The Project on National Security Reform: Challenges and Requirements



Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for the opportunity to appear before you today, and to share my views on the Project on National Security Reform (PNSR). As we begin a new administration, we are sobered by the security challenges that have emerged in recent years: the attacks of 9/11; the deployment of U.S. troops to Iraq and Afghanistan; the erosion of barriers to nuclear proliferation; and the rapid rise of China and resurgence of Russia. Not surprisingly, there is considerable interest in what organizational changes the new administration might make in order to better meet these challenges. However, before undertaking such an enterprise, the new administration would be wise to craft a sound national security strategy to guide and inform any executive branch reorganization. Anything less would be putting the cart before the horse.

My testimony is intended to provide a context within which one might evaluate the Project’s recommendations, rather than a detailed assessment of the project itself. Accordingly, following some brief observations on the Project’s recommendations, my testimony centers on what I consider to be the root problem: our loss of competence in crafting good national security strategy. I will then suggest some modest steps to address the problem.

First, let me applaud the effort of those involved in the Project on National Security Reform. Many very talented people have devoted considerable time to this project, and their efforts have yielded many valuable insights and recommendations. The range and depth of their efforts are most impressive. They have rendered an important service to the nation.

The Project’s report, Forging a New Shield, is also remarkably (and admirably) candid in identifying several key assumptions regarding conditions that must be present for its recommendations to have their intended effect. It appears that several of these assumptions are likely to prove invalid. One is that “the recommendations made by the PNSR are adopted and implemented as a complete set.” The authors believe that if this does not occur, then “the system will not function as intended.”1 But the number and range of recommendations make simultaneous adoption and implementation a practical impossibility. Indeed, the long history of distinguished panels and commissions suggests this is unlikely to occur. Another problematic assumption concerns the ability of “teams that are management and personnel intensive [to] make decisions quickly.”2 To the contrary, experience shows that groups have a tendency to make decisions slowly and often tend toward consensus (or “satisficing”) rather than arriving at the optimum choice. It is also assumed that “departments and agencies will reward personnel who choose to invest in interagency expertise.” Again, experience shows that individuals who fail to represent their “home” organization’s interests risk becoming alienated from that organization. Still another assumption is that interagency “teams can direct the activities of departments and agencies.”3 Yet it is far from clear that such teams can overcome entrenched bureaucracies.

The PNSR’s recommendations are rooted in its assessment of the environment. While I generally agree with much of the Project’s diagnosis of the situation, there are some areas where its assessment is, in my opinion, overly dire. For example, the PNSR also argues that the problems we confront today are fundamentally different from those we confronted during the Cold War, an era during which we relied on the national security organizations put into place by the National Security Act of 1947. While I agree that the world has changed in many ways since then, I also believe the PNSR overstates the case in several important ways.

For example, the PNSR asserts that the environment we face today is far more challenging and complex than that of the Cold War era. To make the point, it cites Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ remarks:
I recall Henry Kissinger in 1970. There had been the Syrian invasion of Jordan. I think something was going on in Lebanon. And we had discovered the Soviets were building a submarine base in Cuba. I always thought Kissinger managing two or three crises at the same time was an act of legerdemain. I tell you: that was amateur night compared to the world today.4

1 Project on National Security Reform, Forging a New Sword (Arlington, VA: November 26, 2008), p. 524.

2 Indeed, the PNSR notes that “It will also be common for interagency teams, sometimes challenging one another, and sometimes challenged by Cabinet departments, to appeal conflicts for resolution by higher authority.” One presumes the “higher authority” here is the president, since the issue will have risen above cabinet level. Thus it is not clear that the interagency teams will do more than replicate the current debates that occur between departments and agencies and that, at times, must be adjudicated by the president. Project on National Security Reform, Forging a New Sword (Arlington, VA: November 26, 2008), p. 515.

