Why America's national-security planning process went awry. Military mentality took control when checks and balances failed

If you attended any of the four war colleges that the United States maintains to train senior military and civilian strategists during the past 30 years, you would have been taught that US national strategy is developed in an orderly, rational way. First, or so it is taught, the national purpose is determined by a process of political consensus involving the body politic, the Congress, and the President. The President then translates that purpose into a set of national goals.

The various departments of the government identify the national interests - usually ranked as ``vital,'' ``major,'' and ``minor'' - and propose a set of strategies to protect those interests and so permit attainment of the goals.

The Department of State presents a political strategy; the Department of Defense, a military strategy; the Departments of Treasury and Commerce, an economic strategy; and so on. These are supposedly reconciled in the National Security Council (NSC) and announced to the bureaucracy in decision documents, the exact names of which vary from administration to administration. The departments then design their budgets and policies to carry out the agreed-upon national strategy.

How then could Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, with or without the knowledge or approval of some or all of his supposed supervisors have devised and carried out his own ``national strategy'' to the vast embarrassment of all concerned?

Because the strategy process as taught is vulnerable at every stage to the variables of human perversity. There is no adequate structural or systematic safeguard.

There is a general consensus, explicit or implicit, concerning the national purpose. Virtually all Americans seem to accept that in the form stated in the preamble to the Constitution: ``... and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity....'' Taken by itself that would seem to imply a permanently isolationist America, content to leave the rest of the world alone as long as its own liberty is not threatened.

Read in the context of a preceding document, the Declaration of Independence, the national purpose takes on a profoundly different meaning. The rights stated in the Declaration are proclaimed in universal terms. The extent to which they have been asserted in such terms has varied, but the universalist message always has been predominant.

In terms of a national goal that message was most clearly expressed by Woodrow Wilson: ``To make the world safe for democracy.'' Implicit in that statement is the belief that the ``blessings of liberty'' cannot be secure for Americans until they are secured for all mankind.

Colonel North was marching in that 211-year-old American tradition. Indeed, in some respects he seems to have believed that he was leading the parade. What went wrong?

Side by side with American idealism goes American pragmatism. As a nation we have seldom acted rashly, Vietnam being the most arguable exception. That required a careful assessment of interest, even when those interests required an alliance with powers that were something less than paragons of democratic virtue.

When, for example, President Wilson allied the US with the British and French colonial empires against imperial Germany, he was acting on an interest defined by Thomas Jefferson that the US could not accept a Europe dominated by a single hostile or potentially hostile sovereign.

It is in the assessment of interests that present-day American strategy has gone awry. By the end of World War I, most certainly by the end of World War II, US international relationships had become far too complex to be grasped and defined by a single individual. That was seen most clearly perhaps by General - and later Secretary of State - George C. Marshall and his prot'eg'e, General - and later President - Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Together they attempted to develop a coherent US military strategy by replacing the war colleges of the Army and Navy with a single national war college that could assess US worldwide interests free from the limitations of bureaucratic interests. The Navy blocked that initiative, insisting on retaining its own war college and its own Navy- and Marine Corps-centered view of US strategy. The narrowness of view that led North and his chief, Vice-Adm. John M. Poindexter, into the present imbroglio is a product of a belief ingrained in the Navy and Marine officer corps that whatever the Navy and Marine leadership deem desirable is desirable for the US.

As Army chief of staff and President, Mr. Eisenhower established long-range study groups that he intended to develop into the reliable, independent assessment capability lost when the National War College became only one among a family of retained, reestablished, or, in the case of the Air Force, newly established war colleges. Inevitably, the Army element became simply an Army rather than a national strategic studies institute.

The nascent long-range study group Eisenhower established in the NSC staff was abolished by President John F. Kennedy in favor of the ad hoc, personalized assessments of the past. All that was then necessary to create a Colonel North was a President who lacked a firm grasp of foreign affairs and who was willing to let a highly politicized NSC staff handle the details.

In short, the US government has no means to assess its international interests free of White House ideological obsessions and the entrenched bureaucratic interests of the two departments, State and Defense, that dominate the development of US foreign policy. Worse, it has no effective means of analyzing its foreign and defense policies in terms of domestic needs, including the health of the US economy.

Since it is only the military services that have in their four war colleges and the service general staffs, however limited and often flawed, the means to examine national strategy with any coherence, it should be no surprise that the military tail has been wagging the national dog for at least the past quarter century.

The US government does not have so much as a definition of the term ``vital interest.'' Presidents and their secretaries of state and defense tag it onto any policy they deem important. Yet if one simply applies the dictionary definition of ``vital'' as pertaining to the existence of the United States and its free institutions, it never would have been possible to describe either Vietnam or Central America as such. This propagandistic use of the term and the consequent inability to identify a gradation of interests is undermining public confidence in the government.

Surprisingly, the Washington press corps never has demanded a definition.

The notion that a 50-member NSC staff could somehow bring order out of this bureaucratic chaos was hopeless from the moment that the Eisenhower planning group was abolished. One hopes the several presidential and congressional commissions and committees now examining national-security planning will delve far enough to discover why Marshall and Eisenhower thought it necessary to have an institution free of the pressures of the moment and able to look somewhat beyond the next day's headlines.

William V. Kennedy is a journalist specializing in military affairs. He served from 1967 to 1984 as a strategic research analyst and faculty member at the Army War College.

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