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U.S. National Security's Challenge: Communication

Kenneth R. Weinstein & Richard Weitz

No matter who wins the election this November, the president will have numerous foreign-policy crises on his plate: Russia’s assault on Georgia and growing Russia-NATO tensions, the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, and increasing challenges for the Western coalition in Afghanistan.

Our national security apparatus, largely created on an ad hoc basis over the past six decades, is ill-equipped to handle such multifaceted issues.

When a disaster erupts, there is precious little time for study by the president and his top advisers. They need an integrated system already in place that can guide rapid, informed, and strong responses to today’s security challenges. Experience must be institutionalized, and barriers between agencies overcome.

The Project on National Security Reform (PNSR), a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization funded by Congress, seeks to achieve such improvements.

The national security system has evolved slowly over the past 61 years. It now consists primarily of the State and Defense departments, the National Security Council, the intelligence community, the Homeland Security Department and the Homeland Security Council. Others participate when specific issues in their jurisdiction arise.

The trick is getting them to work as a team rather than pursue their own bureaucratic interests as competitors or adversaries. Feuding, jurisdictional disputes, and lack of communication between cabinet secretaries and senior agency personnel undermine US national security.

Other common problems include excessive preoccupation by the president and his senior advisers with day-to-day crisis management rather than long-term planning, a budgetary process in Congress focused on individual agencies rather than joint efforts by multiple departments, and increasing partisanship in Congress even on vital national security issues.

History is replete with examples of how our national security system impeded the effective development and implementation of US national security policy. PNSR is conducting case studies to learn from these incidents.

One case study examines the infamous 1993 “Blackhawk Down” disaster in Somalia. Eighteen US Task Force Rangers died and 73 were wounded in a firefight with forces of Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aideed. Photos of dead US troops being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu triggered public outrage in the US and led President Clinton to wind down the operation.

Little known at the time, the Somalia operation was mired in confusion. During the transition between the Bush and Clinton administrations, policy and strategy changed to support larger objectives but resources fell out of sync with the mission a larger, well-equipped force left the country and gave way to a smaller force with grave uncertainties over its mission and responsibilities.

As Maj. Gen. William Garrison was planning and executing missions to snatch Mr. Aideed and his senior leaders, US Special Envoy Robert Gossende and White House officials were switching policy from the military track to a more diplomatic solution. No one in Washington told General Garrison. President Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher were shocked, they said later, about the fight. Instead of coordinating their activities, the State and Defense departments each went off in their own direction, with grave consequences.

President Kennedy’s botched 1961 invasion of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba is another example of communication failure. Unresolved differences over operational requirements, which the inexperienced Kennedy team inherited from the Eisenhower administration, produced a plan that proved inadequate to accomplish the mission but sufficient to embarrass Washington by exposing the American government’s role.

More recently, bureaucratic barriers and cultural tensions between the departments of State and Defense circumscribed effective interagency cooperation in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, despite the relatively successful example of interagency planning for Kosovo that had been facilitated by a 1997 presidential directive. Once again knowledge did not bridge the change in administrations. Then Sept. 11 brought home the serious flaws that the national security establishment suffers.

The threat landscape is constantly evolving. A new administration will assume office in January, and planning cohesion could be further eroded. PNSR will propose a new national security act of 2009 to address this critical void in our national security apparatus.

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