Can the US National Security System Implement a Core Strategy?

by Richard Weitz

When the Obama Administration says it will shift national security strategy to the Asian pivot, can it do so?  Richard Weitz looks at the historical record in Administrations seeking to provide for a policy shift and a core strategic focus.

The PNSR Case Studies: Achieving Unity of Effort and Improved Resource Allocation

The cases evince a mixed record of the current national security system’s ability to generate unity of effort in implementing strategies.

Some cases saw various national security actors cooperate effectively to coordinate and execute policy in response to international crises, such as the outbreak of violence in East Timor and the 2004 tsunami. The George H.W. Bush administration’s Gulf War coalition building efforts were also remarkably well coordinated as were Eisenhower-era efforts to empower King Saud of Saudi Arabia. Analysis of the George W. Bush administration’s counterterrorism strategy in the Horn of Africa reveals largely successful cooperation (although initial tensions between the Defense and State Department was a problem) between the Departments of State and Defense, and USAID within the broader context of U.S. objectives in the region. Examining counterterror capacity building programs, meanwhile, shows that the development of discrete interagency coordinating mechanisms––in the case of counterterror capacity building initiatives: the Counterterrorism Security Group and its Technical Assistance Sub-Group––can support cooperative engagement among involved USG actors and help overcome coordination problems which often arise in the early days of cross-agency endeavors.

The U.S. national security system can potentially mobilize sufficient resources for varied efforts, but it is inconsistent in doing so. Typically, success requires a coherent strategy, interagency cooperation, and presidential attention. Credit Image: Bigstock

Yet, many cases found considerable disunity in these areas.

Relatively weak interagency authorities were frequently unable to overcome institutional loyalties that undermine government-wide coordination. Interagency cooperation was often insufficient in the policy development and execution phases.

Case study authors identify frequent instances of analysis, planning, and implementation being determined by organizational equities, paradigms, and incentive structures that decreased interagency cooperation. Such problems were apparent in cases dealing with the role of the vice president in foreign policy, the U.S. response to the crises in the former Yugoslavia, pre-9/11 intelligence sharing, post-9/11 intelligence reform, democracy promotion in foreign countries, managing North Korea’s nuclear program, the USG response to crises with China, and the struggle to form a National Counterintelligence Executive, among others.

In addition, the PNSR case studies indicate that the creation of a strategy outside of the interagency framework can create resistance to the strategy among non-involved USG actors––resistance which greatly hinders unified implementation, as shown by the congressional and bureaucratic opposition encountered by the nuclear cooperation agreement with India, for example.

This was also the case in multiple peacekeeping operations, from Lebanon during the Reagan administration to the NATO implementation force in Bosnia during the Clinton years. In both cases, the military (having lost the policy debates regarding intervention) minimized their roles despite political goals that required deep involvement (this was later corrected in Bosnia). The inverse occurred in Haiti in 1994, when the military was forced to assume larger nation-building task than it had originally planned since civilian agencies and non-governmental organizations had not been adequately included in planning.

The cases further suggest that the U.S. national security system encounters difficulty coordinating national policy and resources with state and local governments.

Studies reviewing the U.S. government’s response to combating human trafficking, Washington’s approach to bioterror defense, the Andrew Speaker tuberculosis incident, the 1970s energy crisis, the Anthrax attacks, and Hurricane Katrina support this finding. The 1964 Alaskan Earthquake response emerges as the principal exception to the common pattern of poor coordination between national and local actors, but the unification of assets and effort at the different levels of the U.S government has been all too rare. Present-day USG coordination with the private sector—for example, in cyber security and biodefense—is also imperfect.

Insufficient interagency communication often renders it difficult to achieve unity of effort at the operational level.

Inadequate inter-departmental and inter-service coordination infamously resulted in friendly fire casualties during the 1983 U.S. Operation Urgent Fury invasion of Grenada. Poor information sharing and coordination among USG actors was also a principal factor in the initial difficulties experienced during the 1994 U.S. intervention in Haiti as well as the botched Carter administration attempt to rescue Americans taken hostage in Tehran. Perhaps most infamous was the lack of information sharing between the members of the intelligence and counterterrorism communities before the 9/11 attacks.

Furthermore, many policy decisions occur with inadequate consideration of operational conditions or the concerns and goals of other U.S. government agencies.

This often results in unrealistic mandates being given to organizations that had no input in the policy choice or strategy. This problem manifested itself clearly in the case studies of the U.S. interventions in Somalia and Haiti, but it was also evident in U.S. policy toward Iran before the revolution, the Balkans in the 1990s, and planning for the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Interagency cooperation remains possible at the tactical level even without strategic and operational integration, but it can require serendipitous cooperative relationships, exceptional policy entrepreneurship, high degrees of military flexibility, or other uncomfortably random conditions.

