Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Contemporary Presidency: Organizing the National Security Council: I like Ike's

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Contemporary Presidency: Organizing the National Security Council: I like Ike's

Article excerpt

The Project for National Security Reform (PNSR), a blue-ribbon, congressionally-chartered panel, concluded in 2008 that "The legacy structures and processes of a national security system that is now more than 60 years old no longer help American leaders to formulate coherent national strategy." Because of the American government's institutional ossification, "The national security of the United States of America is fundamentally at risk," (PNSR 2008, i). PNSR's dire warnings echo a chorus of voices that have been swelling for over a decade, calling for a fundamental reengineering of the United States' national security apparatus (Drezner 2009, 3-4). As proof of the need for change, advocates of reform point to the terrorist attacks of 2001, the intelligence failure surrounding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the botched planning for postwar Iraq, ongoing difficulties in Afghanistan, and fears that the government's war powers, allegedly including targeted killings and indefinite detentions, have grown beyond oversight and accountability.

In one sense, PNSR and its advocates are behind the times. Congress and the executive branch have already undertaken substantial reform over the past decade--establishing the Transportation Security Administration in 2001, the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, the National Counterterrorism Center in 2003, the State Department's Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization in 2004, the FBI's National Security Branch in 2005, and the Office of the of National Intelligence the same year. These moves, among others, represent the largest overhaul of the defense and foreign policy agencies in a generation.

But the reforms of the past decade have been piecemeal, haphazard, and patchy, focused on individual agencies rather than systemic reform; critics are right that more reform is still needed. In particular, the United States' national security establishment lacks an integrated strategic planning capability. Disparate organizations--such as the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, the Joint Staffs J5, United States Agency for International Development's (USAID's) Bureau for Policy, Planning, and Learning, and the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy--carry out strategic planning for their respective organizations with minimal coordination between them. That is because the most crucial piece of the national security establishment, the one designed to knit it together and coordinate all its parts, has gone completely untouched by the reforms of the past decade: the National Security Council (NSC) and the interagency system it oversees. The NSC and its subordinate committees and supporting staff are supposed to integrate and coordinate interagency efforts--but no regular mechanism for integrating strategic planning has existed in the NSC system since 1961.

Ironically, the best way to reform the NSC for the twenty-first century is to revive some of the oldest ideas about how it was supposed to operate. The national security advisor should reestablish the NSC Planning Board--an organization that existed in various forms from 1950 to 1961. The early NSC system, widely noted for its methodical approach, attention to detail, and emphasis on planning, contained several elements that could address some of the most glaring weaknesses of the contemporary system. American policy makers could do worse than to take cues from one of the most experienced foreign policy presidents in American history and adapt (not slavishly copy) the system that laid the groundwork for America's successful Cold War strategy.

The Scowcroft NSC System

The NSC's core purposes are to advise the president and foster interagency cooperation. According to the National Security Act of 1947, the NSC exists to "advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security so as to enable the military services and the other departments and agencies of the Government to cooperate more effectively in matters involving the national security. …

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