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Contra Rothkopf

May 6, 2009


Reprinted from The National Interest. PNSR’s former Director of Research and Analysis, Dr. Christopher Lamb, and PNSR Senior Organization and Management Theorist Dr. James Douglas Orton respond to David Rothkopf’s analysis of PNSR (Note: Dr. Lamb and Dr. Orton’s views do not necessarily represent any official viewpoints of PNSR, but of course are appreciated):

David Rothkopf pays some backhanded compliments to the Project on National Security Reform (PNSR) in his intriguing article in The National Interest, “A Thousand Envoys Bloom.” His critique of PNSR merits a response because it illuminates a fault line in the current debate over national security reform. Rothkopf says PNSR’s 2008 report, Forging a New Shield, “covered the landscape thoughtfully and comprehensively” and he even agrees with many of the PNSR recommendations. Ultimately, however, he considers the report less than relevant for the real challenges facing the country:

In short, this was undoubtedly a worthy exercise by worthy people, but in some important respects, it really amounted to puttering around in the garden while a tank division was rolling down your cul de sac. It doesn’t address deeply imbedded flaws in our system like the toxic role money plays in corrupting the American political process or the role that politics plays in ensuring that very often the wrong people will be given important jobs to satisfy one constituency or another.

Rothkopf is either confused about the difference between America’s national security and political systems or PNSR’s mandate. PNSR analyzed the national-security system, not the American political system. PNSR would only be interested in the role resources play in political campaigns and the motives for presidential appointments to the extent they affect the performance of the national-security system. This is why PNSR did not take on campaign-finance reform, but did address the question of political appointments in general and ambassadorial appointments in particular, which Rothkopf must have missed.

On the subject of the national-security system per se, Rothkopf does not argue PNSR missed its fundamental problems; instead he argues there are no fundamental problems to begin with. Rothkopf dismisses then-Senator Joseph Biden’s call for a new National Security Act, which PNSR supports, with the argument that the system we currently have is fundamentally strong:

But it is worth noting that one of the great strengths of the system as it was conceived in 1947 is that it is highly flexible. Each president can easily adapt it to his or her needs….Sometimes it leads to a more decentralized system in which power is at least ostensibly farmed out to the agencies (as in the Reagan years), sometimes it leads to much more concentrated power in the White House (as it seems to be doing today). So the system we already have has advantages of flexibility and responsiveness to needs and management styles that would be the envy of many organizations.

Rothkopf, like many who have studied the drama surrounding the NSC, national-security advisors and their staffs, argues the current system is flexible. PNSR fundamentally disagrees. One of the core findings of the PNSR research was that the system is superficially flexible but fundamentally rigid:

Many popular accounts of the national security system observe how flexible it is and conclude major organizational reform is not necessary. They note that the president often changes structures and processes to match his decision-making style and should do so. This is true, but the changes presidents typically make are superficial and have little impact on the actual performance of the system. As many presidents later lament, the system is fundamentally rigid—hierarchical and dominated by a set of powerful, functional bureaucracies that can stymie or veto collaboration that runs counter to their organizational interests. (Forging a New Shield, p. 493)

The NSC staff is flexible and responsive to presidential decision styles, as it should be, but it is a tiny, ephemeral and weak integrating mechanism that routinely fails to control the large, well-resourced and powerful functional organizations of the national-security system. The test of a management system is not how flexible it is, but whether it produces effective results. PNSR makes a strong case that the NSC staff is consistently unable to manage the system well for the president, who is too busy to do it for himself. For this and other reasons, PNSR concluded that the current national-security system unduly restricts presidential control and management of national security—and, in fact, is increasingly ineffective irrespective of leadership.

Rothkopf’s critique of PNSR takes us to the epicenter of the current debate over national security reform: the fault line between those who argue the system is fundamentally flawed in ways that hamstring even the best leaders, and those who believe it is fundamentally sound and just requires good leadership—in particular, an effective president. Rothkopf begins his article with the assertion that the previous president led the nation into a deep abyss, and concludes with the observation that the possibility of a bright new future depends entirely on the abilities of the current one. For Rothkopf, “our ability to do what we must begins and ends with the president of the United States.”

