Seven Questions

Seven Questions: James R. Locher III

A scathing new report on U.S. national security offers a sneak preview of how Gen. James L. Jones, Barack Obama's top foreign-policy advisor, might approach the difficult task before him.


The tasks before Barack Obamas new national security team are huge: execute the pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq, bring Afghanistan back from the brink, and open what the president-elect has called a new dawn of American leadership in the world. Few know these challenges better than James L. Jones, a former NATO commander and Marine general who has been tapped as the next U.S. national security advisor. In addition to his on-the-ground experience, General Jones has for the last two years been part of a guiding coalition for the Project on National Security Reform, whose new report recommends sweeping reforms to the U.S. national security apparatus.

The Project’s findings are brutally frank: The system is deeply flawed, inefficient, and poorly coordinated. There is waste and misallocation. James R. Locher III, the projects executive director and a former assistant secretary of defense, told Foreign Policy‘s Elizabeth Dickinson that national security reform is the number one security issue facing the United States today. Lochers report offers a unique window into how General Jones and former Deputy National Security Advisor James B. Steinberg, another past commission member who is widely expected to land a top administration job, might approach the mission ahead of them.

Foreign Policy: In your preliminary findings, you describe todays world as an unpredictable placefilled with non-traditional combat, resource competition, and rapidly changing circumstances. Can you give us a picture of that world from a security point of view?

James R. Locher III: The United States used to have one major enemy that we focused on. Now, [we face a] whole range of different threats and challenges. When we had to do multi-agency things [during the Cold War], for example, the Vietnam War, we struggled a long period of time figuring out how to integrate all the instruments of power. Now the world is a whole series of Vietnam-type events. We also still have to worry about various state actors.

These situations are incredibly complex and they’re changing very rapidly, which requires that we work horizontally across the government. I often like to use the example of the Global War on Terror. It’s a law enforcement issue, so we need the Department of Justice. We’re working with lots of countries and through the United Nations, so we need the Department of State. You have the Defense Department involved in the killing or capturing of terrorists. You need almost all elements of the intelligence community. We have Treasury involved because we’re trying to stem the flow of terrorist finances. Transportation is involved because that’s where terrorists like to strike — transportation networks. We have Health and Human Services involved because we’re worried about biological and chemical warfare. Then you have the Department of Homeland Security that worries about the domestic terrorist threat.

You need to integrate all that expertise and capability, and our government does not have the mechanisms to do that. The National Security Council are headquarters without headquarter powers. They are advisory only. The setbacks that weve had recently — from 9/11 to the trouble stability of the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the failed response to Hurricane Katrina — theyre all evidence of this misalignment of our government with the challenges were facing.

FP: In the case studies discussed in this report, you look at some of the crucial moments in U.S. national security, such as the decision to invade Iraq and the handling of the crisis in Somalia in the early 1990s. Are there underlying threads of weaknesses throughout these examples?

JR: Somalia was really a policy formulation problem. How do we formulate effective policy when we have a weak integrating mechanism and we have very powerful departments who hold on to their perspectives for a long period of time? The people on the ground in Somalia did not have a clear understanding, there was not an understanding in Washington as to what the situation was on the ground, and it lead to disastrous results.

With respect to the decision to invade Iraq, we did not have a very effective policy formulation. One of the first things that you have to do if you are going to have effective policy is you have to have a really rigorous assessment. That process did not occur.

FP: Was that a systematic failing, or was that more a problem of particular people who happened to be working on it?

JL: You always have the issue of personality; you never really get rid of it. And there were lots of personality issues at play there — key people who were allied on issues and who were incredibly powerful. You didnt have that objective, hard-nosed analysis that you might like to have. But the system isnt well designed in that regard. It can produce good policy on occasionbut it can lead to lowest common denominator or lots of stalemates or working outside of the system.

FP: Will Barack Obama read this report?

JL: I’m hopeful he will read the executive summary, which is just 15 pages. There are lots of people around the president-elect who are familiar with our work, so we’re hopeful.

This is a great time for our report to come out. [We have a] new administration that’s talking about changes, and a huge economic crisis which means that we need to learn how to do more with less to be much more efficient. Right now, because of our organizational dysfunction, we have wasted and lost resources.

FP: So it sounds like you definitely see the political will to get this moving in the next administration?

JL: I think the events of the last seven or eight years have led lots of people to believe that somethings really wrong — that we have all of these resources, that we have all of this capability in our national security departments, and yet we’re having trouble handling these challenges. Our methodology is very much focused on what’s wrong. You cannot really fix something until you know what needs to be fixed. Washington often is too impatient to fully understand the problems.

FP: Some of the people rumored to be in the incoming administration — people such as James L. Jones and James Steinberg — served as members on the guiding coalition of this project. Do you hope they will be advocates for the work that you’ve been doing?

JL: I’m hopeful they will, but I cant speak for them. I think the people who are going into the administration will go in with the understanding that those problems.

One challenge is that almost everybody only knows the system weve had for 60 years, and there is no sense of how outmoded it is. Today is very different from 1947, and some people have a very strong attachment to the current system. We need a new arrangement, and it will take time for people to get used to that. This is the end of the beginning, and there will be a long debate in [Washington] about all of these things.

There are three avenues of reform we can pursue. First is an executive order. President Obama could establish a new system on January 21. It wouldnt be total, but it would be a start. Second, we could amend House and Senate rules. Congress is as stovepiped as the executive branch. Congress never had its own National Security Act of 1947 [to clarify its role in U.S. foreign policy], not even its own mechanism for oversight. Finally, we need a new National Security Act.

FP: What is the one takeaway that you would like people to remember from your work?

JL: The one takeaway is that national security reform must happen. The gap between the demands on our government and our ability to address them effectively is widening — the world is changing faster than our ability to evolve. If we don’t reform now, we will experience very painful setbacks. National security reform is not something that would be nice to do. National security reform must occur.

The stakes are enormous. When I am asked what is the number one national security issue, national security reform is it. You might ask, “How can you say that? Our ability to formulate policy in all situations depends on our systemand more, is undermined by it. We have organizational dysfunction, and until that is fixed, we will not be able to consistently form policy, resource our agencies, or make critical decisions.

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