American National Security Strategy: The Cost of Delay and Inefficiency


by Richard Weitz

The PNSR Case Studies: Outcomes, Achievements and Costs

The case studies provide examples of policy successes that resulted in better relations with other countries, diminished strategic threats, improved economic opportunities, and enhanced American prestige.

Effective U.S. planning and engagement in post-war Japan demonstrates the enormous benefits to U.S. national security that can result when integrated strategy development and implementation help transition a defeated adversary into a stable, affluent democracy and an enduring American ally.

The U.S. contribution to the 1999 East Timor intervention assisted in restoring peace in the territory, reaffirmed America’s security role in East Asia, and facilitated deeper U.S.-Australian cooperation after the September 11 terrorist attacks and into the Iraq War.

The 2003 Liberia mission and the response to the Indian Ocean tsunami are also instances where small operations marked by comprehensive planning, adequate resources, and interagency unity of effort yielded substantial benefits to U.S. interests, including improved American standing, reduced regional instability, and better conditions for the affected nations.

The case studies depict a U.S. national security apparatus that lacks an effective system for developing strategies that connect available resources, desired end-states, and implementation procedures. Credit Image: Bigstock

The post-Sputnik reorganization of U.S. science and space efforts, marked by a well-funded effort and a coherent strategy that decreased inter-service rivalries, resulted not only in a successful manned landing on the moon but also the development of stealth technology, phased array radar, and other advanced military capabilities.

As previous discussion indicates, however, all too often the case studies depict a U.S. national security apparatus that lacks an effective system for developing strategies that connect available resources, desired end-states, and implementation procedures. Complex contingencies are undertaken without requisite capabilities, rigid plans inhibit performance in the field, and decisions are too rarely timely, disciplined, or supported by adequate analyses of problems. Disunity of effort runs rampant.

Consequently, the U.S. government often cannot regularly and effectively achieve desired national security goals.

In some cases, such as the Clinton administration’s decision to intervene in Somalia, specific objectives were not well-articulated. In other instances, as in Bosnia, agencies pursued disparate aims.

Overall, the cases support the contention that as presently constituted, the U.S. national security system fails to achieve systematic policy ends in a consistently efficient manner––inflicting corresponding security costs. The adverse consequences of resulting policy failures regularly include loss of American lives, money, power, as well as harm to the national security enterprise itself.

The most tragic costs of flawed policy planning and implementation are unnecessary military and civilian casualties. Poor interagency planning and communication for the 1979 U.S. attempt to rescue hostages held at the American embassy in Tehran (Operation Eagle Claw) resulted in the loss of eight U.S. service members; four years earlier, similar flaws in Washington’s response to the hijacking of the SS Mayaguez, resulted in other unnecessary casualties, KIAs, and MIAs.

In 1983, bad coordination during the invasion of Grenada again cost casualties that could have been avoided and, in 1967, flawed communication contributed to the deaths of 34 sailors on the USS Liberty during the Six-Day War.

The ad hoc deployment of U.S. Marines to Lebanon in the 1980s rendered the Marines vulnerable to attack, resulting in 241 deaths when terrorists detonated a bomb outside their barracks. Following this tragedy and the 1983 Beirut embassy bombing, Washington developed new security standards for U.S. overseas missions, but did not implement these regulations uniformly. Fifteen years later, al-Qaeda underscored the continued vulnerability of U.S. missions with the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

In Somalia, the U.S. government devoted too few resources in support of poorly articulated, yet decidedly lofty objectives; the deaths of 42 U.S. servicemen followed. In Iraq, inadequate planning for postwar operations and the government’s failure to recognize the budding insurgency created a post-conflict environment in which many people, including American soldiers, were and continue to be killed or injured.

Financial costs are also prevalent. According to the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. government advanced more than 524 billion dollars in deficit spending for Operation Iraqi Freedom from March 2003 through June 2008. This stupefying sum stands in stark contrast to the 1991 Gulf War, when the international community financed a large portion of Operation Desert Shield/Storm.

Financial costs are not restricted to issues of war and peace, however. From 1992-1995 U.S. spending on Haiti totaled roughly $1.6 billion. Though these expenditures brought a period of stability to the Caribbean nation and helped restore democratic governance, they were wasted in terms of long-term Haitian peace and prosperity which have remained elusive.

The Dubai Ports fiasco demonstrates the difficulty the United States has recently experience in balancing the need for foreign direct investment with national security requirements. Continuing problems in this area have decreased the attractiveness of the U.S. foreign direct investment climate.

In the 1970s, the failure of American policy makers to recognize and respond to the changing dimensions of the global energy environment helped plunge the U.S. economy into deeper recession.

Between 2001 and 2009, the USG spent almost $60 billion developing plans and response capabilities to address possible biological terrorist incidents; but, it is far from certain this is the best use of these funds. Critics fear today’s biodefense system may be absorbing limited funds that would be better used to support the general improvement of the U.S. public health infrastructure, which could respond to a wider array of natural and man-made disasters.

Though difficult to quantify, the case studies suggest the opportunity costs of systemic national security deficiencies could be significant. For example, the USG response to the Iranian Revolution contributed not only to the loss of a military ally, but also to decreased U.S. influence over Tehran’s oil export policies.

