The Challenge of Crafting National Security Strategy


by Richard Weitz

For several years, the Project on National Security Reform (PNSR) worked as a nonpartisan, nonprofit, public interest organization to revitalize the American government by transforming its national security system. Since the current national security system was developed in 1947, the world has changed. Funded and supported by Congress, foundations and corporations, it was led by a 26-member Guiding Coalition that included former senior federal officials with extensive national security experience.

In 2008, PNSR issued one of the most comprehensive studies of the U.S. national security system in American history — Forging a New Shield — which recommended solutions to the problems that plague the current system. In 2009, a follow-on report — Turning Ideas into Action – provided implementation tools for national security reform.

In support of PNSR’s research and analysis, the Project tasked the Case Studies Working Group (CSWG), which I had the honor to run, to assess a series of events and developments that would shed light on the past performance of the United States Government (USG) in mitigating, preparing for, responding to, and recovering from national security challenges. The CSWG accordingly commissioned a diverse range of “major” and “mini” case studies to examine significant national security issues and incidents that involved multiple USG agencies and departments. This retrospective analysis seeks to discern the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. national security process, so as to better inform efforts to reform the current system.

The case study collection is not entirely random nor entirely planned. The potential cases for analysis are effectively infinite. The CSWG, following PNSR leadership guidance, solicited several specific studies that addressed issues and historical events considered essential in any examination of the U.S. national security system (e.g., the U.S. intervention in Somalia and planning for the Iraq War, which can be found in PNSR Case Study Volume I; the Iran-Contra Affair, which appears in the newly published second volume; and others. The working group also sought cases on national security matters that covered lesser-known events, episodes not entailing the use of force, and those for which the author brought unique insights based on past scholarship or government service. The outcome of a proposed case was not considered in the selection process. Successful, failed, or mixed results are equally valuable in analyzing the national security process.

The working group also strove to cover issues that have affected different administrations due to their reflecting enduring national security challenges (e.g., managing crises with China, analysis of U.S. counterterror capacity building programs, etc.). Although the majority of cases focus on the post-Cold War security environment, the CSWG sought to include studies of events that occurred during each presidential administration since 1947. Despite tremendous changes in the international environment as well as the structure and capabilities of the U.S. government, many of these past episodes yield rich analytical insights for contemporary U.S. national security reform.

A majority of PNSR’s “major” case studies (approximately 15,000 words in length) offer original scholarship in national security policymaking. These products typically use both secondary and primary sourcing, including government records, interviews, and periodicals. Case studies examining relatively recent issues, such as the proposed U.S.-Indian civil nuclear cooperation accord, rely heavily on contemporary media coverage, while those that analyze earlier events often can incorporate archival research. Some case study authors had government experience directly relevant to their investigations—though the authors and CSWG also reviewed the secondary literature on these issues to ensure comprehensive analysis.

The major cases investigate a range of national security issues, including responses to immediate-, medium-, and long-term challenges as well as organizational restructuring and program management. All the studies explicitly note why the particular case is important to PNSR. Furthermore, all major case study authors approach their investigations through the analytic lens of four guiding questions:

  1. Did the U.S. government generally act in an ad hoc manner or did it develop effective strategies to integrate its national security resources?
  2. How well did the agencies/departments work together to implement these ad hoc or integrated strategies?
  3. What variables explain the strengths and weaknesses of the response?
  4. What diplomatic, financial, and other achievements and costs resulted from these successes and failures?

The major cases also attempt to assess the extent to which certain organizational variables influenced the strengths and weaknesses of the government response. These explanatory variables break down into three classifications: decision-making structures and processes, civilian national security organizational cultures, and baseline capabilities and resources. Table A lists the factors constituting these categories.

Key Explanatory Variables

(1) Decision Making Structures and Processes

Interagency Decision Mechanisms: Did existing interagency decision making bodies (in the United States, the region and the field) produce compromise decisions that stymied or slowed progress?

Clear Authorities: Were standing and assigned authorities and responsibilities for interagency bodies and for each agency clear or ambiguous, at the national, regional and local levels?

Interagency Authorities: Were lead interagency bodies so constrained in their scope of authority (i.e. to policy decisions) that they could not exercise effective control over implementation?

