Establishing the next president’s national security agenda: The role of the White House

By Gordon Adams | June 30, 2008

As I outlined in the first part of this three-part series, the national security agenda facing the next president demands that the White House’s role in setting policy and coordinating its implementation be seriously revamped.

Aside from the Iraq War, those currently in the White House and on the National Security Council (NSC) have played an ad hoc, generally noninterventionist role in national security matters. This management style employs strong language–“Iran will not acquire nuclear weapons” and “Global warming isn’t a strategic threat”–that seems to stop policy in its tracks, with little coordination or follow-through at the White House level to back it up. This has caused policy incoherence across the board–whether involving counterterrorism, nonproliferation, or climate change.

Given the challenges Washington faces, a failing national security policy is almost guaranteed if it allows current processes and structures to continue unreformed–no matter the new leadership in place.”

Worse still, that incoherence contributes to a growing international reluctance to treat Washington as a global leader. So the next administration needs to move swiftly to give either Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain or Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama the necessary tools to carry out his national security policy agenda.

It begins with strategic planning. Neither the Bush administration’s NSC nor previous administrations’ NSCs have been empowered to think strategically or long-term. As a consequence, the short-term takes precedent; tactics overwhelm strategy; and planning capabilities are thin.

The good news: Solutions do exist. They include:

Take the U.S. National Security Strategy seriously. Sadly, the country’s National Security Strategy document, prepared by the NSC, is currently regarded as a lightly edited statement of generalities. In some administrations, this document has been nothing more than a compendium of every executive branch agency’s wish list. Others–including the Bush administration–have set clear priorities, but no one in the White House has spent much time monitoring or coordinating their implementation. To make the National Security Strategy more effective in the future, it must be the product of a better integrated process. For example, the White House could coordinate a National Security Review every four years that focuses on the long-term and produces a clear set of national security policy priorities. The NSC should lead this effort–with support from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The first of these reviews should begin before the inauguration, after which, a new NSC could become involved, leading to the release of a document that sets major priorities for national security policy within the first four months of a new administration taking office. This overall policy review should be revised annually and repeated in full every four years.

Focus National Security Planning Guidance. By itself, a public document that outlines broad policy priorities isn’t enough to organize and focus the agencies within the executive branch. Through the review, the next administration should establish three or four key security policy priorities that provide the focus for a new set of documents–a National Security Planning Guidance, which will provide tasking and budget priorities across the national security agencies. This guidance needs to be given to agencies on a classified basis every two years, starting in the new administration’s first six months in office. The NSC and OMB should steer this effort, a new and stronger role for these two key offices. Their leadership is needed to ensure that the guidance is consistent with overall national security policy and that the policy priorities are adequately resourced in agency budgets. In addition, it should be supported by interagency working groups on each of the priority topics–i.e., nonproliferation, counterterrorism, post-conflict reconstruction, or development assistance.

The preparation of the National Implementation Plan for Counterterrorism could serve as a useful template. It wasn’t a uniform success, but it left two valuable lessons: (1) The NSC, not another office, should lead such efforts; and (2) from the start, OMB should work as a co-leader to ensure that agencies follow the guidance in their budget planning.

Create the right capabilities at the NSC and OMB. At present, neither agency has enough staff or the right skills to lead this process. From the get-go, the next president needs to create strategic-planning staffs within both agencies, expand current personnel, and recruit detailees from the key departments to enhance the long-term planning capabilities of both White House organizations. It’s vitally important not to unload this responsibility on the current staffs of either organization. The burden will be too great, the short-term will continue to take precedence, and the proper skill set will still be lacking. This means overcoming the reservations every new administration has about enlarging the White House staff, but it’s critical for the guidance to be meaningful and effective.

Create specific new NSC directorates. I’m thinking of four areas in particular where the need is most pressing–energy, environment, fragile states, and foreign assistance and development. While this would jump the gun on my proposed strategic review, each is too important to national security to be left without some kind of White House/NSC coordination. The inadequacies of the structures created by the Bush administration to conduct post-conflict reconstruction and stabilization and poor coordination of foreign assistance and development policy makes the situation in these areas especially dire.

It’s likely that Congress will be uneasy about expanding the role of the NSC and OMB in strategic planning and interagency guidance. The main congressional worry will be about how it can’t hold NSC members accountable in the same way as confirmed agency officials. Obviously, serious discussions will need to take place with Congress about how to devise ways to overcome this obstacle. In particular, because of the need for continuity of strategic planning and guidance activities from administration to administration, Congress might want to amend the 1947 National Security Act to mandate the quadrennial national security review and the biennial guidance. There may also be a need for a senior NSC official to serve as a liaison to Congress on both processes.

What I’m proposing may seem wonkish to a new administration, which will want to get on with the business of creating new policies. Moreover, no process reform will fully make up for inadequacies in personnel. But given the challenges we face, policy failure is almost guaranteed if we allow current processes and structures to continue unabated–no matter the new leadership in place.

Together, we make the world safer.

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