Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 27, 2009

Policy, strategy, pragmatism, humility and the new National Security Staff

Filed under: Organizational Issues,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on May 27, 2009

Yesterday the President explained, “The new ‘National Security Staff’ will support all White House policymaking activities related to international, transnational, and homeland security matters.  The establishment of the new National Security Staff, under the direction of the National Security Advisor, will end the artificial divide between White House staff who have been dealing with national security and homeland security issues.” 

Notice the President’s focus on “policymaking activities.” Policy sets out the government-of-the-day’s  intention and purpose.  Policymaking  decides, articulates, and shapes how the government’s intentions and purposes are achieved.

Whereas objectives are “strategy,” the concentration decision is “policy.” It is, so to speak, the decision in what theater to fight a war.  Without such a policy decision, there can be rules of warfare but no strategy, that is no purposeful action. (Peter F. Drucker)

In his statement the President offers five bulleted paragraphs as a broad framework for how the new National Security Staff will be organized. Then he closes with a truism, “The United States faces a wide array of challenges to its security, and the White House must be organized to effectively and efficiently leverage the tremendous talent and expertise of the dedicated Americans who work within it.” 

Hard to disagree.  Is this policy?  No.  It is a management principle.

The closest the President’s statement comes to  policymaking is at the end of his first paragraph, “the challenges of the 21st Century are increasingly unconventional and transnational, and therefore demand a response that effectively integrates all aspects of American power.”

We are beginning to understand that the policy of this Presidency will tend toward the integrative, holistic, big picture.  Each policy element is connected to and depends on other parts.  This is a White House with a clear right brain bias.  

The visionary has often characterized Presidential rhetoric.  But in actual practice, Presidents have been inclined to focus on a few carefully defined and, whenever possible, preordained wins.  Candidate Obama had a reputation – largely derived from his 2004 Convention Speech – for soaring rhetoric.  President Obama has tended toward careful, modest, and nuanced expositions. Perhaps he has decided our challenges and his high-risk interventions are dramatic enough.

Democracy is finding proximate solutions to insoluble problems.  (Reinhold Niebuhr)

What I have been slow to recognize is the President’s reluctance to articulate his  intentions and purposes with much detail.  I have been waiting and, it is becoming clear, waiting in vain.  But this is my problem, not his, and – I am ready to suggest – not ours.

Some have said the President’s favorite word, and most common stance, is “pragmatic.”  He is interested in what works, what has practical results.  His first and foremost principle is to learn from and adapt to outcomes. Accordingly, his policy initiatives are more often exploratory than explanatory.  In yesterday’s White House statement are vaguely enticing references to new Global Engagement and Resilience Policy Directorates within the National Security Staff. 

No doubt further details are forthcoming. We should not, however,  underestimate how the current lack of detail is  purposeful.  This is, in effect, an expression of policy. 

I never had a policy; I have just tried to do my very best each and every day. (Abraham Lincoln)

A couple of years ago when the University of Chicago decided to publish a new edition of Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, someone was smart enough to ask a recent member of the law school faculty and local State Senator, Barack Obama, for a blurb.  He wrote, “He is one of my favorite philosophers. I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away . . . the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard.”

President Obama is capable of precisely articulating his intentions and purposes.  When he is less than explicit, I am beginning to understand that we should hear what is implicit:  I don’t pretend to know precisely how this will turn out.  There is serious evil in the world.  Spiritual humility and intellectual modesty, combined with thoughtful action, are among the tools we have to confront this evil.  Here is how I am trying to do my very best today.

Other responses to the announcement:

Obama combines security councils (Washington Post)

Obama shakes up White House national security structure (AFP)

US revamps national security posts (Wall Street Journal)

Early Wednesday morning I could not find any related coverage at CNN or Politico.  Maybe I didn’t search hard enough.  But, so far, their attention to the President’s decision is either null or deeply buried.  Another implicit message?

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3 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 27, 2009 @ 8:14 am

There are probably those that view the staffing merger as just that–largely irrelevant to policy. But those who have seen that staffing arrangements can impact process and policy know better. This is significant and particulary so if the vetting and assignment of new staff over time follows the NSC model and ignores federalism, state and local, EM and law enforcement, and public health, and domestic intel, and all the other things igonored previously by NSC staff because they were on the “Make” for promotion or influence or whatever. NSC staff background in a CV was a ticket to prosperity not necessarily competence or even harder work. Well Time will Tell! My guess is more highly militarized staffing because Jones and Brennan come out of the “Can Do, Sir” mode and/or
what do the politicians and managers want so I can be promoted” mold. The Marines do have great intellectual capacity in their officer corps but too often disregarded and does not make rank. You have to look like a Marine General before you become one. And the CIA as a career background for Brennan is not likely to be a skilled policy developer since the CIA by its charter is NOT supposed to be a policy org but to be involved in collection, analysis, and dessemination of INTEL! What I wonder is if OBAMA thought the merger was really significant or just moving another decision others wanted him to make off the table. I would like to see the most comprehensive review of the staff merger by Congressional oversight hearings. Now that N.Korea is a nuke-state will the forthcoming proliferation again make the US political establishment fearful and drive the US National Secuirty State towards the Spartanization of the US?

Comment by Mark Chubb

May 27, 2009 @ 4:47 pm

Humility as opposed to hubris as a national policy platform sounds like a good start to me. Thank you, Philip, for a thoughtful, well-organized, and highly articulate analysis of this White House announcement. As you rightly note, any impatience or desire for more detail is our problem, not the president’s. I have little doubt that President Obama’s thoughtful reliance upon and investment of trust in his advisors and the national security operatives toiling away in the field will hold us in good stead, as they remain steadfast in their commitment to protect our interests and home and abroad.

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May 28, 2009 @ 7:02 pm

[...] Policy, strategy, pragmatism, humility and the new National Security Staff | Homeland Security Watch Yesterday the President explained, “The new ‘National Security Staff’ will support all White House policymaking activities related to international, transnational, and homeland security matters. The establishment of the new National Security Staff, under the direction of the National Security Advisor, will end the artificial divide between White House staff who have been dealing with national security and homeland security issues.” var addthis_pub = “”;Print this article [...]

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