3 Project on National Security Reform, Forging a New Sword (Arlington, VA: November 26, 2008), pp. 525-26. The report asserts that departments and agencies “will cooperate willingly with the teams, much the way the military services now are eager to contribute to combatant commanders conducting priority missions.” This assertion fails in the face of evidence to the contrary. To a significant extent, commanders such as General David Petraeus have succeeded in their important missions in spite of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Indeed, the Goldwater-Nichols reforms of 1986 accord field commanders and the military Service chiefs different priorities, with the former charged with accomplishing their mission (i.e., defeating the enemy), while the latter are charged with preserving their institution (i.e., not “breaking” the Army). These objectives can often be incompatible. For example, the Surge proposed by Gen. Petraeus to defeat the enemy in Iraq risked “breaking” the Army through its deployment of Army forces far in excess of what the Service set as an acceptable rotation rate.

4 Robert Gates, interview with John Barry, “That Was Amateur Night,” Newsweek, October 25, 2008. Cited in Project on National Security Reform, Forging a New Sword, p. 496.

What Secretary Gates failed to mention, however, is that at that time:

  • The United States had suffered over 40,000 combat deaths in Vietnam—roughly ten times the number suffered to date in both Afghanistan and Iraq—triggering an ongoing series of large-scale demonstrations in the United States;
  • The United States had invaded Cambodia, setting off mass domestic protests in the United States (to include the Kent State incident);
  • Soviet pilots were flying combat missions over the Suez Canal as part of an undeclared War of Attrition with Israel; and
  • The Soviet Union was engaged in a massive nuclear arms buildup—unconstrained by any arms control agreements—that posed a direct, existential threat to the survival of the United States and its allies.

I daresay that despite the challenges confronting us today, few would gladly trade them for the situation we confronted nearly forty years ago. As the PNSR admits, “no single challenge rises to the level of the Cold War’s potential “doomsday” scenario . . . .”5

If the challenges we confront are not fundamentally more severe, are they fundamentally different? If so, this alone could establish the need for major reform of our national security structure.

The challenges we confront today are quite different in form from those we confronted during the Cold War, and greater in scale from those we confronted during the decade following the Cold War’s end. The rise of radical Islamism and other transnational threats (e.g., drug cartels) and their growing access to highly destructive capabilities, the proliferation of nuclear weapons (and other weapons of mass destruction) to states in the developing world, the rise of China, and global warming are different in many ways from past challenges.

Drawing upon this, the PNSR makes the case that:

It is clear, then, that most major challenges can no longer be met successfully by traditional Cold War approaches. We cannot prevent the failure of a state or mitigate the effects of climate change with conventional military forces or nuclear weapons. The national security challenges inherent in a widespread international financial contagion or a major pandemic do not lend themselves to resolution through the use of air power or special operations forces.6

In a report that is remarkable in so many respects, this statement stands out as somewhat disingenuous. Military forces could not address any of these types of challenges during the Cold War either, although they did, in a number of cases, prove essential to preventing a state from becoming a failed state or succumbing to subversion.7

During the Cold War the United States employed other instruments of national power, depending upon the situation. Economic power was crucial to the success of the Marshall Plan, and economic coercion helped bring about an end to the Suez Crisis of 1956. Major development programs, like the Kennedy administration’s Alliance for Progress, were initiated. Diplomatic power was employed to create the most formidable network of alliances the world has ever seen. During this period we witnessed a series of influenza outbreaks, such as the Asian Flu and Hong Kong Flu, that killed tens of thousands. Alas, we were not prepared then, nor are we now, for the kind of pandemic influenza (the “Spanish Flu”) that killed millions at the end of World War I.

5 Project on National Security Reform, Forging a New Sword, p. v.

6 Ibid, p. vi.

7 Examples where the U.S. military was instrumental in preventing state failure or combating subversion are Greece (late 1940s); the Philippines (early 1950s); the Dominican Republic (1965); and Bolivia (1960s).

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