Other scholars also believe PNSR missed the importance of the president in the national-security system. For example, after noting “there is much that is good in this sophisticated report,” University of Maryland professor Mac Destler dismissed PNSR recommendations in his March 19 testimony before the House Committee on Armed Services by arguing PNSR did not sufficiently appreciate the central importance of the president:

For in the end, it is “the president, stupid.” It is he (she one day) who drives the system. His operating preferences and decision style are what any senior White House aide must accommodate.

Contrary to both Rothkopf and Destler, PNSR fully understands the importance of the president. PNSR argues the president is the central figure in the system not because his style preferences must be accommodated, but because only the president has the authority to integrate the work of powerful cabinet officials. PNSR even argues the current system is not just president centric, but also president dependent:

The national security system is a president-centric system by virtue of the Constitution; it is a president dependent system by force of current system limitations. It is always good to have a president who is knowledgeable about national security and heavily involved in it, for example, a Roosevelt or Eisenhower. But it is not realistic to expect all presidents to have extensive national security experience. Even those who do deserve a system that effectively supports their strategic direction. (Forging a New Shield, p. 536–537)

Thus PNSR and NSC experts like Rothkopf and Destler do not differ over the central role the president plays in the system, but rather over the question of whether the system can be reformed to better support the president. PNSR believes the performance of the national-security system depends on much more than presidential decision-making style, and that system performance can be improved without sacrificing the ability of the NSC staff to accommodate presidential styles. Put differently, organization matters as much as leadership style. To quote the 9/11 Commission Report, “Good people can overcome bad structures. They should not have to.” It is particularly the case that busy presidents ought not to have to do so. When policy issues must be managed by the president to compensate for structural deficiencies in the system, the White House becomes a bottleneck that constricts the scope, intensity and duration of issues that the system can manage well.

Rothkopf completed his backhanded set of compliments to PNSR by asserting “the PNSR study, which is far better than most of its ilk, is a great illustration of the fact that the road to policy hell is often paved with good intentions regarding improving process.” It would be easy to flip Rothkopf’s argument and point out all the instances in which the road to national-security failure has been paved by great leaders paying insufficient attention to how the system generates and implements policy. It also would be easy to lampoon Rothkopf’s suggestion for improving policy advice to the president, which was to “set aside distractions and launch an internal review” with “thoughtful analysis and a new paradigm,” since unproductive internal reviews easily outnumber the blue-ribbon panels Rothkopf disparages. But there is no reason to do so. Like the 9/11 Commission, PNSR does not believe the American people or the president should be asked to choose between good leadership, good organizations or good policy and strategy advice (whether internally or externally generated). All are required.

In this regard, Rothkopf’s “tanks in the garden” analogy is useful. It is much more exciting to focus on personalities and policy arguments in the crisis du jour than the hard work of making organizations perform better, but both are necessary. Tank divisions rumbling down your cul-de-sac do indeed require immediate attention. But it is also true we have to tend the garden that produces the basic means we employ when fighting the daily crises. Current crises should not be allowed to crowd out the need for good organizational performance that will, over the long term, largely determine the extent to which presidents can effectively secure our health, wealth and liberty.

Which brings us to one more error that demands correction in Rothkopf’s otherwise excellent article. PNSR is not one of “Washington’s endless supply of blue-ribbon commissions and think-tank gabfests.” It is an independent reform movement that preceded and lives on past the publication of its first major report, dedicated to fixing what an astounding number of senior leaders now agree is a broken system that will produce poor outcomes regardless of how good our leaders are. PNSR believes President Obama understands the limitations of the current system and wants change. As noted by David Ignatius in the Washington Post, he has charged his capable national-security advisor, Jim Jones, with creating a collaborative “twenty-first-century” national-security system that can effectively employ “all the elements of national power” and cover all “the diverse threats to American interests.” PNSR is ready to support President Obama and his National Security Advisor in that endeavor through preparation of draft presidential directives, changes to Senate and House rules, and a new National Security Act.

Christopher Lamb is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, and PNSR’s former director, research and analysis. James Douglas Orton is an adjunct associate professor of human and organizational learning at George Washington University, and PNSR’s senior organization and management theorist. The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not necessarily the Department of Defense or any other federal department or agency.


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