National Security Policymakers—No Experience Necessary?

The United States possesses the most capable military in human history accompanied by the largest intelligence community in the world. The well-oiled machine that is our military-industrial complex underpins all other components of American national strength. Even with all of this power at our disposal, national security decisions with great ramifications are often made on the basis of executive summaries and PowerPoint briefings to congressional and executive branch officials–including presidents–who have little to no real national security experience of their own to draw on. Our leaders cannot properly defend America while learning about national security 45 minutes at a time. The learning curve is far too steep.

No Experience Necessary?

The President of the United States and U.S. Representatives and Senators, using history as a guide, are generally white males past middle age of above average wealth and education. They are most likely lawyers by training, clawed their way up through the ranks of one of the major political parties, held local, state, and national political offices, and served several years as a Congressman, Senator, or perhaps Governor.

On average, they have little to no military or national security experience, other than perhaps serving on related congressional committees or as commander of a state’s National Guard. This common lack of experience among our national leaders holds true even of presidents and congressmen who are not white, male, older, Christian, educated and rich. Lack of national security experience seems to be the common trait that our national leaders have in common, no matter their background. Yet they are the ultimate decision-makers for the most capable national security complex in the history of the world, all the way up to Commander in Chief. As the number of veterans in congress dwindles every year, it should not surprise us that we are struggling to form a coherent national strategy.

No person in their right mind would knowingly hire a dentist, a lawyer, a carpenter, or a plumber who has neither experience nor training. But America’s system elects leaders who are qualified for little else than winning elections.

Those involved in helping elected officials make security decisions update them on the full historical background, developments, and nuances of a complex international situation involving the interests of the United States and other countries that may have great implications for American national security. In this discussion, they must consider America’s national strategy, whether and how it should act, its goals if it does act, and how to achieve these goals using the specific tools—military, economic, diplomatic, and social—the country has to achieve them. The only tools for the briefing are an executive summary and a PowerPoint presentation, after which they must be prepared to answer detailed questions.

How the President’s daily window onto the world since the Kennedy administration—the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB)—is delivered depends upon their personal taste, issues they find most important, their desired level of detail, and determines which issues are left out as well as included. It is usually delivered in under an hour each day. Naturally, those, such as the Director of National Intelligence, who determine what the President is told and how and what he is not told are in a position of some power. They are responsible for building the President’s knowledge of the state of the world, especially if he has very little experience of his own to draw upon. Not all national security decision-making follows or is based upon such a complex process as the NIE. Nonetheless, the product of what may be weeks, months, or even years of work is often briefed to the President in blocks of 45 minutes at a time.

Before the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, President Kennedy only devoted 45 minutes at a time to briefings on the planning, conduct, and chances of success of the operation and later believed if he had understood the full picture and ramifications, he would never have approved it. Kennedy was a WWII veteran who initially served as a U.S. Navy intelligence officer. Some would argue—especially those without security experience—that this is proof such experience makes little difference. However, a more clear-eyed view would be that if someone with military and intelligence experience such as Kennedy could not spot the pitfalls or folly of such an operation following 45-minute briefings, what chance does someone who does not possess even that much experience have?

To the Election Victor Goes the Spoils

Though the smoke is still clearing over the imminent departure of Chuck Hagel from the Pentagon, it appears that Secretary of Defense, a former Republican and Vietnam veteran, was never accepted into the inner circle of decision-making at the White House. Hagel was supposed to simply preside over the final departure of U.S. troops from the Middle East, but instead has presided over a slowing of the withdrawal from Afghanistan and a return to military operations—against ISIS this time—in Iraq. That Hagel and America’s top Generals were at odds with the White House on Syria and Iraq was obvious almost from the beginning.

Much of America’s security policy in the post-9/11 era, spanning both Democratic and Republican administrations and multiple shifts in party control of congress, has been wrought with bipartisan policy failures that have outweighed military and intelligence successes. As Mark Lowenthal points out, we are always told about intelligence failures and policy successes, but never of intelligence successes and policy failures. The bin Laden raid, the Libyan intervention, and the targeted elimination of militants throughout the MENA region have been successes. However, these successes have been overshadowed by poor policy in Iraq and Afghanistan and the opportunity cost they represent which has left the U.S. looking impotent in the face of Russian aggression and put the “Asia Pivot” on hold.

