The strategy would perform the same function that the Unified Command Plan and Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan perform in the Defense Department—a regularly updated assignment of responsibilities and prioritization of resources. The strategy should identify the president’s half-dozen highest-priority national security missions and assign a director to integrate diplomatic, military, intelligence, and economic resources to carry out each.

Each director would be supported by a small team, to be called the “policy execution staff.” This staff would ensure that the president’s intent was implemented across all departments through strategic direction—stating top-level goals and wielding power by speaking with the authority of the president and controlling budgets. These staff slots would come from the existing NSC staff; no new layers of bureaucracy would be created. The remaining NSC staff would focus on providing the president advice, as they do currently, instead of attempting to straddle the functions of advisers and overseers.

All this may seem like a radical approach, but there are precedents. The current director of the National Drug Control Policy captures some of the features of our proposal. The so-called drug czar is based in the Executive Office of the White House and is usually a retired top military officer or former civilian officeholder. But the current drug czar lacks authority: he cannot direct resources within departments and does not control budget. Without budget control, strategic direction won’t work.

The legal authority of the new Director of National Intelligence (DNI) over the budgets of intelligence agencies also comes close to what we have in mind. But the DNI was created with a narrower goal—integrating agencies that had been created piecemeal over the years and providing inputs into the policy process—rather than responsibility for achieving results for a major national security policy objective.

The new director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) is focused on a national mission, but no one wants to repeat the Herculean efforts that were used to create the NCTC—physically moving hundreds of personnel, building a new facility, and so on. It was not necessary to reorganize the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines to create strong combatant commanders, and it should not be necessary to create a new NCTC every time national priorities change.

During some administrations the NSC staff was especially effective in ensuring that department heads carried out the president’s priorities and, in effect, exercised the kind of powers we envision. Richard Nixon, in particular, made clear that the White House formulated policy, not the departments, and that Henry Kissinger and the NSC staff had both his ear and his mandate. But these relationships were never codified. The NSC staff has never explicitly been recognized as being in the president’s chain of command. Instead, it has been forced to compete for influence, especially when the vice president and department heads were strong personalities.

The president could create this kind of command system through executive orders and by making clear the “rules of road” to his appointees. It is probably too late to do this in the remaining years of the Bush administration, but President Bush could lay the foundation for a better system for the next president. Congress could also codify this arrangement in statute. This would give Congress the opportunity to make clear to department heads that they would not be able to end-run the process by appealing to Congress.

One reason the president lacks strong leadership in the NSC staff today is that NSC staff positions lack the stature and authority to attract a Michael Leavitt, a Richard Armitage, a Richard Holbrooke, or a Mark Hurd—the kinds of people one would want as a presidential policy director. Currently, the NSC is seen as a stepping-stone to a Cabinet position. Logically, one should want the opposite, where one became a strategic commander in the White House after gaining experience in one of the top two or three posts at one of the departments.

 

Setting Goals

As part of a presidential transition, an incoming chief executive would identify the key national security challenges demanding the nation’s attention. Department heads would focus on providing resources for national security. The policy directors would focus on how to best orchestrate and employ these resources to meet the president’s objectives.

One can imagine the kinds of issues that might be included in such a strategy and structure—big, strategic goals, like integrating China into the world community through economic reforms and political development, or eliminating the threat of religions being used as vehicles for recruiting terrorists and undermining the secular rule of law. In the current environment, stabilizing Iraq would also be up there, as would ensuring the security of the U.S. homeland.

This approach would have the added benefit of making the president set priorities and assign responsibilities. Instead of being a mere statement of intent, the National Security Strategy would set expectations for action. It would make Congress and the public realize that national security is not a limitless resource. The highest-priority issues would change with time and over the course of an administration, and the president would rearrange this structure as events demanded.

 

Developing Skills and Culture

Another lesson of Goldwater-Nichols that would benefit the larger national security structure is the need to develop skills and culture of interagency “jointness.” The policy execution staff will need the counterpart to a combatant commander’s “operations plan”—combining ground, sea, and air forces to achieve a military goal. Operational plans define specific objectives and identify specific capabilities the services will provide. Unfortunately, currently there are few places where an official from the State Department, Defense Department, or intelligence community can learn how to combine diplomatic, military, economic, and intelligence resources to attain strategic objectives.

One way to develop these skills—and to develop the culture of interdepartmental “jointness”—would be to require departments to provide more incentives and opportunities for career officials to gain experience working in other departments. And, just as the Defense Department requires a “joint” appointment as a prerequisite to promotion to flag or general officer rank, the Office of Personnel Management should make cross-agency assignments a criterion in the performance evaluation for senior civil servants, as well as a requirement for promotion.

 

Why Organization Matters

Some might be concerned that our approach would centralize too much power in the White House. Not so. The current structure obscures who (other than the president) is responsible for success or failure. Department heads can always argue that they do not control all the resources required to implement policy; NSC staffers do not have to answer to Congress. If presidential policy directors were responsible for articulating the president’s policies to Congress, accountability would actually improve.

An organization for national security might seem like an esoteric issue about the placement of boxes and lines on an organization chart. But Goldwater-Nichols was not an abstract discourse on military affairs; it has had a profound impact on our military effectiveness and security.

Today we are seeing nothing less than a breakdown of national security organization on many fronts: intelligence failures before 9/11 and in estimates of Iraq’s WMD programs; failures in U.S. space programs; failures to plan effectively for stability operations after Operation Iraqi Freedom; even failures to respond effectively to disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. In each case the problem was partly a failure of imagination, but much of the problem was the failure to designate effective leaders with the authority and resources that would enable them to achieve results.

In ancient times, leadership and organization were the difference between a horde and an army. So it is today. Without organization, we will squander expensive and finite military, diplomatic, and intelligence capabilities. With organization, we can form a coherent, agile, and focused response against those that threaten us.