As every history student knows, Operation Eagle Claw was bungled when one of the helicopters landed on top of one of the tankers, destroying both aircraft. In the end, five U.S. Air Force men and three Marines died, five of their comrades were seriously injured and in total eight aircraft were lost. The mission failed and the United States was humiliated.
One contributing factor to this disaster was the fact that the Army, Air Force and Navy used different radio frequencies to communicate with one another. Tragic events such as these led to the Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986. This act helped ensure that the military services waged war jointly, through the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a series of single, geographical Combatant Commands, rather than through the different and competing bureaucracies of each individual service. As writer Katherine Boo noted, the act "drained the military's bureaucratic swamp."
If the details of the Goldwater-Nichols Act are little known outside the Pentagon, their effects were on full display in the first Gulf War, the first U.S. conflict following the law's enactment. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf had complete freedom, as the war's unified commander, to employ the services as they saw fit. Together with his boss, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell, the two Army men could fend off pressure from their own service, set the timing of the air war over the Air Force's objections, and deny the amphibious landing coveted by the Marines. Goldwater-Nichols' accomplishment was to provide the ingredients for military victory in the Gulf and the supremacy of the U.S Armed Forces.
But since the end of the Cold War -- and especially since Sept. 11, 2001 -- the challenges the United States has to face have changed dramatically. Today, as the Iraq War has shown, it is not enough for the United States to win on the battlefield. It is not enough to have the biggest, best and even most effective military.
To win in places like Mosul, Mogadishu and Mazar-e-Sharif requires a broader set of capabilities beyond those the military can bring to bear. And it requires an effective interagency national security system, ensuring that all the elements of national power -- military, diplomatic, economic -- can be brought to bear in a unified fashion.
Yet as the United States struggles to come to grips with these new challenges, it is saddled with a system of government inadequate to the task.
As a new report by a non-partisan commission states, the "U.S. national security system cannot adequately protect America, its interests and its citizens."
Led by one of the architects of the Goldwater-Nichols reforms, James R. Locher III, the Project on National Security Reform has prepared 100 case studies of interagency operations since 1947 to show that -- whoever wins the presidential election in November -- considerable reform will be required in the U.S. government.
Supported by a Who's Who of Washington's national security establishment -- including former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and several four-star generals -- the report, "Ensuring Security in an Unpredictable World: The Urgent Need for National Security Reform," makes for a harrowing read.
Several passages dissect the lack of interagency coordination in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Even when civilian agencies were capable of providing Provincial Reconstruction Teams (U.S. civil-military units) with representatives, they lacked the necessary funding and resources to adequately support their staff in the field."
Back in Washington, the report makes clear, things are no better. The national security system is incapable of formulating and executing policies that involve actors beyond the Pentagon. The organizational culture of civilian departments does not "place a premium on contributing to national defense." And these problems are exacerbated by limited funding for non-military agencies and different approaches to planning, deployments and risk management across various agencies.
Though the report -- the first of three installments -- acknowledges that reforms have taken place, it sees these as procedural, focusing mainly on top-level decision-making, not on changing the system that underpins presidential decision-making, implements such decisions and reviews them, once taken. None of the reforms, the report makes clear, has managed to overcome the system's underlying deficiencies.
Many of the issues the report raises are not new.
The failures of the U.S. stability-building and reconstruction efforts in Iraq have been on vivid display, while the interagency struggles in the Bush administration have been luridly detailed in a series of "leave and tell" memoirs by former officials.
But what the report does best is debunk the idea that everything will be easily fixed once President Bush leaves office or that past problems were simply a function of the ascendancy of an ideological clique or of personality clashes. Interagency problems recur from one administration to the next, under both Republicans and Democrats. And the report also points the finger of blame at Congress, which, it says, "impede(s) the ability to link resources effectively to national security goals and objectives."
A final report, due in October, will venture solutions to the problems identified. High on the agenda is likely to be a redrafted National Security Act and a blueprint for a new National Security Council. Other reforms might include making the national security adviser a Senate-confirmed position.
Now out of the presidential race, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., is said to have taken a keen interest in shepherding legislation through Congress, while the teams of both Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have had de facto representatives on the project.
But even before solutions are developed, the new report is bound to become summer reading for Washington's national security establishment. For while the presidential election has focused on personalities and policies, most experts know that if the United States is to avoid the problems that plagued the military during the Iran hostage crisis, a new president will have to oversee national security reforms that address the system's underlying deficiencies. And nowhere since the Sept. 11 Commission's best-selling final report have these been laid as bare as by the Project on National Security Reform.
(Daniel Korski is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Brussels. He is a former British government official who has worked on post-conflict stability and reconstruction issues, including a three-month stint in 2007 heading a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Basra, southern Iraq.)