Fixing the National Security System

I just wanted to flag Richard Weitz’s WPR column from last week, which ran on Election Day and might have gotten overshadowed by the day’s historic events. But the piece is really worth a look, because it presents the findings of a non-partisan research group — the Project on National Security Reform — that Richard headed which used exhaustive case study analysis to assess the country’s national security system. And the conclusion was that it functions inconsistently at best, and often as a result of non-reproducible factors like personal relationships across agencies or individual initiative.

The piece is timely especially in light of the gathering chorus calling for President-elect Obama to keep Def. Sec. Bob Gates at the Pentagon, at least for another year. Now from everything I’ve read, that certainly won’t do any harm. Gates has proven his ability to twist the right arms and knock the right heads to get the Pentagon mobilized to fight the wars we’re currently waging, without overcompensating to the COIN end of the spectrum. And he’s managed to do all that in the midst of fierce factional infighting within the Bush administration.

But it’s important to remember that America has, in fact, carried out a wartime presidential transition, as recently as 1968. And Richard Nixon didn’t hesitate to name a new Def. Sec. at the time. It’s even more important to remember that Bob Gates is just one man, a talented one, yes, but there are other talented men and women who could do a fine job as well.

But it’s most important to remember — and here’s where Richard’s piece comes in — that the Defense Dept. is just one agency in the national security system. And until a better interagency operational method is put into place, the talents of one man or woman, no matter how great, will not be enough to make it function effectively, and their efforts will often go towards working the system rather than advancing America’s security interests.

Now obviously individuals can make a difference, and systems are hard to change. But it’s unfortunate to see so much attention given to Gates, and so little to the system in which he operates. Come to think of it, Gates might be the right guy for the job of reforming that system. He’s already run the CIA and DoD, and he’s reportedly counting the hours until Jan. 20. Why not let the poor guy go, but on condition that he head up an advisory panel to overhaul the way in which the nation’s security agencies operate?

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