Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

New war job has familiar ring

"Execution manager" has duties that should rest with the National Security Council.

Steven Andreasen

teaches at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs

The latest scheme by the Bush administration to manage the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan involves creating a post of "execution manager" to develop "clearly assigned responsibility, deadlines, performance metrics (as appropriate) and a system of accountability to ensure progress," according to a recent story in the Washington Post.

Creating a mechanism at the White House to assist the president in managing national security is not new. Indeed, Congress created just such a mechanism in 1947: the National Security Council, or NSC, led since the Eisenhower era by a national security adviser. Moreover, the idea that the national security adviser would need a forceful staff that could act in the president's name had, in recent administrations, been a given.

What's alarming to many NSC veterans is that it has taken the Bush administration six-plus years to realize the imperative for a strong NSC to manage the nation's foreign and defense policies. What this sad episode illustrates is the need to rebuild and strengthen the NSC staff - the sooner, the better.

To start, the national security adviser must be more than a "close confidant" of the president - the role that apparently was reserved for current adviser Steve Hadley's predecessor, Condoleezza Rice. Rice was by all accounts "personally close" to President Bush, who used her as a sounding board throughout his first term.

Every president needs a sounding board - indeed, more than one - and the national security adviser can and should help play that role. But our next president would be well advised to choose a national security adviser with the experience and inclination to challenge the president's fundamental assumptions, something that appears to have been lacking during much of the Bush presidency.

More important, the president will need to reinvest the national security adviser and staff with the responsibility and authority to perform the essential tasks envisioned when the post was created: policy coordination and implementation.

In 2001, Bush made the fundamental decision, either by accident or design, to permit his cabinet secretaries - in particular, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld - tremendous autonomy. As a result, it was almost impossible for national security policy to be coordinated from the White House. In the absence of central coordination, intelligence estimates on crucial issues such as weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were largely unquestioned. Relevant agencies were at times cut out of policy-making - witness the State Department's episodic involvement in the development of policies on the treatment of detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq. And effective government-wide planning was made impossible, underscored by the absence of a postwar plan for Iraq.

While the tension between central coordination and cabinet autonomy are not new in the 60-year history of the NSC, the Bush administration's experiment in divestiture should prove conclusively that the risks of a weak NSC far outweigh any downsides of policy coordination centered firmly in the White House.

To effectively coordinate and carry out policy from the White House and mediate among competing agencies, the next national security adviser will need the president's backing to play the role of disciplinarian.

The next president should make clear from the outset that when the national security adviser calls, those phone calls get returned. One of the more enlightening revelations by journalist Bob Woodward was that Rice found that Rumsfeld, at times, would not return her phone calls when, as national security adviser, she had questions about war planning or troop deployments.

More broadly, the next national security adviser must have both the authority and willingness to discipline the bureaucracy when presidential directives are ignored, when the established NSC-centered process is circumvented, or when information is withheld.

Finally, the national security adviser and the president must maintain effective responsibility for the big-ticket items on the nation's agenda. By any measure, that includes war, as in Iraq and Afghanistan. No matter how many "execution managers," that is where the buck stops.