The interagency process (IAP) is the process by which national security policy issues are identified, options formulated, and decisions made at the appropriate level, by or on behalf of the President of the United States (POTUS). So much has been written about the IAP---its problems and possible fixes---that many ideas have become almost commonplace. One such idea is that the IAP is broken. While regarded by many analysts as less than desirable, the IAP is functional. Given the realities of non-state actors, failing states, transnational terrorism, and globalization---all potential drivers for conflict involving the United States---the IAP cannot be simply abandoned; the IAP must be reformed to produce better, more viable options for the POTUS. The IAP at the strategic level can be improved by instituting leadership and accountability, and by establishing permanent interagency planning teams.
The POTUS and the departments and agencies concerned with national security use the IAP to coordinate policy. Tensions, conflicts, and inefficiencies will always be part of the IAP due to the nature of bureaucracies in the American style of representative government. The IAP at the strategic level is built on a committee system. Below the National Security Council (NSC) are three levels of interagency committees responsible for the formulation and execution of national security policy---but since there is no overall authority to ensure the IAP works efficiently, below the POTUS, it can often become captive to the latest perceived crisis. According to a senior uniformed official with experience on the NSC, the council is a “responsive organization”---not proactive---and long-term planning, when it can be done, encompasses only one to three years. Strategists should be looking out ten to twenty years, to see significant trends in the instruments of national power and changes in regional dynamics.
The IAP is and will likely remain politicized, reflecting Pearlman’s model of decentralized power in a pluralist society. Unlike other forms of government, the POTUS must deal with the problems that arise from multiple centers of power, including Congress and civilian interest groups, in the formulation of national policy and strategy. The American form of pluralist democracy---where many voices are allowed to be heard, leading to compromise---tends to produce inconsistent and ambiguous policy. The NSC is a tool the POTUS can use to manage the pluralist environment of national policy making, but the NSC wields no independent authority. Strategists must be prepared for the constant tumult involved in formulating national security policy in a pluralist democracy.
The IAP, which can be traced back to the 1947 National Security Act, has inherent strengths. Because the overall national security decision making process is so complex, involving so many organizations and competing interests, it is important that the United States Government (USG) is capable of effective collaboration---the primary purpose of the IAP. The IAP is necessary to build cross-departmental consensus and to vet policy options. Strategists should accept that the IAP, though imperfect, is flexible while still allowing for detailed vetting and coordination between the departments and agencies that will be required to execute policy. When the IAP works it produces policy that is balanced with strategy and supports balanced ends, ways, and means.
The IAP suffers from limitations that must be addressed for the USG to best integrate the instruments of national power. The significant problems to emerge from post-conflict stability operations in Iraq since 2003 have sparked new discussions about reforming the IAP. The war in Iraq has been portrayed as a lesson in failing to integrate instruments of national power from the start of hostilities. According to a senior Joint Staff official, too often the civilian organizations of the IAP allow it to “breakdown.” Moreover, according to a senior Defense Department official, the IAP is still not producing the ideal range of viable options for the POTUS. Because the IAP functions more as a team of equals than a hierarchical organization, with no overriding authority other than the POTUS, it often produces disjointed or inadequate policy, especially when major IAP actors disagree.
The IAP faces serious challenges beginning with the well-documented problem of information (and intelligence) sharing, especially between Department of Defense (DOD) and Department of State (DOS). As suggested by organizational behavior theory---and the concept of bureaucratic self-interest---both DOD and DOS are reluctant to surrender a valuable asset like information with no obvious corresponding gain. Even within the DOS, it is not uncommon for competing regional and functional agendas to “immobilize” the department. The IAP is thoroughly political---revolving around questions of power and turf---and can fail because of interagency rivalry. The IAP is also hampered because of differing planning cultures between DOD and DOS.
DOD contains the most extensive national security planning capability and capacity, even though its detailed planning methods are not always welcome by civilian agencies. The increase in so-called complex operations---involving closely interwoven combat and non-combat activities such as strengthening governance and restoring basic services---suggests the military’s role in the IAP will only become more frequent in the future. Despite the immense capabilities of DOD, Ike Skelton has reminded us that Congress ultimately is responsible for ensuring the military is prepared to execute its mission; ultimately Congress decides national strategy by controlling the means made available to the military. Strategists must understand the delicate division of responsibility between the POTUS, executive agencies, and military, who set ends and ways, and Congress, responsible for allocating means.
Some members of DOS see themselves as a relatively small cadre of highly trained, highly specialized diplomats, not an ‘army’ of humanitarians. DOS has no detailed planning culture. Plans are often only budgeting documents. According to a senior Joint Staff official, DOS follows a pattern of “budget-to-mission.” Given the propensity for DOS to plan only when directed and for resource-focused purposes, it is perhaps not surprising that far more calls for reforming and improving the IAP have come from various corners of DOD than from DOS. Analysts such as Gabriel Marcella have long pointed to coordination problems between DOD and DOS. Strategists will need to be fully aware of these conflicts and be ready to transcend them, and guide senior decision makers to transcend them, especially during actual crisis response.
There is a long history of identifying problems with the IAP and proposing detailed changes to improve the process, but very little has actually been done since the strategic shock of 9/11 prompted the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Reform of the IAP will only occur if the executive branch and Congress can agree on a set of recommendations and work together to achieve them. The POTUS should work with senior members of Congress involved with national security to convene a bipartisan study of how to reorganize and improve operations and accountability within the IAP. Although many studies and research projects from various think tanks, war colleges, the Congressional Research Service, and the Government Accountability Office, as well congressional testimony, already exist and should not be discounted, a comprehensive study of the issue is still needed. Two proposals should be considered: creating definitive leadership within the IAP and creating permanent IAP staffs.
