Contra Rothkopf

David Rothkopf’s belief that the national-security structure is sound—articulated in his article in the May/June National Interest—is mistaken. We ne

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: