National Security Reform: A Second Opinion





Dr. Orton is Adjunct Professor at The George Washington University, and Senior Organization and Management Theorist for the Project on National Security Reform.

Last week Dr. Anna Kasten made the helpful observation in an article published on HNN that there have been a series of efforts to reform the U.S. national security system enacted through the National Security Act of 1947.  However, Professor Nelson asserted that National Security Advisor  Gen. James L. Jones, who was one of the Project on National Security  Reform’s Guiding Coalition members, “clearly agrees with the report’s conclusion that the national security of the United States, that the security of the country is fundamentally at risk, because the 1947 process is obsolete.”  This, though, is the starting premise for the PNSR study – not its conclusion.  Few national security scholars or national security executives would disagree – after the federal government’s dismal performance before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, during the war in Iraq, and after Hurricane Katrina – that the existing national security system is a high-performing organization.

Dr. Nelson worries that PNSR’s recommendations for the creation of an effective national security system might lead to a “full-blown national security state.”  Isn’t it possible, though, to build a future system that is simultaneously effective and not a national security-state? Dr. Nelson identifies five “incorrect” assumptions on which the Obama administration’s national security reform effort is built (using a Washington Post interview with Gen. Jones published on February 8, 2009, as a proxy).  But perhaps the assumptions aren’t quite as incorrect as Dr. Nelson believes them to be:

  • The “Chicken Little” Assumption.  “First is the assumption that the United States is now at far greater risk from its enemies than ever before.”  The PNSR report is not alarmist. Rather, the report concludes the nature of the security environment has changed from dealing with one large state actor (the Soviet Union) to a wide variety of diverse, complex, and turbulent threats. And the danger identified in the report is not external, but managerial –where the current national security system is unworkable.  I think Dr. Nelson is 40% correct here:  PNSR noted a changed environment, but not a more dangerous environment.
  • The “Automatically Adaptive” Assumption.  “A second assumption is that because the membership of the NSC is set in statute, it remained static while the world changed around it.”  Richard Best, Cody Brown, and Matt Shabat, each produced effective studies for PNSR of the subtle changes in NSC composition from one presidential administration to another.  David Rothkopf’s Running the World is a good portrait of these changes, focusing primarily on personalities instead of structures.  While numerous changes have taken place within the general 1947 NSC “regime,”  the fundamental conditions remain in place:  there is no Congressional integrative committee for complex, interagency national security problems; the NSC Staff is ephemeral, small, and powerless;  cabinet secretaries are motivated to represent, protect, and expand their  own agency interests; and the U.S. government routinely fails at complex contingencies (e.g. preventing a 9/11 attack, merging military-civilian capabilities in Iraq, and effectively coordinating complex networks of assets in Katrina).  I think Dr. Nelson is 50% correct here:  PNSR noted that the 1947 regime constrained the numerous small changes that occurred within the system over the years.
  •  The “Same-Ol’-Same-Ol’” Assumption.  Dr. Nelson drops out of her task of identifying incorrect assumptions for a moment to offer a critique:  “Third, many of the ‘new’ changes are old ones with new hats.”  Dr. Nelson is correct to note that a key finding of PNSR’s report calls for effective interagency teams. All of PNSR’s 38 recommendations are based on the assumption that it is important to shift away from an “overburdened” president to “empowered” interagency teams.  For many years, numerous voices within the national security system have called for decentralized, cross-functional interagency teams.  While inter-agency teams are not a new concept, PNSR’s proposals would be much more comprehensive across government agencies and operate with clearer mandates. I think Dr. Nelson is 60% correct here:  PNSR tried to do “out-of-the-box” work, but might have ended up championing the concept of more effective interagency teams.
  •  The “Evil Genius” Assumption.   Dr. Nelson goes out on a limb in her evaluation of Gen. Jones’ ambitions:  “Jones evidently intends to be a policy maker as well as the coordinator who brings everyone’s view to the president, the traditional function of the national security adviser.”  The PNSR report noted that some NSC advisors (Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Condoleezza Rice) defined themselves as brilliant foreign policy strategists, while others (George Bundy, Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell) defined themselves as reliable national security managers.  It would be out of character for a non-partisan Marine general, who was considered by both Sen. John McCain and President Barack Obama to head the NSC staff, to suddenly transform into a Kissinger, Brzezinski, or Rice.  I think Dr. Nelson is 10% correct here:  it will be necessary to strengthen the role of the national security advisor and his staff, but only in order to decentralize decision-making to parts of the federal government that are closer to the issues.
  •  The “Great Man” Assumption.  Perhaps it is good historical practice to emphasize people over institutions:  “Good policy comes from the people who make it.  When policies fail, it is time for new policy not for another round of reorganization.”  The PNSR study encountered very early on a Washington bias for “great man” leadership – the assumption that all good outcomes result from the leader and all that is necessary to create good results is to hire good people.  Most of the data in the report show this bias is incorrect:  good people trapped in an ineffective system are not able to produce good outcomes.  The U.S. has a long history of “liberating” people from ineffective systems:  the American Revolution against the British Colonial system, World War II against the Nazi system, the Cold War against the Soviet system, and world support of Nelson Mandela against the South Africa’s apartheid system.  An internal PNSR motto over the past two years was “the next president, whoever he or she may be, deserves a Ferrari of a national security system.”  I think that Dr. Nelson is 20% correct here:  bad leaders in a good system might not produce good results, but good leaders in a good system can produce excellent results.

 We need more scholars like Dr. Nelson to focus their intellectual firepower on the topic of national security reform. She is, to average my five rough calculations, 36% correct in her arguments about the incorrectness of the assumptions of the PNSR report.  The greatest dangers would be for national security reform to slip away unnoticed or for it to be misinterpreted as a desire for greater centralization of power in the White House – something that is antithetical to the PNSR analysis and recommendations.  Gen. Jones, like the 18 national security advisors who preceded him, will reform the U.S. national security system.  The important question is whether he will improve it.  Not all reforms have done so.


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