Orchestrating ‘The Interagency’ for the long war
Inside the Capitol Beltway, and particularly inside the Pentagon, if you really want to sound smart, you talk about “The Interagency.” It’s not an arm of the government. It’s not a place. It has no formal director and certainly no troops. It’s not even a thing; it’s a process. But it is perhaps the one process that the government needs to do better to win “the long war” against terrorism and in the greater Middle East. And, given that people in uniform are asked to pick up the pieces or plug the gaps when the interagency process — where the Defense Department, the State Department and the other, formal agencies meet — fails, people in the Pentagon are right to fret about The Interagency.
If The Interagency were an orchestra performing a concert, the audience would howl in pain and trample one another on the way to the nearest exit. With a tone-deaf conductor presiding over an overly powerful percussion section, and the woodwind, brass and string sections all reading from different sheets of music, the resulting cacophony would be tortuous. Unfortunately, the U.S. government’s interagency process can be very much like a discordant orchestra. From the U.S. intervention in Somalia in the 1990s to post-conflict operations in Iraq, American instruments of statecraft and strategy have rarely worked well enough together to produce noteworthy melodies or pleasing harmonies. To be sure, individual instruments have sometimes performed well, and on occasion a few have even played in tune. But success in 21st-century conflicts will not stem from solo performances or spontaneous duets. Victory in the long war will result from the successful orchestration of all instruments of U.S. power.
Recent years have dramatically reinforced what was a growing concern among policy-makers and analysts in the 1990s, namely that interagency coordination was a persistent weakness that both prevented effective strategic planning and risked strategic failure in the conduct of complex operations. A survey of recent interagency performances serves to underscore both the history of discord and the difficulty of establishing some semblance of harmony.
Among many other weaknesses exposed Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government’s inability to effectively coordinate disparate elements of the intelligence community, to include even elements within a single agency, exacerbated the vulnerabilities inherent in an asymmetric threat environment. The 9/11 Commission Report, in addition to various Congressional inquiries, created the momentum that resulted in the establishment of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, or DNI, which was designed to oversee and to manage the intelligence community. Recent reports put the DNI’s budget at close to $1 billion and staff at more than 1,500 personnel. The worst-case scenario for intelligence reform may be materializing — a new bureaucracy layered over a pre-existing and already inflated bureaucracy.
Then there is the case of post-conflict Iraq, in which we are still reaping the whirlwind for failures of interagency planning for post-conflict operations, a failure to adequately coordinate decisions and operations on the ground, and a failure to adapt to a rapidly changing security environment that was not at all what the Bush administration expected.
It’s not too much to ask that the admirable performance of the men and women of our armed forces be complemented by at least competent and effective interagency planning and support mechanisms. While critics are right to point out that a key component of the post-invasion debacle in Iraq was largely the result of the open disdain the current administration had for “nation-building” combined with its failure to heed multiple government and think-tank reports that warned of post-conflict instability and chaos, part of the solution lies in addressing reform of the interagency process as a tier-one national security concern.
The 1986 Goldwater-Nichols legislation served as a catalyst that helped shift the military from its relatively parochial, service-oriented focus to a more integrated, joint force. While the process of transforming the Defense Department for 21st-century threats continues, many of the strategic and operational shortcomings that have become manifest over the past several years stem from poor interagency strategic planning and operational execution. It is long past time to go beyond Goldwater-Nichols and deal with the interagency aspects of our national security performance.
The problems with interagency planning and coordination, while clearly primary reasons for the types of failures seen over the past several years, cannot be wholly blamed on the current administration. Indeed, getting the State and Defense departments to play the same tune has been a perpetual conundrum since the creation of the modern national security system in 1947. The addition of other instruments of statecraft throughout the Cold War combined with the increasing level of complexity and nonlinearity in contemporary operations has made orchestration a Herculean task. It’s time to consider a number of ideas to begin orchestrating interagency efforts for the long war. Let’s extend the orchestra analogy: What is needed to make great music?
