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How Egypt shows what’s wrong with the U.S. government, and how to fix it

February 9, 2011

President Barack Obama talks on the phone with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in the Oval Office, Jan. 28, 2011. Vice President Joe Biden listens at left, and the President’s National Security team confer in the background. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.)

When the U.S. government responds to a crisis, the eyes of the world look to the moment the President appears before television to explain what the United States will do next. What the world does not see is the hundreds of diplomats, intelligence officers, staffers, troops, and officials working hard to make sure the response is right. They will collect information, pass it around, meet on it, and write memos and check boxes on those memos until a policy, hopefully, comes into shape.

They do this in a bureaucracy built over the last half-century, the foundations of its structure set by the National Security Act of 1947. Unfortunately, in the last couple of weeks, this structure has led to the United States being days behind the events on the ground in a situation that has moved astonishingly fast. And although it is easy to blame the current administration, the fact is they are working in an outmoded system.

In the first days of the demonstrations, Secretary Clinton remarked, “Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” Vice President Biden asserted that President Mubarak was not a dictator. While protestors demanded that President Mubarak step down, the first time President Obama spoke it seemed he heard that the Egyptians would be happy with only promises of reforms.

As the demonstrations dragged on, the situation became more violent and the U.S. gave more reasons for the protestors – the future of Egypt – to distrust and even hate America. Yet, people reading their Twitter feeds or watching Al Jazeera English could see clearly that these demonstrations overturned a decades-old policy toward Egypt, and that the U.S. government’s responses did not match the magnitude of the crisis.

A crisis is a challenge to your strategy, in which you decide to stick to it or change it. In this case, officials had to reexamine assumptions held an entire career. For the United States, the National Security Council is where the center of this thinking is done. It is where the President gathers his National Security Advisor, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and other senior officials.

All these officials are extremely busy. They just finished a summit meeting with the Chinese. They worked hard on negotiating New START. They dealt with North Korea over the holidays. They have to reexamine assumptions held their entire careers on a policy that will have profound effects on the most challenging region in the world in a three-hour meeting.

A crisis does not appear from nowhere. It is years in the making. Preferably, years beforehand you would draw up scenarios and think through the decisions so that when it happens, you know what to look for, everyone knows the plays, and you can respond quickly. Although you can find contingency plans and scenarios in the Pentagon and other places, none of this is done where it matters – the center of making foreign policy: the NSC (although the Bush Administration had started this in its last years). Neither is this done in embassies, where the foreign policy first-responders are located.

What happens when you are blindsided? You scramble. You are paralyzed while waiting for the leadership to chart a course. In this situation, you waste valuable time and you are extremely vulnerable. A crisis that tests every strategic assumption forces leadership to micromanage the situation, because the agencies can’t respond using any available playbook. Yet, the U.S. allows this to happen repeatedly, putting its government personnel and civilians at risk. Yet, experts outside the U.S. government had been calling for a serious reexamination of policy toward Egypt for years.

The National Security Council did not have a serious meeting until a Saturday morning four days after the protests began. The next Monday, when an outside expert they brought in said, “Please tell me you have contingencies in case Mubarak’s regime collapses,” an NSC staffer admitted they did not. It was not until Tuesday, after Ambassador Frank Wisner’s meeting with Mubarak, that the Obama Administration had shifted its tone to demanding Mubarak to go and began to examine seriously the steps to manage a changeover in the Egyptian government.

The administration then ratified the New START treaty and held an ambassadors conference at the State Department.

Snowstorms blanket the East Coast.

The demonstrations start to ebb. The administration softens its tone. Wisner makes a statement supporting Mubarak from which the State Department frantically retracts.

Then the demonstrations flair up when a freed Egyptian Google executive gives a television interview. The U.S. strikes a forceful tone again.

The best thing a strategist can do is address the underlying issues early so the crisis does not erupt. This is perhaps the most difficult part of American policymaking. U.S. policy is determined by habit more than strategy. Only a few issues, at the top of the President’s agenda, can be well managed. Engagement with the Muslim world, which was a priority at the beginning, slipped behind in this administration to habit. It took the toppling of a government at the pillar of U.S. strategy in the Middle East to force real change.

What other issues are building to a crisis? Cybersecurity? Food security? What natural disaster will we face? What will be the BP oil spill of 2011? Can we afford to continue reacting the same way? The status quo will not do.

Here are three things that would change the way we play the game:

A serious strategy process that incorporates foresight tools, so leaders can think, plan, and act several steps ahead, beyond the daily inbox. Instead of crises that drag the government to and fro, the U.S. can make major policy decisions early.

