What Reformers Miss about "Whole Of Government" Solutions to National Security

Throwing the entire government at a problem can sometimes do more harm than good.

Pop quiz: How can Washington get America to a better place in the world?

A) Recognize that government the root of all evil.

B) Recognize that government is the solution to every problem.

C) “Just do something” and hope for the best.

Listening to the political discussion, it may seem like these are the only three options, with A being embraced by the right, B by the left and C by the administration.

There has to be a better answer, though. And there is:

D) Focus on the greatest challenges to national security, then fix the organizations and undertake the activities most critical to reducing or eliminating those threats. (Note to the administration: we’re not talking about climate change.)

Twenty-first-century Washington has not been very adept at managing mayhem. The best guiding idea it’s been able to muster so far has been the “whole-of-government approach,” and that has turned out to be more of an anchor.

In the wake of 9/11 and America’s early troubles in Iraq, Washington adopted this approach, insisting that the integrated and complementary employment of all elements of national power was the new answer for every problem. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey made it his mantra. “The phrase ‘whole of government’ is not just desirable—it’s actually imperative,” he declared in an interview reflecting on his tenure of service.

Dempsey is right to insist that power other than hard power does matter. But, the term “whole of government” obfuscates what government needs to do to do better.

“Whole of government” suggests not only that government is the answer, but that all of government needs to be involved in solving the problem. Both propositions are demonstrably false.

There are times, for example, when less government intervention is the right course. U.S. energy policy is a case in point. There is a strong argument that the best energy policy for strengthening American national security would be deregulating government controls. In other cases, non-governmental, private-sector efforts can actually deliver a more effective response than government can, even in cases directly impacting national security matters.

And when there is a need for a mixed national hard/soft power response, asking everybody to play and play equally often delivers just as much mayhem as not asking everybody to play. Post-conflict operations in Iraq offer a prime example of this phenomenon.

There, the State Department, the United States Agency for International Development and the Pentagon all tried to lead efforts to rebuild the country. The result was chaos. Rather than have all of government blast away at a problem in shotgun fashion, a more modest and focused strategy might have worked far better.

There are other reasons why pursuing a “whole of government” approach may be problematic. For starters, not everyone thinks big government is a good idea. Promoting such an approach prompts concerns over more intrusive government, more government waste, more government red tape and more ceding of power to political and moneyed elites. For those worried about the size and reach of government, a foreign policy version of Obamacare is a turn off.

Further, emphasizing a “whole-of-government” approach makes the prospects of reform seem overwhelmingly unmanageable. That was certainly one lesson to take away from the Project on National Security Reform that started in 2006. After years of effort, massive reports, and conferences conducted by a bipartisan “guiding coalition” that read like a Who’s Who of Washington’s security mavens, the effort achieved nothing. In part, the problem was the daunting ambition of the effort that tried to dictate restructuring virtually every aspect of the national security apparatus from top to bottom. It was all too much to take in, let alone have a coherent debate about the merits of the proposal. Arguably, a similar multi-year project undertaken by the Center for Strategic and International Studies suffered from similar shortfalls.

It is not surprising that sweeping efforts to rewrite government would founder under the enormousness of the task. Over two million civilians work for the federal government, with five out of six toiling within sight of the Washington Monument. Add to that about three million military in uniform. Together, that’s a workforce bigger than the world’s five largest publicly traded employers—one that exceeds the total population of most countries.

“Today, more than two dozen federal departments and agencies spend a combined total of over $600 billion a year on more than 200 intergovernmental grant programs for state and local governments,” writes John Dilulio. He goes on to note that “Washington also spends over $500 billion a year on contracts with for-profit firms. About a third of the nonprofit sector’s more than $2 trillion in annual revenues now flows from some government source.” That is too much for any one president to reform all at once.