National Security Leaders: Trapped Not Hypocritical

by Fletcher Schoen, Research Assistant, Center for Strategic Research

National security leaders today seem to “talk the talk” of interagency reform, but haven’t yet learned to “walk the walk.”  Most recently several guiding coalition members of the Project for National Security Reform joined the Obama administration without implementing their own report’s recommendations. The problem is not new, nor is it always the fault of individual leaders.

In 1919, while serving as acting Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt sent a letter to the Secretary of State proposing a “joint plan making body” that would create orderly estimations of the geopolitical situation, formulate contingency plans and then disseminate them for execution by the services and departments. Alongside the written proposal was an elaborate blueprint to show in detail how the “war portfolio” would be organized.

It was one of the first proposals to formalize interagency cooperation. Curiously, it was mislaid by the State Department’s mail system and never read by the Secretary of State. Indeed, the political scientist Earnest May was the first to view it in 1955.  Even more curiously, President Roosevelt’s war time decision making system bore no resemblance to his 1919 proposal. It was highly personalized and he did not introduce formalized interagency planning until his health began to fail in 1943.

The discrepancy between pronouncements on the need for better interagency collaboration and actual decision making practice is actually quite common. This is because however much senior leaders may see the need for a better system, they must work within the confines of the current one on a day to day basis.

As Woodrow Wilson said, “Governments grow piecemeal, both in their tasks and in the means by which those tasks are to be performed, and very few governments are organized as wise and experienced men would organize them if they had a clean sheet of paper.”  This is even true for the president, who often finds the organizations he must use are Byzantine and hostage to vested interests and bureaucratic intrigue.  Over time, notions of how business should be done fall prey to business as usual.  After all, with pressing near-term political goals to pursue a president cannot expend finite capital on reworking the system, and his subordinates all have their own departments and agencies to run.

In short, serving officials, like Roosevelt, who once called for interagency reform, are not being hypocritical by abandoning the cause. They are just acknowledging the current bureaucratic realities and political limits.  It’s a phenomenon common to every level of government that says more about the nature of the current system than it does about the honesty, imagination or consistency of our leaders.

Of course, major reform that would change the rules of the game to reward collaboration is always an option.  However, it takes a lot of political capital, and no individual leader can pull it off alone.

In case anyone thinks the F.D.R. example is an anomaly, or an historical artifact irrelevant to our own times, see the example of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on the last page of the most recent INSS Strategic Perspectives, “Chief of Mission Authority as a Model for National Security Integration.”

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