Rothkopf Retorts

In an ongoing debate, author David Rothkopf issues a rebuttal to his critics at PNSR. Rothkopf says the national-security apparatus needs to work on solving

Thanks for the kind words about my article. Since it would be bad drill (or self-defeating) to take issue with any of them, let me focus on a few areas of divergence in our perspectives.

First, you say I pay some backhanded compliments to the Project on National Security Reform (PNSR). This is untrue. I pay sincere compliments to the PNSR. I also offer some sincere criticisms. A backhanded compliment is something different. It's more like saying, "you don't look as fat as usual today." Whenever people say this to me, I don't find it flattering. But there was none of that in my article.

This is not just a flip comment (although it's flip enough, to be sure). Rather, it is an effort to clear the air of snark before addressing any substantive points. There is snark in the comments offered by Mr. Lamb and Mr. Orton, and it doesn't much help their arguments (entertaining asides are, of course, a whole other story). For example when they say that "it would be easy to lampoon Rothkopf's suggestion for improving policy advice to the president" they imply they are not going to sink to anything so base as lampooning and then nonetheless go on to actually lampoon (if awkwardly and not very effectively). With regard to what they lampoon, I have no objection when they note that improving policy advice to the president is not much of a suggestion (although its always a good idea) or that the point is often made. Of course it is. Good policy is, as noted policy specialist Martha Stewart would say, a good thing. If that were my only point or my main point, the shot would be worth taking. But that's not the case, so the shot seems a bit gratuitous.

One key point of mine with which they take issue is that I just don't think that given the current global situation faced by this president, now is the right time to devote too much attention to revamping the org chart of the national-security system. Hence the "tank in the cul de sac" analogy. There is a time to tend to the garden . . . just not when a seventy-ton battle tank is driving through the azaleas. Or, to step away from the metaphor out of deference to those with a seasonal aversion to allusions to garden chores, just not when imminent threats suggest other actions ought to get top priority.

Right now, I think the system will do just fine. In fact, I think, for the most part, it is doing just fine in difficult conditions. Ultimately, do I think we could do with a streamlined, more efficient system-the combination of "good leadership, good organizations (and) good policy and strategy advice" they aspire to? Naturally. The question is whether the system demands a revamp at just this moment of two wars (one of them metastasizing into a potential breakdown of reliable controls over nuclear weapons in the country with the fastest growing nuclear-weapons program in the world), a global recession, a climate crisis, a pandemic, and countless other challenges that each individually would test most other U.S. administrations in history.

Further, of course, we get to what Messrs. Lamb and Orton themselves argue is the core issue: "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." Of course, this is, as they must know, a false choice. There is actually no fault line there. The system could use some improvement, but simultaneously be basically sound (from a structural perspective). Indeed, I would argue that must actually be the position of the folks at PNSR, since the changes they prescribe are hardly, in my estimation, fundamental. They are many and myriad, some are even important, but the basic structure, purpose and goals of the national-security apparatus remain the same.

This leads me to the comment in their response that is most objectionable to me personally and also the one that reveals the central problem faced by the PNSR. They write that I am "either confused about the difference between America's national security and political systems or PNSR's mandate." First, of all, I think they misunderstand the connections between America's national-security system and its political system if they think it can be so easily disconnected just to fit the mandate of some commission. Our biggest national-security problem right now is the breakdown in our financial engine room-and if you don't think that's linked to problems in our political system, you're not paying attention. If you don't think our wasteful defense spending or inclination to do the bidding of the oil industry is linked to our political system, if you don't think our support for certain governments and opposition to others is linked to our political system . . . well, you get the idea. Maybe it's not that I'm confused by the difference between our national-security and political systems . . . maybe it's that I don't accept the idea that there is a difference between them.

As for the idea I don't understand their mandate, I do. I actually met with their group, as they know. The point is that the article was about how the national-security system was functioning-and that meant to me viewing the totality of factors impacting it. This may have given me more latitude than they had, and if it does, it suggests to me a defect in their mandate. But such issues are actually beyond my mandate. Which I set for myself. If you know what I mean.