The New Plan for Implementing National Security





Ms. Nelson is a member of the American University History Department.

When policies fail, reorganize. This appears to be a time honored solution to seemingly insoluble problems in American foreign policy. Two years after the passage of the National Security Act in 1947, the Hoover Commission was reorganizing the system. Other attempts at perfecting the system followed, most notably the Murphy Commission in 1975. More recently, the failed policies of the Bush administration led Congress to place within the Defense Appropriation Act for Fiscal Year 2008 the mandate for another study of the national security system. This one was far more elaborate and far reaching than its predecessors. The Project on National Security Reform included over 20 advisers, one of whom was President Obama’s future National Security Adviser, James L. Jones. As reported in the Washington Post of February 8, Jones is now responsible for a massive restructuring of the national security apparatus, most of which reflects the recommendations of this study. He 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security of the United States, that the security of the country  is fundamentally at risk, because the 1947 process is obsolete..

In an interview, he noted that membership in the “national security community” was limited to State, Defense and the NSC since the National Security Act limits NSC  membership. In this new world of ours, he continued, national security includes among other issues, climate change, drug enforcement, cybersecurity, and nation building, all of which involve other departments.  The report, as well as Jones’s plans for the Obama administration would thus put homeland security under the NSC umbrella and broaden membership. If the Obama administration succeeds in implementing this plan, Americans will be living in a full- blown national security state. 

Many of the conclusions of both the report and the Obama plan, however, are based on incorrect assumptions. First is the assumption that the United States is now at far greater risk from its enemies than ever before. That would be news to Harry Truman who faced a massive Soviet army standing at the borders of a Western Europe which was in a state of economic collapse, perceived subversion of democratic countries by a communist monolith that stretched from Eastern Europe to Canton, and a bloody, lengthy war in Korea. Underlying all these problems was the reality of the new nuclear age which made the US particularly fearful of its enemies. The bomb shelters recommended in the Eisenhower administration illustrate that the fear of irrational leaders in the Soviet Union was no less than the fear of non-state terrorists today. The list of crises is long.

A second assumption is that because the membership of the NSC is set in statute, it remained static while the world changed around it. But over the 40 years of its existence it was perpetually changing. CIA directors and the JCS representatives have always attended NSC meetings. Truman brought in the budget director, Eisenhower included the Treasury Secretary and Nixon added his attorney general. If disarmament was the subject, the head of the disarmament agency attended. If it involved trade agreements the Commerce Secretary was included. Presidents who find organized NSC meetings useful rarely sit down with just the statutory members. If anything, the NSC has been diluted by too many participants, since every attendee tends to bring staff members who line the walls.

Third, many of the “new” changes are old ones with new hats. Jones is proposing the equivalent of inter-agency groups. But these groups have been an integral part of the national security process for most of its life. Inter-agency groups were relied upon by Kennedy and Johnson and remained active through the Clinton administration. Problems have crossed over many agencies since World War II and have required agency personnel to meet, discuss and try to solve those problems for 60 years. Other presidents, as is now recommended, have also required agencies to appoint a high level official to coordinate agency action. Similarly, every administration has struggled with problems of implementation. In general, unless the groups are ad hoc for a particular crisis, they soon disintegrate and become dysfunctional.

There is little question that the federal government has changed since 1947 but the changes largely lie with the proliferation of agencies. This has required the further growth of agencies designed to coordinate all the new agencies. The Office of National Intelligence is a perfect example of a new agency to coordinate a proliferation of intelligence agencies. Homeland Security is also an example, combining ( if failing to coordinate) disparate agencies into one Department.  These have burdened but not necessarily negated the organization under the National Security Act.

There are additional problems to the Obama plan. 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. He also plans to be the only conduit to the President “eliminating back channels” that allow cabinet secretaries to independently reach the president and “make policy out of the view of others.” His military experience is probably the root of this desire for control, which sounds unlike Obama’s attempts at transparency. Does this mean that the Secretary of State cannot pick up the telephone and call the president? National Security Advisers are not subject to Senate confirmation. Should they be given this enormous amount of power?

Finally, the very premise of this reorganization and its predecessors is questionable. The report notes the foreign policy failures of the Cold War period and presents a number of case studies but failures were caused by presidents and their advisers, not by weaknesses in the NSC system. Lyndon Johnson, who regarded large meetings with suspicion, nevertheless did not lack for intelligence from the CIA or strategic planning from the Defense Department. Ronald Reagan was clearly told of the dangers of defying Congress and funding the Contras. Similarly, there is no reason to believe that President Bush would have paid more attention to the warnings of the CIA before 9/11 if the new policy system was in place. Nor is there any reason to think that he would not have made the disastrous decision to invade Iraq. Good policy comes from the people who make it. When policies fail, it is time for new policy not for another round of reorganization.

Related Links

  • WaPo news story: The release of President Obama's first Presidential Policy Directive on"Organization of the National Security System"

  • Politico news story


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