A Guide to Better National Security Decision-Making

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This article was originally published by War on the Rocks on 4 December 2017.

I have participated in National Security Council meetings in the past three administrations on issues ranging from efforts to counter ISIL and prevent homeland attacks to the response to Russia’s military interventions in Ukraine and Syria. Across the years, I’ve participated and watched as senior policymakers from across the political spectrum have struggled to formulate policy responses in the face of a familiar set of challenges, including incomplete information, perceived and real time constraints, resource limitations, competing priorities, bureaucratic impediments, and intense public and legislative scrutiny. I am convinced that while there is no one-size fits all solution to policymaking, there are several concrete and replicable steps that can be taken to improve decision-making and greatly increase the odds of arriving at an effective outcome.

Use your time wisely. There is no more valuable commodity to policymakers than time. And while there are issues that demand immediate action — especially those involving an imminent threat to U.S. citizens — most decisions benefit from thoughtful deliberation at the White House’s deputy, principal, and National Security Council level. This allows for a full discussion of competing viewpoints, the airing and fleshing out of disagreements, and more opportunities to gather relevant information.

For example, despite legitimate criticism that the U.S. government was caught flatfooted by the Islamic State’s rise in 2013, the benefit of a rigorous planning process was evident in the Obama administration’s response to countering the group after it seized Mosul and threatened Erbil the following summer. Rather than lash out with an unfocused U.S.-led military campaign, the administration took a deliberate planning approach that included convening bi-weekly deputy meetings and close consultation with a “core group” of Middle East and counter-terrorism experts. This allowed sufficient time to gather critical intelligence information, rally partners, and formulate a comprehensive strategy that laid the groundwork for the dramatic gains achieved against the Islamic State globally over the past three years.

Listen to multiple voices. As time constraints mount, there is a tendency to shrink the number of voices heard on an issue. That’s almost always a mistake. In my experience, the best decisions are usually reached with input from multiple agencies and departments, and not just the traditional security-focused institutions. In the last administration, senior U.S. officials at the United Nations, Justice Department, and USAID were critical voices in discussions about the nature of America’s evolving relationships with countries such as Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. These officials were instrumental in forcing a consideration of the need to balance short-term security priorities with critical humanitarian, human rights, and long-term governance concerns.

Challenge long-held assumptions. As the pace and scale of national security challenges increase, it’s also important to periodically question whether the basic assumptions underlying a policy are still valid. I have witnessed multiple administrations operate under the belief that North Korea would be willing, with the right incentives or pressure, to reach a negotiated settlement and forsake its weapons programs, and only modify that view after years of experience dealing with Pyongyang. Some assumptions that are probably worthy of reevaluation today include the assessment of the Kim regime’s potential to misunderstand U.S. intentions, the regime’s likely response to a limited attack against it, and China’s likely reaction to offensive operations against North Korea. Fortunately, in the aftermath of the Iraq WMD incident, the U.S. intelligence community now routinely produces Red Cell assessments that deliberately challenge existing analytic assumptions. This is a tool that policymakers would be wise to request when confronting especially complex challenges.

Consider spinoff effects. Prior to closing on a policy decision, it’s always wise to weigh the possible second- and third-order effects. While the problems in the aftermath of the Iraq intervention in 2003 are well-documented, there have been other recent examples where this lesson hasn’t been fully learned, and at significant cost. In Libya, President Barack Obama called the failure to plan adequately for the day after Muammar Qaddafi’s ouster in 2011 his “worst mistake.” Apart from the merits of the case for removing Qaddafi, several of the follow-on effects were obviously severe, including the creation of a safe haven for the Islamic State along the coast, the spillover of the Libyan conflict into sub-Saharan Africa, and the significant humanitarian cost reflected by the flow of refugees from Libya into southern Europe.

And while analysis of potential second- and third-order effects typically focuses on unintended negative consequences, it’s also important to consider positive follow-on effects. For example, in Iraq, the Obama administration’s decision to defeat the Islamic State by supporting the Iraqi military while avoiding another large-scale American military intervention has produced a range of positive downstream effects, including the growing confidence and institutional reputation of the Iraqi military, the empowerment of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and the powerful example of the United States enabling a partner Muslim nation to stand on its own to counter extremism.

