The US National Security System: Explaining Success or Failure

The PNSR Case Studies: What Matters?

By Richard Weitz

Given this mixed historical record, what organizational and procedural factors underpin the (in)ability of the U.S. national security system to achieve desired outcomes?

To better analyze this dynamic, PNSR cases sought to identify which conditions best explain the strengths and weaknesses of the response being chronicled. They did so by focusing on decision-making structures and processes, organizational cultures, and capabilities and resources.

Although generalizing across the diverse range of cases is difficult, taken together the studies indicate that serious flaws exist in each area. Among these weaknesses, interagency decision mechanisms fail to produce unified strategic guidance in a timely manner and agencies often pursue independent strategies. The authorities of the individual agencies typically lack the ability to compel action, while those at the system-wide level are often ambiguous. This condition creates space for—and often requires—informal decision-making, with mixed results.

More generally, institution-specific cultures and values dominate the bureaucratic landscape, while a sense of interagency culture remains limited. Interagency information sharing is not the norm.

Among the faults cited in the cases, interagency competition is the most prominent. This competition springs from a grossly imbalanced national security system that supports strong departmental capabilities at the expense of integrating mechanisms. Credit Image: Bigstock

Agencies and departments tend to restrict communications to vertical channels. Though civilian agencies are not averse to applying their expertise in risky environments, these organizations lack operational capacity––a partial consequence of the civil-military resource disparity. The ability of department staffs to provide rapid policy planning and other duties varies widely depending on the scale of the initiative and the degree to which planning was conducted in cooperation with other agencies that possess relevant expertise and information. .

Considered as a whole, the variables analyzed in the cases delineate a number of key trends that regularly influence the success and failure of the U.S. government’s response to national challenges.

Among the faults cited in the cases, interagency competition is the most prominent.

This competition springs from a grossly imbalanced national security system that supports strong departmental capabilities at the expense of integrating mechanisms.

From this one dynamic, a host of negative consequences follow.

The most common of these deleterious effects include poor long-range planning, policy stagnation, redundancy of efforts, the tendency to centralize policy decision authority in the White House, and lack of information sharing.

In addition, senior leader frustration leads to the use of informal communications and decision-making channels rather than formal mechanisms. These negative effects of interagency fratricide manifest themselves in many of the PNSR cases.

The ease with which policy can be filibustered in the interagency debilitates strategy development. Decision making processes that require consensus create excessive veto opportunities, encourage a search for the least common denominator, and typically yield policies that favor slow, incremental, and middle-of-the road courses of action.

The U.S. government response to the crises in Bosnia, Somalia, Liberia, and Rwanda manifested these flaws, which resulted in U.S. policies lagging woefully behind developments on the ground. In other cases, most clearly illustrated by the Bay of Pigs operation, policies or plans that might have proved successful become so altered by the process of reaching consensus that they produced embarrassing failures. More recently, many of the proposed authorities of the DNI were negotiated away as that position was being created, leaving the intelligence community with substantial problems despite the post-9/11 reforms.

In addition, policy makers’ frustration with the delay in developing clear, integrated strategies encourages them to bypass established policy making mechanisms and employ informal structures and processes.

The phenomenon of excluding key actors from decision making processes—resulting in policy choices being dominated by a few key officials—occurred during the Liberia intervention, the Clinton administration’s engagement in the Northern Ireland peace process and in Bosnia, Nixon’s approach to China policy, and the Berlin airlift. It also manifested itself in less successful responses to the 1995 Chinese missile tests, the East Africa embassy bombings, Operation Eagle Claw, the Iranian Revolution, and the 1970s energy crisis as well as in the Iran-Contra Affair.

Indeed, it is difficult to find a case in which some top official was not shut out of the policy process. Quite often this official was the Secretary of State, including at various times William Rogers, Cyrus Vance, both of Reagan’s Secretaries of State, Warren Christopher (in both the Carter and Clinton years), and Colin Powell.

The cases depict the State Department as particularly prone to exclusion from the process, as occurred during the strategy formation for Iraq, Operation Eagle Claw, Bosnia, and the U.S. diplomatic opening toward China. High levels of necessary and unnecessary secrecy in military or NSC planning, contribute to the sidelining of Foggy Bottom.