Turning back to the 1994 Haiti intervention, one sees that informal cooperation between U.S. commanders, the U.S. ambassador, and the civilian agencies after the initial phase of the operation accounted for much of the operation’s success. Other studies involving peacekeeping, as well as reconstruction and stabilization activities support this contention as well; even the East Timor intervention owed a great deal of its success to pre-existing interoperability of U.S. and Australian forces.

In those cases where unity is achieved, the analyst is likely to uncover the unpredictable forces of high-level policy attention, limited bureaucratic costs, or personal relationships at work.

Even when tactical collaboration occurs, moreover, it does not always lead to the realization of broader U.S. strategic objectives, as shown by the Vietnam-era CORDS program. In these instances, collaboration between U.S. government agencies in the field led to tactical success stories, but the ability to improve conditions on a broader scale proved limited. CORDS realized the importance of replicating its structure at all levels in Vietnam, but its efforts came too late. The case of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) is an interesting parallel in that tactical interagency cooperation, after initial problems, has generally improved but success at a strategic level remains in doubt.

In implementing strategies, the U.S. national security system demonstrates varying capacity to provide adequate, timely, and sustained resources for its strategies. At times, the system furnishes support quickly, as with the cases involving the postwar occupation of Japan, the response to the 2004 tsunami, and the rebuilding of Alaska after the 1964 “Good Friday” earthquake. In other instances, particularly when coherent planning and interagency unity are lacking, resourcing is slow, inadequate, and unpredictable. Studies investigating topics as varied as Hurricane Katrina, USIA, U.S. biodefense initiatives, and the Iraq War provide telling examples of this weakness.

Case studies, including those examining the Iraq War, the establishment of AFRICOM, U.S. counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa post-2001, among others, further indicate that the USG has regular difficulty fielding sufficient soft power capabilities, particularly operational civilian personnel. Shortcomings in civilian police trainers have consistently set back U.S. security goals in Iraq, and could present a continued problem now that the poorly resourced State Department is taking charge of that mission.

In short, the U.S. national security system can potentially mobilize sufficient resources for varied efforts, but it is inconsistent in doing so.

Typically, success requires a coherent strategy, interagency cooperation, and presidential attention. Without these, there is often a misalignment between resources and objectives, perhaps most clearly illustrated by the infamous U.S. mission in Somalia.

Within the executive branch, mobilizing resources for urgent crises is easier than for long-term objectives.

When pervasive violence in East Timor and Australian demands for action confronted the Clinton administration in 1999, Washington easily resourced its participation in a multi-national intervention. For many months prior, however, the United States failed to marshal sufficient U.S. capabilities to prevent the emergence of the impending East Timor crisis. A case study of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa indicates that attention to the security of overseas U.S. missions has waxed and waned in response to perceived threat environments, a reactive foundation on which to base security assessments and resource allocations. Interventions in Liberia and Haiti, as well as relief efforts after Hurricane Mitch hit Central America, also clearly demonstrate the U.S. tendency to undertake short-term missions while failing to plan for or resource them to contribute to long-term stability.

Congressional resources and policy decisions can also exhibit myopic strategic focus.  This tendency was evident in Capitol Hill’s early involvement in the U.S.-Indian civil nuclear cooperation and in congressional attempts to block positive diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang regarding its nuclear program. Analysis of the Asian Financial crisis found Congress largely incapable of engaging with allies and international financial agencies to construct a coordinated economic response and it cited legislators for muddling the American message of support for ailing economies.

In addition, legislators’ often demonstrated a bias towards hard-power assets, as suggested by investigations of the disestablishment of the USIA and the implementation of foreign counterterror capacity-building programs. Moreover, the cases show parochial congressional pressures harming U.S. national security. This was most starkly illustrated in the case on the Taiwan Straits crisis on 1994, which resulted directly from congressional pressure to let Taiwan’s president visit the United States.

However, importantly, the cases do not demonstrate that congressional involvement in foreign affairs is inherently bad.

Congress’ oversight role has been valuable (if somewhat politicized as Lyndon Johnson demonstrated in the hearings after the Soviet launch of Sputnik) and Senators often lead the way on strategic initiatives, as in the case of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program. The Hill has also served to balance executive department biases in valuable ways, as in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, the cases clearly show that the lack of coordination and communication between the White House and Capitol Hill can greatly hinder the achievement of national objectives.

(Editor’s Comment: Based on what these case studies underscore unless the Obama Administration demonstrates consistent Presidential leadership and putting resources up against a strategic focus, it will be difficult to see a pivot to Asia strategy becoming a success as measured by the variables examined in the case studies.)

For the first piece in this series see


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

—General George Patton Jr.

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