Use empowered teams – mini-NSCs of area and functional experts with real decision-making authority devoted to a single issue 24/7, rather than layers of overworked and unfocused committees full of generalists that slow down decisions. Holbrooke led a team like this in the Kosovo War. He tried with Afghanistan, but the policy structure constrained him. Such teams would ensure the U.S. government speaks with one voice and acts with a clear goal.

Budget for the strategy rather than the tactics. The U.S. budgets for programs like the Human Rights and Democracy Fund, which provides grants to the National Endowment for Democracy, which builds democracy in Egypt. This program works on the ground with the military, the CIA, development projects, and diplomats who have to carry out their own technical programs decided in separate budgets. Funding for these programs all flow from some nebulous process in Washington at department headquarters.

Instead, why not create a team and place it in the middle of shaping and funding the technical programs?

These solutions are not difficult to implement if done gradually. Although not ideal, they could even be implemented one at a time. The important thing is to start now. The government has done the best with what it has, and it is not enough.


Systemic Failure: Inside the U.S. government during a revolution in the Middle East

January 27, 2011

Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991) 179-180.

During most of 1978 senior officials of the Carter Administration had been distracted and preoccupied by other momentous and demanding developments: the Camp David peace accords with Egypt and Israel, strategic arms negotiations with the Soviets, normalization of relations with China. American policy had been based on the premise that Iran was a reliable ally and would be the Big Pillar in the region.  Out of deference to the Shah and because of the desire not to anger him, American officials had kept their distance from the various opponents of his regime, which meant that they lacked channels of communication to the emerging opposition.  There was not even any reporting to Washington on what the Ayatollah was actually saying on those by-now famous tapes.  Some in Washington insisted that the unrest in Iran was a secret, Soviet-orchestrated plot.  And, as always, there was the same question: What could the United States government do, whatever the case? Only a few American officials thought that the Iranian military could withstand the persistence of nationwide strikes and the defection of religiously minded soldiers.  Indeed, the last few months of 1978 saw a fierce bureaucratic battle over policy waged in Washington. How to bolster the Shah or assure continuity to a friendly successor regime? How to support the Shah without being so committed as to assure an antagonistic relationship with his successors, should he fall? How to disengage, if disengagement were required, without undermining the Shah, in case he could survive politically? Indecision and vacillation in Washington resulted in contradictory signals to Iran: The Shah should hang tough, the Shah should abdicate, military force should be used, human rights must be observed, the military should stage a coup, the military should stand aside, a regency should be established. “The United States never sent a clear, consistent signal,” one senior official recalled. “Instead of oscillating back and forth between one course of action and the other and never deciding, we would have done better to have flipped a coin and then stuck to a policy.” The cacophony from the United States certainly confused the Shah and his senior officials, undermined their calculations, and drastically weakened their resolve.  And no one in Washington knew how sick the Shah was…

So great was the lack of coherence that one senior official, who had been involved in every Middle Eastern crisis since the early 1960s, noted the “extraordinary” fact that the “first systematic meeting” at a high level on Iran was not convened until early November – very late in the day.  On November 9, William Sullivan, the American ambassador in Tehran, finally confronted the unpleasant realities in a dramatic message to Washington entitled “Thinking the Unthinkable.” Perhaps the Shah would not be able to survive after all, he said; the United States should begin to consider contingencies and alternatives.  But in Washington, where the bureaucratic battles continued to rage, there was no meaningful reaction, save that President Carter sent hand-written notes to his Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, Secretary of Defense, and Director of Central Intelligence to ask why he had not been previously informed of the situation inside Iran.  Ambassador Sullivan, meanwhile, came to the conclusion that the United States faced the situation in Iran “with no policy whatsoever.”

Winning The Future Requires National Security Transformation

January 26, 2011

By James R. Locher III, President and CEO

Like many Americans, I tuned in to watch the State of the Union Address last night. And beforehand, like most, I had several thoughts and anticipations on topics President Obama would choose to address. As the president and CEO of the Project on National Security Reform, I was pleased to see so many corresponding themes between the President’s vision for America and ways in which PNSR can help to advance America toward that vision.

The President was absolutely right, “the world has changed,” and we must change with it.  On many levels, this has already occurred. Individuals all over the nation have adapted to the changing pace and order of the current times. However, to make this change on a larger scale – the scale of government – will require much more effort and coordination…and undoubtedly, government transformation.

At PNSR, we often describe transformation with words like “innovation” and “reinvention”. Last night, the President chose these words as well.

He eloquently laid out the task ahead, and challenged us all with comments like:

“The future is ours to win.  But to get there, we can’t just stand still,” and

“That’s what Americans have done for over 200 years: reinvented ourselves.”