Exclusion of the State Department is also particularly common when there is a strong National Security Advisor, such as Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski. Moreover, although the State Department is formally seen as having the lead role in shaping and conducting American foreign policy, its influence has been weakened by the often sharp differences among its diverse regional and functional bureaus, which frequently replicate the incoherence of the interagency process as a whole within the department. In the case of U.S. policy toward China, for instance, the bureaus often pursued conflicting priorities—with one bureau emphasizing human rights, another commercial considerations, another nonproliferation objections, and so on––without being able to establish a hierarchy or balance among them.

Distinct perspectives within State were also documented by the analysis of USG policy toward Uzbekistan during the George H. W. Bush Administration. Differences of opinion between those charged with development, democracy promotion, and traditional diplomacy have also caused a schizophrenic foreign policy. Such splits are also evident during the Rwanda genocide, both in the State Department and the NSC, although the officials charged with Africa and human rights were quickly pushed aside by those with international operations and peacekeeping portfolios.

In contrast, at least since the enactment of Goldwater-Nichols, the civilians in the Pentagon have been able to enforce their priorities over those of the uniformed military, though sometimes perhaps to the detriment of U.S. national security policy, as in planning for the war in Iraq.

Perhaps due to this greater internal cohesion, or to its more abundant and flexible resources, the case studies indicate that the Department of Defense (DOD) or the White House National Security Advisor (NSA) can assume a dominant role in policy making, as happened during planning for the Iraq War or in the case of Kissinger’s China policy, respectively. The case study on the role of the vice president indicates that that person can also exert much influence eon policy if he assumes a prominent line assignment.

Frequently, a tradeoff exists between swift action and the integrated application of government expertise, bureaucratic support, and political approval that ideally results from the interagency process. The scandal of Iran-Contra, the ineffectual U.S. retaliation for the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa, the questionable necessity of the 1983 Grenada invasion, and operation difficulties from the Bay of Pigs to Iraq to Haiti demonstrate the negative ramifications that result when the imperatives of speed, secrecy or flexibility deprive policy makers of these latter resources.

The cases highlight both the importance and the variability of the relationship between the Departments of State and Defense. Although the case study literature indicates that the Pentagon currently is typically the more dominant player in U.S. national security missions, the Department of State (DOS) can effectively assume the lead role for some national security issues. During the Eisenhower Administration, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles exhibited tight control over the conduct of foreign policy, as seen in the case chronicling U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia, in which the Pentagon assumed a supporting role. During the interventions in Bosnia and Somalia, DOD representatives had little influence on policy formation when the focus of U.S. government efforts was primarily diplomatic.

The State Department often mobilizes first in a foreign policy crisis, while Pentagon involvement significantly increases when the situation requires the application of its more extensive national security resources. Interestingly, recent cases, such as Operation Iraqi Freedom, reveal an inverse pattern, with the DOD dominating policy creation and DOS providing primarily reactive support.

Regardless of the order, this typical mobilizing of U.S. government agencies at different phases of a national security crisis and resultant “policy queuing” problems can weaken interagency integration and the baseline capacity of USG planners. The problems the United States consistently has in “winning the peace” after military operations are particularly illustrative of the cost of this failure to integrate all tools of national power.

Nevertheless, the cases also make clear that simultaneous effort does not equate to unified effort; tendencies towards compartmentalization of planning and intelligence in addition to poor mechanisms for lower-level coordination confound planners.

In the case of Bosnia, when the Pentagon eventually acquired a role in negotiations, it was not well-integrated into the process, leading DOD to develop policies separately. The result was that diplomatic and military annexes and goals of the peace accords worked against one another. Similar disconnects occurred in the debates over whether and how the USG should intervene in Liberia, Haiti, Rwanda, and Lebanon.

Under certain circumstances, typically in programs or initiatives involving a limited number of officials and requiring minimal departmental resources, working relationships between agency representatives can mitigate bureaucratic competition and spur cooperation. For example, this has been the case with the Anti-Terrorism Assistance program, which helps build foreign partners’ counterterrorism capacities. Much of the U.S. effort to halt human trafficking has been predicated on informal relationships between agencies, which has partially made up for the lack of a more strategic national strategy. Likewise, as seen in cases examining the USG 1994 intervention in Haiti and the intervention the 1983 invasion of Grenada, military flexibility is sometimes capable of overcoming planning problems brought on by bad cross-agency coordination and cooperation.

