American National Security Strategy: The Leadership Factor

The Making of US National Security Policy: The Leadership Imperative

By Richard Wetiz

Successful policy development, implementation, and outcomes are often associated with direct and sustained presidential engagement.

For example, the study of U.S. policy during the East Timor crisis found that it was only after President Clinton intervened to enforce a coherent U.S. interagency approach that the growing crisis in U.S.-Australian relations over their joint response to the post-independence violence dissipated. Nixon’s diplomatic overtures towards China and Clinton’s engagement on the North Ireland issue are also representative examples of the importance of presidential leadership.

Limited White House capacity to deal with national challenges means that the president and his staff can only address a few issues at a time. As a result, many problems evolve into disasters before they receive adequate attention. Credit Image: Bigstock

Unfortunately, presidential involvement does not guarantee positive outcomes, as the Iraq War and U.S. policy towards Saudi Arabia under Eisenhower demonstrate.

Even when the president successfully overrides bureaucratic conflict at the policy development stage, moreover, implementation problems can arise later if presidential attention wanders. Setbacks in the Northern Ireland peace process, for example, may be partially attributed to the decreased interagency attention the George W. Bush White House devoted to the issue compared with the Clinton administration.

The cases indicate that need for presidential leadership to compensate for the systemic inability to adequately integrate or resource missions. The cases find many instances of overly centralized issue management and overburdened White Houses.

The U.S. national security system’s overdependence on presidential leadership thus reflects, and exacerbates, the weak nature of its interagency mechanisms.

Case after case cites weak or non-existent interagency mechanisms or an absence of clear authorities as key problems associated with imperfect outcomes.

Within the case study literature, in the absence of direct and constant presidential intervention, the development and implementation of integrated national security strategies often become problematic as policy coherence declines under the weight of bureaucratic infighting.

Recent democracy promotion efforts in Egypt and Pakistan, for instance, suffered when some agencies thwarted presidential guidance as promulgated in National Security Strategies. In contrast, the personal attention President George W. Bush gave his AIDS programs in Africa has continued to benefit this initiative, with positive results for U.S. prestige.

Although the National Security Advisor is institutionally positioned to compel interagency consensus and ensure unified, efficient policy implementation, the NSA has often lacked the authority to achieve these ends given the absence of a consistently effective mechanism to delegate presidential authority. When the NSA has succeeded in brokering policy and overseeing implementation, typically he or she has been personally empowered by the president, has worked around the bureaucratic machinery, or has managed to invoke the power or “mystique” of the White House to achieve desired ends.

How a presidential administration organizes the NSC is particularly important for ensuring its success in developing and implementing national security policies.

Nixon and Kissinger, for good and ill, shaped the Council to centralize decision making in the hands of very few people. Reagan, in contrast, for the first time in history, placed the National Security Advisor under the supervision of another office, a step removed from the president. The failure of this system is reflected in the fact that it only lasted two years.

Below the level of the National Security Council, interagency authorities are similarly anemic, despite the importance of mid-level officials in addressing urgent national security decisions. Weak and absent mid- and lower-level cross-agency mechanisms for democracy promotion, development, peacekeeping, stabilization, and reconstruction activities are commonly cited flaws in varied USG efforts.

For example, analysis of recent U.S. biodefense strategy concludes that a critical weakness of present USG endeavors stems from the fact that DOD, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Department of Health and Human Services all lack a single focal point by which to conduct intra-agency coordination. Analysis of public diplomacy in the 1990s illustrates the atrophying of the innovative interagency International Public Information Group under the pressures of Foggy Bottom bureaucracy after it was moved there from the NSC.

As a result, the cases depict actors working around established interagency processes to execute policy. Good leaders can achieve effective action, but they too often can do so only by bypassing the U.S. national security system.