Lead Agency Approach: Did existing interagency decision making bodies assign implementation to a lead-agency which was unable to produce unity of effort with other agencies?

Informal Decision Mechanisms: Did informal and ad hoc decision making bodies have to be established that took too long to become effective?

Individual Agency Behaviors: Did strong individual department and agency bureaucracies resist sharing information and implementing decisions from interagency bodies?

(2) Civilian National Security Organizational Cultures

Interagency Culture: Did different agency and department cultures, including leadership styles and behavior, reinforce competition or collaboration among organizations?

Shared Values: Did existing organizational cultures and personnel systems value and reward individual agency performance over U.S. government unity of purpose and effort?

Missions and Mandates: Were civilian agencies unprepared to apply their expertise rapidly in a risky overseas environment?

Expeditionary Mindset: Did civilian agencies lack a culture that embraces operational activities; i.e. making success in the field as important as success in Washington or the US?

(3) Base-line Capabilities and Resources

Staff: Were interagency staff capabilities sufficient to provide rapid policy, planning and implementation direction?

Sufficient Resources: Did civilian departments and agencies have sufficient resources to carry out their national security responsibilities?

Congressional Resourcing: Was Congress slow, unable or unwilling to provide necessary resources and the authorities to permit their effective use?

Resource Management: Were agencies and departments unable to effectively administer the resources and programs they did control?

Information Management: Were interagency bodies able to generate, find, and quickly access relevant information and analysis?

Legal: Were there any specific legal issues that affected decision-making processes and structures, organizational culture, or capabilities and resources?

While not all variables were relevant to each case, targeting these factors—in the initial guidance as well as during the revision phases—successfully facilitated the process-oriented analysis of interest to PNSR.

In contrast to the major cases, the mini case studies (typically running less than 10,000 words) draw on the vast secondary literature that has arisen over the decades on important national security events.

The study of American national security decision-making and implementation presents a rich corpus in many dimensions. The CSWG often decided to exploit this literature rather than try to write an even better history of a well-covered event. The value-added the PNSR authors bring to these cases is that they apply the unique PNSR questions—focusing on issues related to the performance of the USG agencies involved rather than the personalities engaged or other dimensions unrelated to the structures and processes of the U.S. government—when analyzing the assessment of other scholars on these subjects.

The mini studies adhere to a similar structure and approach as the major cases to aid in cross-case analysis. The introductory sections of the cases explicitly identify the importance and relevance of the study to national security reform, describe the secondary sources used in the case, and provide summary answers to PNSR’s guiding questions. The introduction is followed by four sections, each pertaining to one of PNSR’s foundational questions. The conclusions then highlight in bullet format the main variables associated with the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. government effort.

Although limited in number, the major cases featured in the second volume illustrate important strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. national security system.

Study of American counterterror capacity building programs reveals that the U.S. government has sought to use multiple elements of national power to undermine terrorism abroad, often yielding substantial security benefits for relatively little cost. Analysis of the U.S. government’s role in the 1999 East Timor intervention demonstrates that various U.S. government agencies can act as one and successfully leverage specialized military assets for limited peacekeeping responsibilities in support of a key ally, in this case Australia.

Other cases illustrate less encouraging traits.

The story of the Iran Contra Affair shows a system so plagued by internal conflict that the Reagan administration resorted to operationalizing the tiny, insufficiently resourced NSC staff to formulate and implement U.S. foreign policy. A look at the inner workings of the U.S. government during the Rwanda genocide finds an interagency system that virtually guaranteed inaction as established structures and processes enabled officials reluctant to intervene to filibuster any move toward American involvement no matter how small. Discussion of the 2007 Andrew Speaker tuberculosis incident depicts a homeland security and public health system unable to cross-communicate and so ill-prepared to address and contain communicable disease threats that it was easily and repeatedly evaded by Speaker, an average Atlanta lawyer. Similar faults are illustrated in an examination of the U.S. biodefense strategy, which currently lacks a strategic direction and clear end goals.

These, however, are just a few of the many insights the case studies contained in this volume and PNSR’s greater body of case study literature advance. For this reason, this book concludes with a cross-case analysis that evaluates the most important observations from the entire case study collection. This will be the subject of future contributions to this series.