Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Your Government Failed You

Richard Clarke worked for decades in the United States government's national security world. He reached the upper levels of government serving as an Assistant Secretary State and as the chief counter-terrorism official. He left government in 2003 over his disagreements overIraq policy. Shortly thereafter he wrote Against All Enemies, a memoir of his service, as well as a sharp critique of the Bush Administration's terror policy. In his latest book, Your Government Failed You, expands his critique from the personalities and policies of the Bush Administration to the structure and culture of the national security apparatus.

There isn't much that escapes Clarke's scrutiny. The Defense Department reforms meant to avoid another Vietnam failed to prevent Iraq, but helped make it worse. The turf wars, resource allocation and hiring practices of the intelligence community fail to prevent strategic surprise. The Homeland Security Department is described as a underfunded, sum weaker than its parts agglomeration that serves more as a new spoils system than a provider of security.

What is particularly challenging about fixing the issues laid out is the great difficulty in fixing them. In many cases, major legislation will be required and the necessary compromise will take quite a bit of time to implement. More worrisome is whether any single Administration can tackle all of these things in a single or even two terms.

Topics like defense reorganization and the role of the National Guard might be rather dry, but Clarke is writing for both the lay reader and the policy wonk. He provides specific detail about what to fix, but does so in an fashion that doesn't require subject matter expertise. I am particularly happy that Clarke includes global warming (and cyber-security) as a national security issue and that it be treated with the same urgency as issues like terrorism. In terms of threats to the homeland, global warming is probably the worst of all.

None of these issues will be easy to fix and fixing any will be made all the more difficult by the change in the people doing the work. The ideal of government service has certainly faded in this country. Kai Bird, in his masterful the Color of Truth (which, if you can't guess, is gray,) describes the noblesse oblige that led the privileged like the Bundy brothers to seek government service. This is gone, but the government hasn't helped the cause either. On the one hand it continues to outsource key jobs, which may save a bit of money but also fails to develop long term leaders for the government. Then it makes the hiring practices overly long, complicated and demanding and provides pay scales that often require great sacrifice of those who might serve.

In the book, Clarke lays out a number of policy prescriptions to fix the problems he addresses. The most critical one has to be the human resources question. If the government doesn't have the right people to do the work, all the other fixes will come to naught. It is here that Clarke provides the hope that his list of changes might actually be achievable. When the government has the right people in place, it can work wonders.

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