In my opinion, the single most telling excerpt from the State of the Union Address, was the following:

“We shouldn’t just give our people a government that’s more affordable. We should give them a government that’s more competent and more efficient. We can’t win the future with a government of the past.”

Our Declaration of Independence states, “governments are instituted among men to ensure these rights” (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness). How can we ensure these basic principles with such an outdated government structure, the largest component of which is our national security system?From domestic natural disasters to foreign policy, from the economy to education, and from terrorism to national infrastructure, these are all parts of our national security. Government transformation starts with transformation of our national security system.

I believe the way ahead is straightforward. We need effective strategic management, prioritized investment, a unifying culture, adaptive structures, and comprehensive accountability and oversight. An improved national security system would equip our nation and government to manage and overcome the complex and interconnected security challenges of the 21st century.

The president has provided a more detailed vision for transforming the national security system in the National Security Strategy with twelve organizational goals paralleling PNSR’s recommendations. PNSR has developed the specific steps that are necessary. What is needed now is the political will to make these difficult but imperative changes. It must be bipartisan campaign with both branches having important roles. The president will need to put action behind last night’s words. PNSR and others are ready to help with bold intellectual, political, and implementation ideas. We can’t win the future without transforming the national security system.

Empowering Our National Security Professionals

January 24, 2011

By Nancy Bearg, Senior Advisor and Study Director of The Power of People: Building an Integrated National Security Professional System for the 21st Century

Congressmen Geoff Davis, John Tierney, and James R. Locher III discuss the report

The power of people. It sounds like a political slogan, but in the context I’m about to describe, it is not. In this case, the power of people is about the way people who work in government on complex national security issues work together. It is fundamental to our national security.

It’s not just about cooperating or coming to agreement on policies and carrying them out, but rather collaborative approaches to handling the kinds of issues of today’s world, the kind that cut across government agencies and reach into state and local government. Think of terrorist threats, economic interdependence, Katrina and Haiti, conflict over scarce resources. It means preparing people specifically to do the work of the 21st century. It’s both perspective and skills brought together to find the best approaches.

PNSR long has talked about the need to transform the overall U.S. national security system. It is outdated and not integrated or strategically managed. It is stovepiped too often in perspective and in the way people work – mainly with the equities of their own organization in mind rather than a larger perspective.

In the 21st century, business as usual will not work, especially not with the precious resource that lies at the heart of promoting our national security and prosperity in a globalized world. This resource is people, specifically in this case National Security Professionals (NSPs) who have training and experience in collaborating in a whole-of-government effort.  These people exist, but there is not a system to recruit, train, and manage them, or even to facilitate communication.

Bill Navas, Catherine Dale, Pamela Aall, and Nancy Bearg

In our new report, The Power of People, PNSR has called for an Integrated National Security Professional system to be implemented in four stages over several years. It would build on current – but insufficiently robust – efforts to designate and train individuals for the cross-cutting tasks they must do in day-to-day or crisis assignments.

We can start by increasing training and education opportunities and beginning to set up the elements of a formal, integrated human capital system for this purpose. Is that doable? Yes, and one reason it is doable is that such a system for a cadre of NSPs would not replace or interfere with the current personnel systems, but rather would be an overlay.  And it is a small subset of our dedicated national security professionals here and abroad.

This issue is bipartisan. Indeed, last year a bipartisan bill was introduced by Representative Geoff Davis (R-KY) and former Representative Ike Skelton (D-MO) to set up such a system. There is continuing, active bipartisan interest on the Hill in this concept and in the recommendations of the PNSR report.

Packed audience at the Power of People event

PNSR looks forward to debate to move this issue forward in the interest of our national security – both in legislation and in increased efforts that can be made without legislation.

The power of people. It’s always important. In national security, it is foundational. And building an excellent cadre of National Security Professionals is something practical that can be done across party lines and without breaking the bank.

JFK and the Art of National Security

January 21, 2011

One of our senior associates, Christopher Holshek, wrote this for the Huffington Post:

The media commemorations of the inauguration of the 35th president of the United States this week range from the nostalgic and wistful to the hopeful. Many reflect on the past and what might have been, suggesting how much America has declined in the time between the first Catholic and first African-American chief executives. In that span of time, America went from number one in just about everything to number one in hardly anything. We look at our country and its international standing with an ever-growing sense of national insecurity.

Kennedy, of course, most represented the eternal and ethereal promise of American reinvention and renewal, as well as the belief in and participation of especially youth in government. Now as America finds its way in a very different world that makes, for example, his exhortation to us to “ask not… ” seem archaic and impossible to imagine being uttered today, we may wonder what there is of relevance that this president told us then that can help us approach this newest of frontiers, which Kennedy already recognized as more moral than physical.

