The President's National Security Strategy: Vision in Search of a Plan

09/21/2010 04:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Obama administration's "National Security Strategy - May 2010" offers a prescription for American leadership and renewal in a rapidly changing world. Supporters have characterized the new strategy as sweeping, bold, transformational, hopeful, visionary, and audacious. Critics have lamented the document's lack of substance.

Both sides are correct but tend to miss the validity of the other side's argument. Visionary goals are important, even indispensable; but their value is directly proportional to the rigor of a plan for pursuing those goals. In short, the administration's "strategy of national renewal and global leadership" is achievable only if accompanied by a practical plan to "rebuild the foundation of American strength and influence."

The first step in solving any problem is recognizing it, and the administration deserves high marks in this regard. It understands U.S. national security institutions are woefully out-of-date and out-of-sync with the increasingly dynamic and complex security environment we face. The strategy eloquently makes the case that to lead and succeed "in a time of sweeping change" the United States must be capable of engaging and collaborating with other nations and international organizations.

The strategy also candidly acknowledges that our own national security institutions do not collaborate effectively ("work remains to foster coordination across departments"), or "[align] resources with our national security strategy," or "[equip] national security professionals to meet modern challenges." Secretary Gates offered a pithier formulation on February 24 when he said that "Despite improvements in recent years, America's interagency toolkit is a hodgepodge of jerry-rigged arrangements constrained by a dated and complex patchwork of authorities, persistent shortfalls in resources, and unwieldy processes."

These shortcomings are thrown into bolder relief by today's complex security environment which, as the new national security strategy argues, demands an expanded scope of national security. Our complex security problems require cooperation among traditional diplomatic, intelligence and military organizations but also numerous non-traditional departments and agencies such as Homeland Security, Treasury, and Health and Human Services.

In short, the national security strategy makes clear what the administration's senior leaders and National Security Staff readily admit in public and private discourse: The Cold War era system is inadequate for the complexities of the 21st century national security environment. The security environment has changed dramatically, and presidents can no longer simply tweak the system they inherit and expect to promote U.S. interests and a "just and sustainable international order." The President's strategy calls for continued work on four ongoing organizational reforms and the initiation of twelve other change efforts.

But fixing the national security system is not just another item on the list of desirable changes the Obama administration wants to make some day; it is a prerequisite for accomplishing the administration's goals. A system that inflates the risks and costs of national security engagement will starve the domestic reform agenda of resources, including the president's time. The national security strategy rightly argues "our strength and influence abroad begins with the steps we take at home." The first step taken should be a practical plan to "update, balance, and integrate all the tools of American power" in a whole-of-government approach, a commitment the national security strategy highlights with an exclusive three-page text box.

The new strategy's conclusion also indicates the Obama administration is ready for just such an action agenda. It argues: (1) "The executive branch must do its part by developing integrated plans and approaches;" (2) "Collaboration across the government--and with our partners at the state, local, and tribal levels of government, in industry, and abroad--must guide our actions;" and (3) "Effective cooperation will depend upon broad and bipartisan cooperation," without which "the United States is at a strategic disadvantage."

With this solid rhetoric in place, the National Security Staff must now get on with the hard work of formulating concrete plans for bipartisan, collaborative national security reforms. They note widespread agreement on the problems but not on the solutions. We believe a consensus will emerge, however, if the administration will just start the process moving forward. Four steps are imperative. President Obama must communicate the urgency for fixing our antiquated system and convincingly express his full support. Second, he must ensure that his Cabinet secretaries and their key subordinates are equally committed. Third, the president will need to enlist the support and engagement of Congress. Last, the administration will need to craft a comprehensive implementation plan. Indeed, if the administration actually starts developing integrated plans for national security reform, it will find there are many who are willing to help. Many departments and agencies are already working on pieces of the reform agenda as are as many as forty think tanks, including our bipartisan group, the Project on National Security Reform.

The Project's September 2009 report, Turning Ideas into Action, presented specific ideas developed over a two-year period by this bipartisan group of former senior government officials. Our recommendations in eight separate areas called for an array of fundamental changes, including strengthening the role of the National Security Council, aligning resources with strategy in a more integrated way, improving the flow and sharing of information, and building a cadre of national security professionals more prepared and incentivized to work together.

The key is to get started on a practical plan for reform that will make the vision articulated in the new national security strategy possible. Reform of this magnitude is daunting but necessary if the administration expects anyone to take its national security strategy seriously. After all, no strategy is worthwhile if it cannot be executed.