Stars in their eyes

Stars in their eyes

Some readers wonder if I’m exaggerating the general cluelessness — with regard to military matters — of civilians on the National Security Staff. I wish. There are plenty of impressive exceptions — there are military detailees on the NSS, for instance, as well as retired military and civilians with DoD experience, but on the whole, cluelessness seemed fairly rampant during my two executive branch stints.

Another example: Frustrated at the "lack of traction with the military" on a particular issue, a senior NSS official sought my advice: "There’s this general who comes to our meetings and he sits there and nods, but nothing ever seems to happen."

I asked for the general’s name, and looked him up. Turned out that he worked in the manpower and personnel directorate of the Joint Staff, and his portfolio had nothing to do with the issue my colleague was concerned about. My NSS colleague wasn’t getting any traction with "the military" because the wrong guy was at the meetings (what he was doing there, I don’t know). It was the equivalent of wondering why someone working in human resources wasn’t fixing a manufacturing or marketing problem.

"Oh," said my NSS friend said — a little sheepishly — upon hearing this. "I was just happy to have a guy with a star on his shoulder at our meetings."

Those guys with the stars on their shoulder aren’t interchangeable. Granted, there’s no reason for a senior civilian official to memorize the Joint Staff’s organization chart. (Plenty of military people don’t know it, either). But it helps to know that there is an org chart.

None of this is meant to knock the intelligence, dedication or general good sense of those civilians who don’t know much about the military. Unlike the military, which has the money and the mandate to send its senior officers to school after school (where they may take courses on everything from international relations to how the U.S. national security decision-making process is meant to work), civilian executive branch personnel — particularly political appointees — have fewer structured opportunities to learn about the military. The civilian-military gap is wide, and that’s not the fault of anyone in particular.

And it cuts both ways: there are moments when military frustration with civilian decision-makers reflects just as much willful obtuseness or rigidity. Military hierarchies serve vital functions, and the military is extremely good at developing standardized processes for addressing complex issues. But in some contexts, these inevitably get in the way: in my Sudan example last week, for instance, all the White House really wanted was a rough, ballpark sense of how complicated and risky various potential U.S. responses might be. Several mid-level officers involved in the discussions could have answered their questions with quick back-of-the-envelope calculations. But none had the authority or the will to circumvent the sacred planning process, even informally, so months of tense discussions ensued.

The civilian-military gap strikes me as eminently bridgeable, at the senior level. Not 100 percent bridgeable, perhaps, but certainly 90 percent bridgeable. I have some thoughts on potential reforms that might address this problem, but will save them for later. Meanwhile, readers: do you have ideas on how to bridge this gap? Send them to me here, and let me know if it’s okay to quote you in a column or blog.