There are calls for renewal of many kinds, among them to maintain our position of power by restoring the kind of economic and technological prowess that the United States enjoyed as it ushered in the era of the “military-industrial complex” Kennedy’s predecessor warned us about as he left office, and which persists today. As in response to Sputnik, we look to “strengthen education and human capital” and “enhance science, technology, and innovation” in order to preserve our economic competitiveness and prosperity, which the current National Security Strategy identifies as the “wellspring of American power.”

We should, however, also remember that the foundation of American strength is moral — it’s what we are about that makes us a unique force for good in the world. And that world we find ourselves in today is less about “hard” coercive power and more about “soft” persuasive influence, less about American dominance and more about American leadership, less about defending the country against threats and more about engaging partners and opportunities to find what we Americans famously call the “win-win.” It’s not just because these approaches are more appropriate in the interconnected world we Americans largely created; it’s because we are rapidly running out of the ability to pay to put soldiers on various corners of the globe indefinitely, looking for bad guys.

As a civil affairs soldier for more than a quarter-century, I intrinsically understood that security, especially the kind we must now create, was more a function of art than science. Even our most celebrated military leaders, such as Robert E. Lee and George Patton, were more artists in their trade, as Eisenhower and Marshall were soldier-statesmen. They were well aware of Napoleon’s famous dictum that, in their line of business, “the moral is to the physical as three is to one.”

Even in the business of economics this relationship is true. America’s greatest comparative advantage is no doubt the ability of its dynamic, multicultural society to create and innovate. Entrepreneurs are artists, and even the geekiest of inventors must think synthetically more than analytically to recognize a new way of doing things. And yet, this remains a nation that takes “experts” for granted and finds little to no (economic) value in philosophers and poets.

Just a few months before my retirement last year, I came across a remarkable speech Kennedy gave at Amherst after the passing of Robert Frost and less than a month before his own demise. What particularly caught my eye:

In America, our heroes have customarily run to men of large accomplishments… The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us… Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much… When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment… The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.

Although I have long felt we have overlooked the potency of our cultural strength and the role artists have played and must continue to play if the country is to remain viable and relevant in the world, I have never seen the connection between art and national security articulated in such a way. In our endeavor to again make America anew by, for example, bolstering our human capital through education and other incentives, as Kennedy realized, we would be wise to strike a more conscientious balance between builders and artists — both of which we will need to secure our place in a safe and prosperous world for generations to come. Builders make things; artists make sense of them. Builders bring things to form; artists contextualize them. Builders are conscientious of risk; artists are enamored with opportunity. Builders improve upon the past; artists create new futures.

And, as did Kennedy:

I look forward to a great future for America, a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future… I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all our citizens.And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.

Richard Holbrooke’s Great Legacy

December 14, 2010

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard C. Holbrooke meets with Pakistani NGO representatives and Punjab provincial government officials to discuss flood relief efforts and reconstruction plans in Multan, Pakistan, on September 16, 2010. (State Department photo/ Public Domain)

The United States lost a great public servant yesterday. People know Holbrooke by his larger-than-life personality and his talent and accomplishments as a diplomat taking on the toughest assignments.

I have admired Richard Holbrooke from a distance as I leafed through his old Foreign Policy article, “The Machine that Fails,” in which he described the organizational deficiencies of the State Department during Vietnam. We studied his practice of running small and agile interagency teams as he did in the Balkans and, most recently, with Afghanistan, and we recommended that these teams be created throughout the government.

The approach Holbrooke took was not easy. In many cases, he ran up against entrenched institutional habits. In the Balkans, he worked closely with General Wesley Clark while the Pentagon chiefs saw their closeness as an affront to process. With Afghanistan, Holbrooke seemed to be up or down every month. The issue was incredibly complex, and the cast was crowded with many players. In a way, only someone with Holbrooke’s forcefulness could keep these US policies integrated and the people together. That is why he is such a loss to us.

P.J. Crowley tweeted about Holbrooke yesterday, “Richard Holbrooke’s legacy is a combined military, civilian, regional and international strategy, focused on a common objective.”  That legacy has been our mission. We hope to see the Holbrooke approach become a common practice to deal with the panoply of national security challenges the United States will face in the 21st century.

What role should soft power play in 21st century national security?

December 13, 2010

With the QDDR release imminent, we asked the staff to give their thoughts on soft power. Here is what they had to say:

Chris Holshek: We need to rebalance hard and soft power

Dan Langberg: Resourcing and integrating America’s soft-power: A 21st century imperative

Jack LeCuyer: The QDDR must be a part of a larger strategy that integrates all our capabilities

Jim Locher: Soft power prevents costly conflict

Doug Orton: The 2014 QDDDR

Tom Rautenberg: Soft power means collaboration