Our military has performed valiantly in the face of great strain over the past decade, with 1% of the citizenry called upon to do all of the fighting. There are no signs it will let up soon. Despite all of Americans’ grumbling about elected leaders, Congress enjoys a re-election rateover 90% despite approval in the lower-teens. Congress agreed with the President that Iraq and Afghanistan should be invaded and America should stay until they were “secure and stable”, but they would not pay for civilian experts from places such as the State Department to help get the job done. Americans dislike “foreign aid.” So battle-hardened Marines and soldiers were called upon to fill the roles of aid workers, public works directors, sociologists, anthropologists, economists, and diplomats and managed to succeed in limited measures despite the impossibility of the task. Defense was forced to fill the hole left by State.

The limited successes America has experienced in the post-9/11 era show that our tools of national power still do work, it is just the decisions made by those who use them that are faulty. This is because they are operating them with no experience and they have not read the instruction manual. Working in national security is the necessary experience. The academic study of war and conflict is the instruction manual. No person in their right mind would knowingly hire a dentist, a lawyer, a carpenter, or a plumber who has neither experience nor training. But America’s system elects leaders who are qualified for little else than winning elections.

It is a no-brainer to say that national security decision-making is a complex task. Even with years of experience, academic study, or both it is still complicated. America’s premier national intelligence product—the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE)—has been likened to the final product of a complex machine that funnels the whole of the nation’s knowledge on a problem and then assembles it; validates it; interprets it; analyses it; condenses it, and; reports it to policymakers. Capabilities across the U.S. government in the intelligence community, the Departments of Defense, State, Justice, Homeland Security, Energy, Treasury, and others feed information through the estimative “machine” in order to develop a product. This product is checked and re-checked by those possessing relevant knowledge and experience within multiple organizations until it is judged fit for purpose. Inter-agency meeting are held to iron out differences and dissents.

After this complex and carefully-constructed process, the result of months or years of work by thousands of experienced, trained personnel, it ends up in the hands of presidents and congressmen who make decisions based upon a written synopsis and a 45-minute briefing. They do have staffers to help them. However, as is frequently lamented, the greatest qualification many possess is having worked on the campaign and then having stayed put, wearing their clearances and committee staff roles as qualification badges. As Kevin Parsneau found, presidents place “loyalty” above “experience” when it comes to choosing staff. Many career State Department Foreign Service Officers, often with decades of experience, lament working under political appointees who often have half their qualifications.

Many will argue that the American system was designed to ensure that civilian control over the security complex is maintained. This is true and it should be maintained. However, all of America’s founding fathers either served in the continental army during the revolution or supported the war effort diplomatically, all of them knowing from the moment they signed the Declaration of Independence that they would be hung if it failed. Today, leaders and their advisers who set troops up to fail get re-elected at no cost to themselves. George Washington set aside his uniform as America’s first military commander and its first spy chief to become its first president, but he did not set aside that experience.

Of recent note, the sequestration debacle, triggering untargeted, across-the-board cuts to defense spending, is further proof of Congress’ misguided understanding of national security. Congress is so broken as an institution that, knowing the parties could not reach an agreement on the budget, they agreed instead to place the added pressure upon one another to reach a compromise by setting this sequestration trap for themselves. They both believed that with defense spending on the line, the other party would cave.

Neither of them did. Congress played a game of chicken with the defense budget and both congressional Democrats and Republicans were willing to ride off the cliff together rather than work together. Now, as Army Chief of Staff Raymond Odierno points out, these military spending cuts are squeezing the defense budget just as more requirements are being placed upon it by the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, not to mention Russian aggression in Ukraine and the Asia Pivot. Congress is not only inexperienced when it comes to national security; it is also reckless and irresponsible.

America’s national security, especially in an era of great uncertainty, is too important to leave in the hands of amateurs. You cannot teach nor learn national security with an executive summary and a 45-minute briefing. We are often told that our leaders are surrounded with the best advisers. They are most often surrounded with those most loyal to them and those who tell them what they want to hear. To sort this mess out, going forward those without experience need not apply.

Chris Miller is a U.S. Army veteran and  Purple Heart recipient and has worked as a military contractor in the Middle East. His work currently focuses on strategic studies. His interests are CBRNe, military and veterans issues, the Cold War, and international security affairs.


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