Outside Washington, bureaucratic superheroes have been able to achieve positive policy outcomes, as seen, for instance, in the cases of CORDS, the 1964 Alaskan earthquake, and the Berlin blockade. In Washington, Henry Kissinger in his opening to China, as well as Richard Holbrooke and Anthony Lake in their attempts to end the Bosnian war, also felt compelled to circumvent traditional interagency processes to achieve desired policy outcomes.

Yet, the relative ease with which the system can be bypassed by mid-level officials acting as policy entrepreneurs, whether explicitly empowered by their superiors or acting on their own initiative, is problematic since these workarounds do not always yield enduringly positive results.

Discarding established standard procedures can exacerbate systemic weaknesses. In particular, they limit the availability of resources, entail the use of questionable legal authorities, result in policies based on faulty but unchallenged assumptions, and make poor use of subject experts and other institutional expertise. Richard Bissell and Oliver North were highly touted leaders, but their attempts to circumvent the national security system led to the Bay of Pigs and Iran-Contra disasters respectively.

Where successful leaders––commonly officials experienced in both national security affairs and the workings of the national security machinery––differ appears to be in their skill at building coalitions across agencies at the working level.

The interagency team of George H.W. Bush, composed of seasoned national security officials who often had previous working relationships with one another, proved particularly successful in this regard. Clay, Kissinger, and Holbrooke effectively worked with select individuals from other agencies to support their efforts. In contrast, Bissell and North’s attempts to bypass the restrictions placed on them by other actors (DOS and Congress, respectively) suffered from their limited attempts at collaboration with elements outside their home organizations.

Even in the successful cases, however, the bypassing of the national security system had adverse consequences.

For example, achieving the goals identified in the Dayton peace accords was difficult since those charged with policy implementation had been excluded from U.S. decision making during the initial negotiations. Similarly, Clay’s detachment from the Washington policy process at first limited the resources at his disposal during the Berlin airlift.

The case studies indicate that effective strategy development and policy execution is not due to leadership or organization alone, but rather results from the interplay of the two.

Good organizations and processes can empower individuals; however, bad organizations can easily thwart individual efforts to manage national challenges. A highly successful example of the synthesis of good leadership and effective organization was the working relationship between State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee (SWNCC) and General Douglas MacArthur in managing the occupation of Japan.

More often, it is poor organization that ends up limiting the potential of leaders and implementers at all levels.

Operation Eagle Claw regarding Iran, Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada, and Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti exemplify how compartmentalization of tasks and information can subvert a unified organizational effort. In the case of Operation Eagle Claw, the skills needed to conduct the mission were present in the U.S. government, but these could not be mobilized or integrated effectively to carry out the rescue.

Similarly, if properly organized, the USG could easily have prevented an otherwise average Atlanta lawyer who was infected with a multiple-drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis from leaving the country and evading numerous USG agencies. U.S. energy policy prior to 1973 is another example, at the strategic level, of an instance where poor organization weakened the government’s ability to respond effectively. At the time, responsibility for energy policy was distributed among eight cabinet departments, as well as numerous agencies, offices, and commissions.

Other cases where poor organization resulted in losses to U.S. security are the American space programs before Sputnik’s launch and the organization of both the U.S. intelligence community before, and to a lesser extent after, 9/11. Coordination of cybersecurity and biodefense are currently in their initial states, with organizations and capabilities emerging but in need of assessment and oversight to ensure our leader’s can to use these tools.

On balance, the current U.S. national security system as depicted in the case literature remains overly reliant on presidential leadership.

Excessively depending on the president to enforce consensus in national security and to expedite policy implementation creates an unmanageable span of control requirement for the commander in chief, limiting the system’s ability to conduct effective policies.

With few exceptions, it is infeasible to expect presidents to oversee the complexities of strategy development and especially policy implementation. The National Security Council staff is too small and ill-equipped to ensure that all but the most important policies are undertaken effectively and reflect optimal resource tradeoffs.

Limited White House capacity to deal with national challenges means that the president and his staff can only address a few issues at a time. As a result, many problems evolve into disasters before they receive adequate attention.

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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