Setting the score
First, the most fundamental problem stems from the various players not reading from the same sheet of music. Our institutions of national security all bring unique perspectives and capabilities to bear, yet poor interagency planning at the strategic level consistently undermines effectiveness and can greatly increase risk. Not only does every civilian agency need a fully resourced strategic planning office, but the National Security Council (NSC) also needs a senior director and an office devoted strictly to strategic planning; this is something the Defense Department knows how to do but is a challenge to other agencies. While the Bush administration created a strategic planning office in 2005, it seems to have been given little more responsibility than drafting the glossy public strategy documents that, while useful for public relations, are no substitute for serious attempts at planning, where the bureaucratic rubber hits the road.
The most significant strategic planning occurs in the Defense Department and, while even this process has flaws, elements of that planning can and should be replicated throughout the national security community. For instance, the Quadrennial Defense Review is widely regarded as a constructive attempt to understand the security environment, develop a force-planning construct that addresses current and future challenges, and articulate a list of priorities that should drive allocation when resources are limited. Again, it may be flawed, but at least there’s a process and a framework for making crucial strategic choices. As contemporary national security challenges make obvious, however, success or failure is often dependent on the effectiveness of other players outside the department. To drive a serious interagency effort at strategic planning, a Quadrennial National Security Review should be conducted at the outset of every administration. This QNSR, driven by the White House, would produce a classified national security planning guidance document in addition to the unclassified National Security Strategy already mandated by Congress. The overarching planning guidance, in addition to articulating the strategies and capabilities required to achieve national security objectives, would direct the NSC and other agencies to undertake specific activities, including the formulation of capabilities guidance and baseline requirements document, as well as the development of interagency concepts of operations.
The guidance would also provide the basis for conducting joint mission area reviews not only by the NSC but also by the Office of Management and Budget to ensure that interagency resource allocation reflects policy guidance in those priority areas that require interagency implementation. Indeed, the QDR recommended the creation of this guidance document, and while it is doubtful the current administration has the time or inclination in the remainder of its term to radically change its planning process, future policy-makers would do well to establish a strategic planning process for national security.
In addition to the strategic or long-range planning component, the U.S. needs a more robust process to integrate planning for complex operations across multiple agencies. For a variety of historical reasons, there is no standard NSC-led approach to interagency planning for operations. This must change. The president should establish an NSC senior director and office for planning complex contingencies. This office would be responsible for developing the planning guidance for specific operations and for overseeing the development of integrated operational plans in accordance with that guidance. Planning cells for complex contingency operations, such as the State Department’s new Office of the Coordinator for Stabilization and Reconstruction, should also be established in the relevant civilian agencies.
There has been some progress on this front but hardly enough. Although the recently issued National Security Policy Directive 44 established an interagency approach to planning for certain complex operations — namely, stabilization and reconstruction operations — it relies heavily on the State Department rather than the NSC to lead the coordination of interagency operational planning. If history proves any guide, this arrangement is likely to founder given the reluctance of agencies to take direction from one another. The NSC is the only entity positioned to play an effective, honest broker role for the president in integrating interagency planning. These are missions that, absent adult supervision, tend to go badly.
Instruments of power
Second, an orchestra only functions when all the players have quality instruments and can play them properly. One of the biggest problems observed in Iraq, for example, is the paucity of operational capability in the State Department. This is by no means the result of a lack of commitment by the heroic foreign service officers serving in harm’s way, but rather the lack of adequate mechanisms and funding to support deployable civilian capabilities.
The State Department’s struggles to rapidly deploy personnel to staff the U.S. Embassy in postwar Kabul, Afghanistan, and the Coalition Provisional Authority in postwar Iraq are illustrative of the challenges that plague the system. When an agency lacks the number of trained, ready and deployable personnel it needs to meet demand, it is condemned to send too few people, too late, and for too short a time. One of the most frequent criticisms of American operations in Vietnam was the extremely rapid turnover of military officers and civilians. Rapid turnover prevents the formation of effective relationships, ensures the continued dearth of institutional and cultural knowledge, and results in ineffectiveness and irrelevance at best, and strategic failure at worst. Recent efforts by the State Department to increase the average tour length to one year and require service in so-called “challenging posts” to earn promotion are positive initiatives which should be expanded and institutionalized throughout civilian agencies.