Weigh the cost of inaction. For obvious reasons, most of the policymakers’ time is spent crafting a concrete set of actions. However, this invariably means less time is spent thinking deeply about the costs or benefits of inaction. Typically, when the cost of inaction is discussed, it is couched in vague terms about a potential loss of American credibility or influence. But in my experience on issues ranging from whether the U.S should intervene in various hotspots in the Middle East and Africa to countering China’s activities in the South China Sea, too little time is spent unpacking how specifically U.S. credibility is threatened, and whether it is we or our allies who believe our reputation is at stake.

In reality, the cost of U.S. inaction can often be quite high, as evidenced by the tragedy of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, as well as the humanitarian toll of the now six-year-old Syrian civil war. And while there are often compelling reasons underlying a U.S. decision to not intervene in a situation (the rapidity with which a crisis unfolds, the lack of any viable alternatives) the consequences of such a decision are always worthy of discussion as a routine part of the policymaking process.

Similarly, the potential wisdom of U.S. inaction can easily be ignored or glossed over given our cultural desire to fix every problem and the near-constant demand for American leadership whenever a crisis erupts. In my opinion, a serious discussion of whether or not Washington should intervene in a conflict should be guided by the answers to the following questions: whether U.S. intervention will concretely help a situation, whether America has the ability and will to follow through after its initial involvement, whether the resource trade-offs are manageable, and whether there is a coherent strategy (and clear policy benchmarks) in place for terminating U.S. involvement, if necessary. A decision to not intervene in a crisis may feel less than satisfactory, but it may prove to be the wisest policy decision.

Don’t forget opportunities. There is an old saying that you get more of what you focus on — in the policymakers’ world, that tends to be problems. So, it’s wise for policymakers to periodically set aside time in their hectic schedule to think deeply about opportunities for advancing U.S. interests. For the Trump administration, such a discussion could explore ways to jump-start the faltering global trade agenda, improve the government’s strategic messaging capabilities, bolster and better integrate research and development spending across the government, and identify private-public sector partnerships to safeguard our critical infrastructure. There are many other opportunities that could be discussed in the White House Situation Room, but the important point is that it’s best to avoid engaging with the world exclusively through a prism of threats.

Remember that expertise counts. There is a long-held maxim in Washington policy circles that the more senior the meeting, the less expertise is actually present in the room. While this is an exaggeration, it’s true that senior meetings typically involve representatives of departments with global responsibilities, so it is possible to lose the deep country and regional expertise that is critical to holding a nuanced discussion.

In my view, the only practical solution for this is to ensure that at least a few deep experts, especially the relevant Assistant Secretaries of State and Defense, participate in the process, even if this expands the meeting size by a small number. I have participated in numerous National Security Councilsessions where these officials provided critical historical context, identified the forces that were driving political and economic change, and focused the discussion on the realistic bounds of the policies under consideration. The current absence of many of these second-tier but critically important officials at policy agencies could eventually pose a significant threat to the effective functioning of the National Security Council. There is always a place for policymakers’ gut feeling and ideological worldview, but expertise is the coin of the realm in national security matters and offers the best hope for effective decision-making.

Don’t forget implementation. No matter how nuanced and carefully crafted a policy decision, time should still be spent mapping out a clear implementation strategy — and that responsibility often falls to the National Security Council staff. While the National Security Council is not intended or staffed to assume direct control over operational activities, it does have a role to play in making certain that the agencies of government are working well together and in periodically evaluating their progress.

During the last administration, the National Security Council played a critically important role in organizing and leading the review of the intelligence community’s approach to signals collection, overseeing a much-needed reform of the government’s hostage policy, and in coordinating and spearheading the U.S. response to a series of global health and humanitarian crises, none of which could have been accomplished as effectively by any agency working alone.

And finally, keep politics out. Domestic political considerations have always been checked at the door of the Situation Room. And why is that? In simple terms, it’s because if domestic politics are introduced into any national security debate, they will become the backdrop to every discussion. Indeed, there is no faster way to breed cynicism and doubt among national security professionals, especially within departments with officials serving in harm’s way, than to create the perception that a decision has more to do with domestic politics than the country’s security interests. The exclusion of politics from the policymaking process is a proud tradition that must be safeguarded by everyone involved and at all costs.

Sadly, there is no silver-bullet solution to ensure that the wisest national security decisions are reached at the most opportune time. I am confident, however, that incorporating the principles I’ve discussed into a rigorous planning process will buy down the danger of making poorly considered and executed decisions, and lessen the chance of the United States assuming unintended risks in its foreign engagements. And at a time of growing international disarray, that’s probably the best outcome possible.

About the Author

Michael Dempsey is the national intelligence fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a fellowship sponsored by the U.S. government. He is the former acting director of national intelligence.

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