The PNSR case study on Cold War public diplomacy concludes that U.S. efforts in this area could have been much more effective with improved USG strategic planning and resource allocation. Faulty management of the U.S. alliance with Uzbekistan cost the United States an important military base in Central Asia that supported operations in Afghanistan. Flawed Middle East policy choices during the Eisenhower administration failed to capitalize on political capital won in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis.

Damage to U.S. prestige (and often by extension influence) recur with policy failure. American engagement––or, rather, non-engagement––in the Ottawa process to ban land-mines subjected the United States to severe international criticism. The Iran-Contra fiasco constituted a grave embarrassment for the Reagan administration and damaged U.S. credibility with Arab and European allies.

More generally, a series of failures in American policy toward the Middle East has weakened U.S. power and standing in that region. An incoherent response to Arab nationalism in the 1950s, flaws in managing Iran from 1953 through 1979, ineffective balancing of democracy promotion and national security goals, an ad hoc policy toward Lebanon in the 1980s, mismanagement of the invasion of Iraq, and the absence of effective American regional public diplomacy throughout much of this period have all contributed to the unpopular image of the U.S. government in the Middle East.

Similar credibility costs, which have decreased Americans’ moral authority, resulted from ineffective responses to civil wars in Somalia and the Balkans as well as to the genocide in Rwanda.

An extension of credibility costs is the damage done to U.S. relations with other countries, whether they are allies or potential adversaries.

In the early Cold War, American forays in the Middle East wasted opportunities for fostering an enduringly positive image of the United States. Fifty years later, Washington’s association with Russian corruption in the 1990s, facilitated by U.S.-sponsored aid and reform agreements with Russian oligarch capitalists and other elites, severely damaged the U.S. relationship with Moscow and Americans’ reputation in Russia.

Likewise, IMF/U.S. conditions placed on governments seeking assistance during the Asian financial crisis likely imposed unnecessary economic costs on the region resulting in tangible resentment which persists to this day.

The series of mismanaged crises with China that occurred under several administrations have worsened relations between Beijing and Washington, sometimes for years. The ad hoc U.S. approach to nuclear cooperation with India led to delays and legislation that have caused tension with New Delhi. Flaws in various Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) projects have in some cases weakened Russian-American security and nonproliferation cooperation in areas of mutual interest.

Since past shortcomings can contribute to larger disasters later, policy failure tends to have compounding and, when not corrected, enduring negative effects. The sequence of post-World War II American setbacks in the Middle East is a prime example.  Each failure in this region—from mismanaging Nasser, to Desert One, to Lebanon, to Iraq today—emboldens anti-American dictators and terrorists. The rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia following the “Blackhawk Down” incident likely encouraged subsequent al-Qaeda attacks, while the full strategic repercussions of the Iraq War, currently seen in an upturn in instability in the Middle East and an empowered Iran, have yet to develop fully.

Long-run costs are also evident outside the Middle East. Initial American policies toward North Korea’s nuclear program led to Pyongyang’s acquiring nuclear weapons despite U.S. threats. Non-intervention in Rwanda may have safeguarded U.S. personnel, but the resulting instability plunged the region into a six nation war which killed 3 million people from 1998-2003. Regional volatility in Africa, East Asia, and beyond threatens U.S. interests. While not all “blowback” can reasonably be predicted, the consistently ill-considered U.S. policies in Central America and the Middle East demonstrate an alarming trend of poor strategic analysis.

These and other cases suggest that the U.S. government lacks a consistent and effective method for capturing strategic lessons from past failures by incorporating them into policies and procedures in addition to simply identifying them in after-action reviews.

When the U.S. national security system does achieve clearly defined objectives, it often fails to do so in an efficient manner. Specifically, the cases show that delays and other problems in policy development and resource allocation can eventually require more money, personnel, and other assets for strategy execution than might otherwise have been needed had policy proven more timely.

This policy delay-inefficiency cycle was apparent in the U.S. approach to the Balkan crises, when repeated policy deadlocks reduced the credibility of the threat of force, prolonged the crises, and increased the accumulated casualties and economic costs accrued by the time of the ultimately successful U.S.-led intervention that ended the conflict.

Even when strategy creation or implementation weaknesses are corrected, the delay can make it difficult to reverse a deteriorating situation. The case of CORDS—which, despite its increasing effectiveness, was unable to prevent a communist victory in the Vietnam War—shows that even titanic efforts to reverse a deteriorating situation may not prove sufficient to do so. The initial startup delays and other problems with the CTR programs may have increased the risks of diversion of nuclear, chemical, and biological agents to terrorists, criminals, and states of proliferation concern.

One additional cost worth mention, but also hard to quantify, is the increased risk directly to the United States due to strategy failures. The problems encountered in establishing an effective Director of National Intelligence and NCIX as well as the National Counterintelligence Plan raised the risk of intelligence exploitation of the United States by adversaries. Deficiencies of U.S. cyber security strategy, particularly weaknesses in federal and private critical information systems that went unaddressed, left U.S. cyberspace interests vulnerable to both amateur and professional attackers. The failure to secure loose weapons of mass destruction, their core components, or their means of delivery better raised the risks both of further nuclear proliferation and of catastrophic terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies.