The single most important foreign-policy change the next administration could make would be a simple internal bureaucratic directive. The President, acting through the national security adviser, should direct that on every single project initiated by the National Security Council staff, the NSC director in charge of the project must appoint a lead agency. For example, if the NSC were driving an initiative on policy toward the Islamic world, it would appoint the State Department as lead agency to ensure that the project gets done. Or if it were driving an initiative on arms control, it could appoint the Pentagon as lead agency.
This seemingly innocuous change would have enormous practical implications. Above all, it would empower the lead agency to call meetings and push other agencies to follow through on their homework, driving the process toward a conclusion and giving that same agency the responsibility to oversee the implementation of whatever policy is agreed on. If the White House says that a particular agency is in charge, then the officials from other agencies actually have to show up when someone from the lead agency calls meetings and hands out assignments.
What actually happens now is that the NSC is in charge, which is fine for the initial couple of meetings on any particular project. The NSC director in question is focused and has enough bandwidth to get things launched. But the NSC staff is at most a few hundred people responsible for helping the President on issues arising around the clock from the entire world. They simply do not have the bandwidth to drive a process toward an efficient and swift conclusion. And when they are called away to focus on other matters, everyone else who was initially summoned to the first meeting at the White House is only too happy to collude in prolonged inaction, as they all have plenty on their plates.
For their part, the agencies most involved, which really would like to see a policy adopted, have no authority. If the White House calls, everyone in the government jumps. If the State Department, the Defense Department, Treasury, or any other department calls without the White House’s imprimatur of authority, it can take forever just to schedule a meeting.
NSC staffers will have a ready response to this proposal. The whole point of the National Security Council, they will argue, is to coordinate among agencies that are continually fighting with one another. They can’t appoint a lead agency, they will say, precisely because the subjects on the table raise issues in which many different agencies legitimately have a stake. Take a development initiative, for instance. USAID will immediately want to be the lead agency, but State can legitimately point out that the USAID administrator reports to the secretary of state. And of course, the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also have large development portfolios. And whenever money is involved, Treasury wants to play.
Precisely. All of those competing pressures are exactly why it is much easier to punt the difficult decision of who should be in charge. The hardest thing to do in Washington, hands down, is to choose among your friends when power is involved. But the NSC staff has the authority of the President. What the President decides will be done—certainly in the matter of appointing a lead agency. Presidents may hear from agitated cabinet secretaries, but surely if a President cannot adjudicate among them, she does not deserve to be President. As George W. Bush famously said, the President is the decider.
Moreover, the White House can easily build in incentives for the lead agency to play fair and work hard to incorporate the views and legitimate claims of other agencies. The NSC staffer simply has to let it be known that if the process generates complaints of exclusion and what Treasury Secretary Jack Lew calls “turfiness,” in which agencies care more about expanding their own jurisdiction than serving the public interest, the lead agency in question will have less of a claim next time around. It is also possible to appoint co-lead agencies and to insist that they work together. Good government managers, like Lew, know how to put the public first and to shame even the most hardened bureaucratic players for playing the normal game. If corporations can create incentives for highly competitive employees to work together, so can the White House.
The result would be a government in which the NSC actually helps move work along, rather than constantly drawing power toward the White House but then squandering it due to lack of time and bandwidth. It would empower the agencies with expertise and personnel to get things done. The White House can monitor the process; disputes that simply cannot be solved between two agencies will ultimately make their way to top White House staff or, indeed, the President. But the incentives would push action rather than inaction.
Such a simple thing. Seemingly so hard to do. But so worth it.