The Crisis-Prevention Directorate

May 21, 2014 Topic: The Presidency Region: United States

The Crisis-Prevention Directorate

The president's National Security Council staff will increasingly be in the business of predicting the future. A new crisis-prevention methodology and a staff to help oversee it would be ideal.

GJP’s methods demonstrate the real potential for the NSC staff to harness social science to improve forecasting accuracy, especially for events over the period of a year or two. While no crystal ball will ever be perfect, uniting the forecasting methods being developed by social science with the deep expertise of subject-matter experts has the potential to deliver new, more accurate and important information to the president on likely trouble spots around the globe.

Preventing Redundant Bureaucracies

A small crisis-prevention team at the NSC would have a different remit than the policy planning and strategic planners currently spread out across the Pentagon, White House and State Department. (One of the authors was a member of Secretary Clinton’s Policy Planning Staff, and the other worked on the 2014 QDR, among other projects, at the Pentagon last year.) Crisis-prevention work is not strategic planning, which is often focused on large strategy documents that try to reshape agencies and bureaucracies and signal resource implications. Crisis-prevention staffers would need to avoid being recruited to staff the QDR, QDDR or National Security Strategy drafting processes.

Moreover, crisis-prevention staffers would not be duplicating the work of the Intelligence Community bodies, such as the National Intelligence Council. Unlike intelligence analysts, crisis preventers would have to assess potential regions and states prone to instability while also analyzing the policy implications of such instability, and what steps may mitigate the likelihood of crisis. Intelligence analysts, including those working on long-scope papers, are not in the business of offering policy recommendations.

The final challenge, of course, is how the rest of the bureaucracy would react to this team of highly empowered staff with a very important job and the ear of the president, via a direct chain of command to the National Security Advisor. The insecurities and jealousies latent within any bureaucracy could emerge to limit the effect of such a group. Ideally, however, if the crisis-prevention chain of command was regular, consistent, effective and methodologically informed, and if the staffers were personally respectful and cooperative with those responsible for managing regional relationships and executing existing policies, the latter group would grow accustomed to their colleagues. In particular, combining modern social-science methods with the expert knowledge of crisis-prevention personnel could help demonstrate a track record of success that would eventually give the crisis-prevention team enough bureaucratic throw weight to influence policy discussions. And over time, success would be measured by the degree of collaboration between a crisis preventer trying to warn about disruptive events in Mali, Ukraine, and elsewhere and those responsible for regional policies at the State Department and the Pentagon. The latter cohort are concerned about the long-term events, but are often forced to focus on the short-term, relationship-management imperatives.

The crisis preventers would not be responsible for executing policy decisions. If their work was successful, however, it would influence the policy outcomes by helping set the agenda of the principals or deputies committee meeting on a given topic. In particular, the quarterly memos would remind senior officials that there are latent risks entailed in maintaining America’s policy status quo in countries where there is no crisis today, nor even a perception of instability or danger.

Dafna H. Rand is the Deputy Director of Studies and the Leon E. Panetta Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). She is a former member of the National Security Council staff.

Michael Horowitz is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is an Investigator on the Good Judgment Project, and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at CNAS.