Unfortunately, the cases suggest that bureaucratic turf battles and conflict over preferred strategic approaches to national challenges are frequent.

Interagency competition regularly centers on issues of resources, authorities, and priorities. Bureaucratic squabbling over jurisdictions afflicted the USG’s approach to the low-priority Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, for example, but such battles tend to increase in frequency and ferocity in conjunction with the institutional resources and interests at stake. This dynamic was seen in the interagency debate during the Lebanon intervention and the Balkan crises and has been endemic in the Intelligence Community from 1947 through 9/11 and continues today, including during the attempt to create and empower the NCIX.

Reverse turf battles are also common as organizations try to pass unwanted or poorly funded tasks, those that do not support organizational priorities, to other agencies or departments. This situation was evident in the reluctance of the U.S. military to engage in counter-drug operations in Afghanistan, police training in Iraq, and many other nation-building tasks. The fact that no other organization had the capability to take on these missions, however, usually forced the military to accept the mission creep.

While the formal designation of a lead agency is rare in the case literature, de facto lead agencies are relatively common. In many instances, one agency will assume a leadership role due to the importance of the issue for the agency or to the policy entrepeneurship of a major agency actor. The problem is that other agencies typically fail to support its efforts. Their representatives either resist its leadership or, more often, presume that they no longer need to worry about a mission because it has now become someone else’s job.

Interagency competition often begins early in strategy development, bedeviling diverse USG responses from Gore’s U.S.-Russian Bi-National Commission on Economic and Technological Cooperation to the establishment of AFRICOM. Within the policy making process, bureaucracies regularly filter information through organizational perspectives and provide recommendations that reflect their core mission area or bureaucratic mandate.

While this tendency is not necessarily detrimental, policy development suffers when these recommendations distort the security environment or advance analysis on the basis of institutional interests. The cases illustrate that agencies use their authority to control interagency discussion and protect not only their budget allocations and policy preferences, but also their institutional prerogatives, from which budgets, status, and power are derived. This pattern—when preferences for organizational rather than national interests hamper unified strategy development—was evident in cases on Bosnia, conflict resolution, democracy promotion, China policy, and managing the Iran-Iraq war.

Overlapping agency mandates reinforce competitive inclinations. U.S. government departments and agencies often have differing priorities, varying perceptions of national interest, and discordant definitions of national security. In the terrorism investigations of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 2001 Anthrax attacks, some organizations focused on criminal prosecution, others prioritized intelligence gathering, and yet others considered the medical response paramount.

In the past, the Departments of Commerce and State have vied over priorities in shaping international relations, as was the case vis-à-vis China, Iraq in the 1980s, and decisions made by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. DOD and DOS also regularly conflict over decisions regarding when and how to use force. Efficient cooperation between the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security is hurt by overlapping capabilities and responsibilities in cybersecurity, biodefense, and consequence management. But again, perhaps the largest overlapping mandates are those of the Secretary of State and National Security Advisor, who often compete for power over the direction of foreign policy.

Existing resource allocation processes complicate policy execution and sustainment. The military’s aversion to the 1990s intervention in Bosnia was at least partially due to a dislike of disruptive supplemental appropriations. Limited budget flexibility also constrained the initial U.S. response to Hurricane Mitch, as the disaster occurred early in the fiscal year and agencies were loath to spend money that they were unsure would be replenished. Program managers find it difficult to make long-term plans when future resource allocations are uncertain. The lack of dedicated interagency funds also constrains the implementation of national strategies. The National Infrastructure Protection Plan, for example, has suffered from its reliance solely on agency and department budgets; so have many human trafficking programs.

A related problem is that human resource systems are agency-focused. In many cases, interagency centers and activities are understaffed due to department-focused resource allocations systems, which tend to favor core agency needs. Agencies’ reluctance to cooperate with the Office of the Vice President in the U.S.-Russian Bi-National Commission on Economic and Technological Cooperation, was not helped by the fact that limited Vice Presidential staff resources required Gore to rely on other agencies’ personnel––and thus deplete State, Commerce, etc., resources––to execute his initiatives. Small bureaucratic bodies (such as the National Counterintelligence Executive in its early years) have real trouble recruiting the best and the brightest people despite the importance of their missions since career paths within such groups—especially opportunities for advancement—are naturally limited.