While increasing expertise through field experience is critical, more fundamental shifts need to occur. The time has long passed for a serious effort at creating real operational civilian capacity. It was as obvious in the late 1990s as it is today that the security environment necessitates the creation of deployable civilian units that can function in hostile environments while doing the types of reconstruction and stabilization work that only the military currently has the capacity to do. We cannot continue to perpetuate the reliance on the military for every mission along the entire spectrum of conflict. Several recent studies have looked into the effective use of civil-military teams during Vietnam. The development of Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support teams during the later years of the Vietnam War is an impressive example of effective wartime innovation that made a strategic difference in a counterinsurgency campaign.
The creation of deployable civilian capacity has been a constant refrain over the past few years, and some serious efforts are being made. From the QDR to the Pentagon’s recent directive on stability operations to creation of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan and a more operational posture from the United States Agency for International Development, some headway is being made in transforming civilian agencies. However, these efforts haven’t received the resources necessary or commensurate with their growing importance to the types of challenges we face today and will surely face tomorrow. Building deployable operational capacity in the civilian agencies needs to be a critical priority for U.S. national security policy.
Third, even with skilled musicians reading from the same sheet of music while playing high-quality instruments, any orchestra needs a strong conductor. The NSC has an indispensable role to play as an integrator of plans and policies and as an honest broker, ensuring that agency disputes are aired and resolved at appropriate levels. In the complex and dynamic security environment of the 21st century, the NSC needs to go beyond its traditional role of preparing decisions for the president to more active involvement in ensuring that presidential intent is realized through the actions of all agencies. This means more active coordination of planning as well as more vigilant oversight of operations. It does not mean taking on an Oliver North-style operational role, but it does mean more than taking a set-and-forget approach to policy-making. For example, the NSC could convene regular summits of the senior officials across various agencies who may have responsibilities in a given region or operation. These summits would jointly and collectively review current and planned activities in the region in light of the president’s priorities and policy guidance. They should also identify ways to improve unity of effort and develop strategies by which the U.S. could shape the environment and possibly prevent crises. These summits might also provide useful bottom-up input into interagency processes for crisis action planning.
In the longer term, the government should consider establishing standing “regional security councils” (sound like regional military commanders?) composed of senior representatives from all of the national security departments that would coordinate U.S. policy execution on a day-to-day basis and seek approaches to shape the regional environment.
Finally, in an era when the U.S. will inevitably require agencies to work together seamlessly in complex, rapidly changing and often hostile environments, the government lacks a cadre of professionals who are conversant in the multiple bureaucratic languages and cultures that make interagency operations so difficult. There is, for example, a tendency by civilian officers to view military planning and orders as overly complex and a tendency by military officers to view their civilian counterparts as lacking any real understanding of what operations in a hostile environment require. The interagency cultural divide remains wide and deep.
Here, it makes sense to take a page from an earlier era of reform. One of the most important changes made in the Goldwater-Nichols legislation was the creation of the Joint Service Officer designation and associated incentives for officers to seek joint service as a way of advancing their careers. Once joint service became a near-mandatory requirement for promotion to flag rank, talented military officers began to seek joint assignments.
Building on this model, Congress should work with the Office of Personnel Management and the national security departments to develop a national security career path for civilian professionals. Like the Joint Service Officer model, this system would create incentives for civilian national security professionals to rotate to assignments outside their home organizations, thereby broadening the experience of careerists and creating a pool of civilian professionals with experience in interagency policy development and operations. Moreover, making promotion to the Senior Foreign Service or Senior Executive Service for national security-related positions contingent on completing a rotational assignment would radically alter the prevailing view in government that outside assignments virtually guarantee stepping off the promotion track. A complement to such a career path would be to enhance interagency education and training opportunities, through, for example, the creation of a National Security University.
Creating a cadre of civilians that are truly “national security” professionals would go a long way to developing an interagency culture of “jointness” that revolutionized the military 20 years ago. An orchestra requires conductors intimately familiar with the unique qualities of every instrument — conducting American national security institutions in wartime requires committed professionals with a complementary level of skill and familiarity with all instruments of American statecraft.
Michéle A. Flournoy is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and has served as both principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and threat reduction and deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy. Shawn Brimley is a research associate at CSIS.