PICKERING: Security threats cut across party lines

COMMENTARY:

Democratic campaign ads and speeches tell us Sen. Barack Obama will do great things to protect America from dangers foreign and domestic. Republicans are telling us the same about Sen. John McCain. But neither a President Obama nor a President McCain will be able to take on all of America’s national security challenges single-handedly. No one could.

Our next president will have to deal with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, global terrorism, Iranian and North Korean nuclear ambitions, the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a resurgent Russia as evidenced by its invasion of Georgia, China’s growing economic and military might, and much more. And inevitably, new crises will arise.

To handle all this, President McCain or President Obama will have to rely heavily on White House assistants, cabinet secretaries and agency heads, military leaders and the other roughly 4 million Americans serving the nation in the armed forces and in civilian federal agencies working on national security.

Selecting outstanding individuals to fill leadership posts will be important and necessary, but not sufficient to deal with these mounting challenges.

How this diverse group of public servants is organized and operates to protect our nation is no longer just a question for doctoral theses and grad school seminars. It is a vitally important for America’s and the world’s future.

You can evaluate our national security system by asking some basic questions: Do the agencies tasked with protecting our country cooperate as a team? Do they respond rapidly, creatively and effectively to unforeseen crises? Can they anticipate and nip trouble in the bud?

Unfortunately, too often the answer to these questions is “no.” That’s because the U.S. national security system - a bureaucratic infrastructure created by legislation enacted in 1947 - is outdated, ineffective and broken. Fixing it should be the top priority for our next president and Congress. These are not just my personal views. They are the findings of a nonprofit and nonpartisan group: the Project on National Security Reform.

The project enlisted more than 300 experienced practitioners, experts and analysts from think tanks, universities, the private sector and government to conduct more than 100 case studies. They produced the most comprehensive evaluation of America’s national security system since President Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947 into law.

In a Preliminary Findings Report issued at the end of July that was mandated and funded by Congress, the Project on National Security Reform said many of the national security threats we face today require departments and agencies to work as partners. But the report said the national security system fails to make interagency cooperation easy or mandatory. Agencies resist sharing information and looking beyond their parochial interests.

Frequent jurisdictional disputes between Cabinet secretaries and other agency heads force the president to spend too much time settling internal fights, waste time and money on duplicative and inefficient actions, and slow down government responses to crises. Because congressional committees focus oversight on individual agencies, it is difficult for those agencies to coordinate their activities and budgets to work together.

The president must too often play traffic cop to untie bottlenecks and deal with the most urgent matters of the day, instead of focusing on the big picture and vitally necessary strategic planning for the medium and longer-term future. The absence of such planning is responsible for some of the difficulties America has encountered in Iraq.

Another problem is the increasing number of political appointees who serve only briefly in top national security posts, creating revolving-door and frequently inexperienced leadership. High-level jobs are often left vacant for months at a time due to a lengthy confirmation process by Congress, and many occupants of these posts don’t serve long enough to acquire vital on-the-job experience.

Because many senior positions go to political appointees, government has a harder time recruiting and retaining career employees, who should be able to aspire to leadership roles.

The study also found Congress is increasingly polarized along political party lines on vital national security issues. The prevailing view of several decades ago that Democrats and Republican should work together to forge a bipartisan foreign and security policy is as outdated as the rotary telephone or the manual typewriter.

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