The resource allocation process, as well as artificial personnel ceilings, also encourages reliance on outside contractors. The slow contracting process delayed the start of many essential tasks during Operation Uphold Democracy and the process has also proven inadequate for police training in Iraq. The lack of accountability for these contractors has presented challenges for a number of U.S. missions, such as those engaged in foreign military operations.

Yet, some interagency competition is useful since it helps ensure that all relevant perspectives and resources are engaged in policy formation and execution.

Mandates must be sufficiently broad to include actors having access and knowledge regarding the economic, military, and diplomatic tools of power since enduring national security problems typically require integrated use of all these instruments. Strategy execution that relies disproportionately on one policy tool often fails to yield long-term success.

The effects of such imbalances are apparent in the cases regarding nonproliferation, the Somalia intervention under the Clinton administration, U.S. counterterrorism operations the Horn of Africa Post after 9/11, and the Iraq War under the second Bush administration. The U.S. government has started to make improvements in this area. The PRTs, Operation Enduring Freedom-Horn of Africa, and AFRICOM are all attempting to simultaneously harness diplomacy, development and defense tools to advance U.S. objectives. However, all of these missions have run up against interagency competition, departmental myopia, and under-resources civilian agencies.

The national security community’s common elevation of a singular objective over more comprehensive goals in strategy development has also undermined long-term interests. The history of U.S. engagement with Pakistan illustrates this problem. During the Cold War, the focus on countering Moscow resulted in the de facto downgrading of proliferation concerns regarding Islamabad. More recently, preoccupation with counterterrorism has led U.S. officials to curb efforts to promote political democracy in Pakistan. In addition, it has been regularly argued that recent U.S. preoccupation with the Iraq War has diverted resources that could have been used more effectively to promote other national security objectives.

Even so, it is important to note that the U.S. national security system has managed to learn from failure. The Goldwater-Nichols Act is the most cited example of profitable learning, but as noted above the recent push to create AFRICOM also shows USG officials actively seeking to address structural deficiencies in U.S. policy formation and implementation.

The case studies show that achieving adequate cooperation between civil and military actors in developing and implementing policies is a persistent challenge. The differing institutional mandates and missions of military and civilian agencies create divergent bureaucratic cultures, which in turn produce perspectives that are particularly difficult to reconcile. From operational difficulties in Haiti, to mixed messages regarding Uzbekistan, to early (but much improved) tensions in PRTs in Afghanistan and Iraq, an absence of cross-organizational purpose hurt the efficiency of USG efforts.

Civil-military tensions seem most evident in phase 0 (conflict prevention) and phase 4 (post-conflict stabilization) operations. The post-WWII rebuilding of Japan avoided this through extensive advance contingency planning, but almost every conflict the United States has been involved in since then has exhibited this civil-military divide to some extent. Civil-military conflict was notable in the cases examining the U.S. intervention in Somalia, U.S. military assistance to Laos under Kennedy, the Bay of Pigs intervention, and early (pre-CORDS) conduct of pacification efforts in Vietnam, among others. This trend also held true in the formation of U.S. landmine policy during the 1990s. In combination with the resource disparities discussed below, this civil-military divergence makes attaining coordinated policy development and implementation among military and civilian actors a consistent challenge.

In yet another extension of the competitive norm, the cases demonstrate that, when field officials maintain tight links to their home agencies in Washington, the incidence of bureaucratic conflict, especially between military and civilian officials, increases. Conversely, civil-military cooperation in the field has often improved when home institutions empower their in-country representatives with operational flexibility. The degree to which the U.S. military assistance effort in Laos under Kennedy was able to overcome policy shortcomings and bureaucratic conflict can be attributed to this phenomenon, as can the triumph of the diplomatic team in Bosnia during the civil war.

This dynamic also helps explain the occasional success of ad hoc approaches.

If officials are sufficiently empowered to act independently, the cases indicate they can achieve degrees of successful strategy implementation, within their operational purview, even in the absence of a coherent national strategy. The ability of Foreign Emergency Support Teams to respond to the 1998 African embassy bombings and the effectiveness of the Alaska earthquake recovery effort illustrate this pattern, though these cases also show that limited successes do not necessarily improve U.S. government performance in future national security challenges, even when they are similar. In addition, absent a national strategy, it remains highly unlikely that the U.S. will achieve its long-run objectives, regardless of any temporary and limited successes in the field.

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

—General George Patton Jr.

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