If there is no overall body responsible for the IAP, given the politicized environment within executive agencies, then there will always be incentives for bypassing the process. The POTUS should create a Director of National Security Policy (DNSP) within the NSC, responsible for policy development and overseeing implementation of national security strategies. The DNSP would report to Congress annually on the implementation of national strategic documents including the National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and National Military Strategy. Something similar has been proposed---a Director of National Security Operations---but a Director of National Security Policy would focus more on overseeing consensus building for policy options, and less on specific policy implementation. The IAP is the framework for unity of USG action. If the IAP fails to plan for the integrated application of all instruments of national power, the USG will probably fail to exercise all instruments. Army strategists will be marginalized to the degree that they are unable to comprehend and contribute to a highly politicized, essentially resource-driven process of translating ends into policy and policy into strategy.
DOD and DOS have very different planning cultures (objectives-to-resources and resources-to-objectives, respectively) which complicate the IAP. Standing regional IAP teams should be created, made up of military and civilian planners that plan continuously and form an IAP core planning cell during crisis response. Organization of the regional IAP teams could be modeled on existing country teams. Although regional interagency working groups have been proposed before, within the NSC in Washington, DC, this proposal focuses on the operational level, in the regions critical to national security such as the Middle East and Latin America. Close and regular planning interaction between the civilian and military planners who would be involved in the IAP post-crisis will improve cultural cross-talk and efficiency, as well as support longer-term planning to address transnational threats. The IAP should be granted more planning resources and authorities, although authority to implement policy should still be kept very limited.
To face new and emerging threats the USG will need to better integrate the instruments of national power. Strategists should understand that the national security policy making process is based on the American political framework of decentralized centers of power, and a system of shared and competing powers across multiple institutions. For strategists to be as effect as possible in working for and advising senior military leaders, especially in dealing with the National Security Staff and Congress, they must understand the strengths and limitations of the current IAP and know how to work effectively within a system based on consensus-building. Strategists can be the bridge that connects the decentralized power centers of national security policy making with the effective integration of all instruments of national power.
1. See John O’Neil, Interagency Process—Analysis and Reform Recommendations, Strategy Research Project (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College, March 15, 2006).
2. Briefing with confidential source, National Security Council, Washington, DC, July 18, 2011.
3. Michael D. Pearlman, Warmaking and American Democracy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999), 13, 29.
4. John C. Vara, “National Security and the Interagency Enterprise: A Critical Analysis,” in Preparing for an Era of Persistent Conflict, ed. Tammy S. Schultz (Quantico, VA: Marine Corps University, 2010), 32.
5. Christopher J. Lamb with Charles D. Lutes, M. Elaine Bunn, and Christopher Cavoli, “Transforming Defense Strategy and Posture,” in Strategic Challenges: America’s Global Security Agenda, eds. Stephen J. Flanagan and James A. Schear (Washington, DC: National Defense University, 2008), 302.
6. Briefing with confidential source, Joint Staff, Washington, DC, July 20, 2011.
7. Briefing with confidential source, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Washington, DC, July 20, 2011.
8. Douglas C. Edwards, 21st Century Interagency Process, Research Report (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air Command and Staff College, April 2006), 22.
9. U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, Road Map for National Security: Imperative for Change (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, February 2001), 59.
10. Ike Skelton, Whispers of Warriors: Essays on the New Joint Era (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 2004), 49.
11. Briefing with confidential source, Joint Staff, Washington, DC, July 20, 2011.
12. See Gabriel Marcella, “National Security and the Interagency Process: Forward into the 21st Century,” in U.S. Army War College Guide to Strategy, eds. Joseph R. Cerami and James F. Holcomb, Jr. (Carlisle: PA: U.S. Army War College, 2001), 107-126.
13. Clark A. Murdock and Richard W. Weitz, “Beyond Goldwater-Nichols: New Proposals for Defense Reform,” Joint Force Quarterly 38 (July 2005): 40.
14. The proposal for a Director of National Security Operations can be found in Gregory M. Martin, Enhancing American Interagency Integration for the Global War on Terrorism, Strategy Research Project (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College, March 15, 2006).
15. Standing regional IAP teams would address the issue of improving planning interoperability across DOD and DOS. A more radical proposal to establish Joint Interagency Commands (JIACOMs) can be found in Jeffery Buchanan, Maxie Y. Davis, and Lee T. Wight, “Death of the Combatant Command? Toward a Joint Interagency Approach,” Joint Force Quarterly 52 (1st Quarter 2009): 92-96.
16. See Gregg E. Gross, Interagency Reform for the 21st Century, Strategy Research Project (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College, March 15, 2006).
- “A nation is only as strong as its people. To ensure national strength there must be adequate military forces, properly equipped to repel any attacks upon our sovereignty, and such forces must be backed up by a well organized civilian population of high morale which can produce all the necessities for carrying on modern warfare. This unity of military and civilian strength will be only as strong as its weakest component, therefore, we must ensure that all parts of this combination are equally strong.” --- Admiral Chester W. Nimitz quoted in Military Review 27, no. 10 (January 1948): 11.