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Austin Bay
Austin Bay
30 Sep 2015
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The Interagency Illness


Memo to the next president: You need to fix the biggest problem in Washington.

Everyone knows what that problem is. Honky-tonk denizens would call it lack of team play. Policy wonks call it "the broken interagency process."

The phrase "interagency process" clunks in a campaign stump speech. It's not an attention-getter, nor is it a vote-grabber. Use it in a TV sound-bite, and you'll sound snake-bit. But if you don't fix it, America risks losing the 21st century's war for modernity, which we will fight for decades no matter what happens in Iraq.

The U.S. government's "interagency" is supposed to organize and coordinate America's "elements of power" in order to achieve national strategic goals. National power has four major elements: "diplomatic," "information," "military" and "economic" power (hence the acronym, "DIME").

The hub of the interagency process is the National Security Council. NSC "working groups" are supposed to use the agencies and departments that institutionally house the elements of power and implement policies to achieve objectives. (For example, the State Department institutionally embodies diplomatic power, Defense is military, etc.)

That's the intent. Unfortunately, it doesn't work with sustained effectiveness and vigor. America's World War II planning genius, Gen. Albert Wedemeyer, claimed the United States didn't do it well in that war, either, and thus "lost the peace" (i.e., entered the Cold War).

Institutional flaws frustrate the most competent people. Funding and lack of central, operational authority are problems. There is no "unified budget" for "unified action" (the buzzword for synergistic policy implementation). Instead, several dozen pieces of budgets must be patched together to pay for separate agency participation. Congress controls budgets, and "unified funding" to achieve unified operational action would diminish congressional clout. Congress could mitigate the problem by giving agencies an uncommitted contingency operations budget.

Another flaw is the "expeditionary Department of Agriculture." Right — there isn't one. Oh, there are competent, courageous ag experts, but institutionally Defense is the only government department designed for extended expeditionary operations.

The latest media manifestation of the interagency mess cropped up in June during Lt.

Gen. Douglas Lute's Senate confirmation hearing. President Bush appointed Lute as "war czar." His actual title is too big for a billboard: "deputy assistant national security advisor and advisor to the president on Iraq and Afghanistan."

During the hearing, Sen. Jack Reed told Lute that he was doing the jobs of National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Stupefied that Lute would be independent of Hadley on Iraq and Afghanistan, Reed asked, "And the national security adviser to the United States has taken his hands off that (Afghanistan and Iraq) and given it to you?" When Lute said, "Yes," Reed replied, "Well, then he should be fired."

OK, fire Hadley. In Washington, however, partisan arguments over competence and personality often mask difficult institutional, bipartisan troubles.

In Armed Forces Journal's July issue, William Matthews, after quoting the Reed-Lute exchange in full, described Lute's job as a "brigadier of bureaucrats."

Great description — but that's an improvisation working around problems. Lute is "czar" because the most successful improviser has been the Pentagon, which has budget and disciplined, team-oriented personnel who will "do" jungles, deserts, mountains, alleys and slums. But soldiers "improvising" economic development is not going to win this complex war. Making DOD the de facto lead agency for every complicated operation is a mistake.

The State Department "does" more than Washington cocktail parties — diplomacy remains the first line of defense. But when the U.S. military says, "No one else has shown up for the war," it isn't bragging, it's complaining.

Hence, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker's cable of May 31 telling State that "we cannot do the nation's most important work if we do not have the department's best people." State may move to "directed assignments," which mean hard jobs in critical places will be filled by the best-qualified personnel whether or not they volunteer.

Military careers are made in the field. Bureaucrat careers are made in the Washington Beltway — a serious structural mistake. They should be made in Baghdad, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. That requires changing promotion and career training policies throughout our civilian agencies.

To find out more about Austin Bay, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at



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