The virtues of Pentagon envy

The virtues of Pentagon envy

By Will Inboden

There are few policy subjects more boring than the so-called “interagency process.” The quickest way to find yourself standing suddenly and awkwardly alone at a Washington cocktail party is to say something like “well, what I am really interested in is the reform of the interagency process within the national security infrastructure.” Even devoted policy professionals will quickly change the subject, if not flee your presence entirely (unless you happen to be at a party with any folks from this outfit, who will rush over to buy you a drink). Simply put, it is hard to muster much excitement or interest even within the Beltway, let alone outside the Beltway, for thinking about how the organizational processes of the various departments and agencies of the U.S. government function together to advance national security objectives. 

But just how, and how well, the U.S. government and its various agencies organize, plan for, and allocate resources to national security policy matters profoundly to the conduct of foreign and defense policy. And for anyone who doubts this, exhibit A on what can happen when the process doesn’t work is Iraq up through 2006, exhibit B is Afghanistan today, and exhibit C is any number of possible future interventions (cf. Pakistan, or Iran, or North Korea, or Sudan, or…).

So Secretary Clinton’s announcement on Friday that the State Department and USAID will conduct a “Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review” (QDDR) is significant. Modelled on the Pentagon’s “Quadrennial Defense Review” (QDR), the QDDR will, in Secretary Clinton’s words, be

a tool to provide us with both short-term and long-term blueprints for how to advance our foreign policy objectives and our values and interests. This will provide us with a comprehensive assessment for organizational reform and improvements to our policy, strategy, and planning processes.

Overall, this is a noteworthy and laudable initiative, and has the real potential to strengthen how American foreign policy is made. But there are also a few looming pitfalls. Herewith some thoughts on the good, the bad, and the ugly of the QDDR.

The good:

•    The QDDR might elevate strategic planning at the State Department and USAID. In other words, the QDDR might actually work. It has become a truism that the State Department almost ignores long-term planning about emerging threats, challenges, and opportunities, and instead remains myopically stuck in day-to-day relationship management with other nations. Likewise USAID spends too much time as a contracting agency shackled by Congressional earmarks and merely administering development dollars around the world. The QDDR could force new and creative thinking about global trends and State and USAID’s roles in shaping them.

•     The QDDR might better integrate policies with resources, and State with USAID. Though the Secretary of State ostensibly has authority over USAID, in practice State and USAID have too little integration, so that State’s diplomatic priorities are often not reflected in USAID’s resource allocation. 

•    The QDDR might link State and USAID more closely with the Pentagon. One problem revealed most acutely by the early post-conflict reconstruction failures in Iraq and Afghanistan is the severe disparities between the State Department and the Pentagon in culture, capabilities, and resources. Having State and USAID go through a similar review process, simultaneously with the Pentagon, could begin to bridge this gap. Otherwise, in former Policy Planning Director Steve Krasner’s vivid formulation, “to meet 21st century foreign policy challenges, we might just need to create a new cabinet agency that sits in the middle of the Potomac River” (er, in other words, combining the functions of State, USAID, and the Pentagon).

•     The QDDR makes academic research relevant to policy. The QDDR concept seems to have its roots at least in part in the Princeton Project on National Security, co-chaired by then-Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School, and now State’s Director of Policy Planning, Anne-Marie Slaughter. More avenues are needed to bring such scholarly research from universities into the policy world; the QDDR could be a good start.

The bad:

•    The QDDR risks disregarding other vital elements of national power and security policy. There is much more to foreign policy than just diplomacy and development. Trade policy, fiscal policy, energy policy, and intelligence, for starters, all play major roles in the exercise of national power. As I have written previously, the “3 D’s” may have alliterative appeal but it is a less accurate and less comprehensive acronym than, say, “DIME” used at the Pentagon for the different elements of national power: diplomacy, intelligence, military, and economic. More practically, what role will the Treasury Department, the U.S. Trade Representative, the Intelligence Community, the Energy Department, and the Commerce Department have in the QDDR process? And if they have little or no role, how can the QDDR be a credible assessment of resources and strategy?

•    Where’s the National Security Council? The NSC is supposed to coordinate and lead all departments and agencies behind a common policy. But other than an obligatory nod towards “coordinating with the interagency process,” Clinton’s announcement of the QDDR asserts that State will control it, and leaves unclear what if any role the NSC would play in the QDDR process.  Given the endemic differences between State and DoD, it is plausible that the new QDDR could construct even taller stovepipes separating defense from diplomacy and development. To take just one plausible example, what if in the next QDR, the Pentagon identifies China as America’s most likely peer-competitor threat, whereas in the QDDR State identifies China as a strategic partner for the United States? Only leadership, coordination, and yes, control of the process by the NSC can prevent such bureaucratic contradictions and strategic incoherence.  

The ugly:

•    The QDDR risks being, as Mark Twain would put it, “chloroform in print.”  Secretary Clinton described the QDDR as a “bottom-up review.” On a good day this means that input will be solicited far and wide from every embassy and bureau, the people in the field and in the trenches who best understand their patch of turf. On a bad day (which happen more often in government) it means that the QDDR will be a stale, written-by-committee laundry list of bureaucratese that avoids difficult trade-offs and lacks strategic coherence. Even if it is a “bottom-up review,” it will need a firm hand from the top to succeed, and ideally one principal official who controls the writing process.

•    What about the National Security Strategy? The Goldwater-Nichols Act, the law which mandated the QDR, also directed each Administration to produce a National Security Strategy (NSS).  The NSS is the only strategy document which brings all elements of national power into a coherent and integrated framework of policy priorities.  The besetting weakness of the NSS is that it is not linked to budget authority and resource allocation.  Because the QDR and QDDR both ostensibly tie policies with resources, they have more immediate relevance.  So here’s an idea for the White House, which others have suggested but bears repeating: why not fold the QDR and the QDDR into the National Security Strategy, and produce a genuinely integrated, whole-of-government National Security Strategic Review?