National Security Culture Gap

The White House and the Pentagon are buildings, not unitary actors.

Georgetown lawprof Rosa Brooks, who has served in senior advisory roles at State and DoD, describes a cultural divide that adds friction to national security policymaking.

A few readers may remember the spring 2010 crisis in Kyrgyzstan. Several hundred people were killed by police and ethnically aligned mobs, many more were wounded, and thousands of refugees (mostly from the Uzbek minority population) fled their homes.

Within the White House, these events triggered fears of a possible ethnic cleansing campaign to come, or even genocide. One day, I got a call from a member of the White House’s National Security Staff (NSS). With little preamble, he told me that Centcom needed to “move a surveillance drone over Kyrgyzstan, ASAP, so we can figure out what’s going on there.”

This wasn’t such a crazy idea. Drones and other intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets have the potential to be powerful tools in human rights monitoring. The ability to watch troops or mobs or refugees move in real time, to see weapons being stockpiled or mass graves being filled, might help us take timely and appropriate action to stop a genocide before it gets off the ground.

There was one enormous problem with my NSS colleague’s request, though: Neither of us had the authority to order Centcom to immediately shift a potentially vital asset from wherever it was currently being used to the skies over Kyrgyzstan.

“It’s an interesting idea,” I told him. “Has the president discussed it with [Defense] Secretary Gates?”

“We don’t have time to spin up a whole bureaucratic process,” he responded irritably. “The president doesn’t want another Rwanda. This is a top priority of his. I need you to just communicate this to Centcom and get this moving.”

This, I explained, wasn’t going to work. The chain of command doesn’t go from a director at the NSS to an advisor to the defense undersecretary for policy to Centcom — and the military doesn’t put drones into foreign airspace without a great deal of planning, a lot of legal advice, and the right people signing off on the whole idea.

My friend was incredulous. “We’re talking about, like, one drone. You’re telling me you can’t just call some colonel at Centcom and make this happen?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Why the hell not? You guys” — meaning the Pentagon writ large — “are always stonewalling us on everything. I’m calling you from the White House. The president wants to prevent genocide in Kyrgyzstan. Whatever happened to civilian control of the military?”

“You,” I told him, “are the wrong civilian.”

This was a minor issue, in many ways, but the exchange was far from unusual. My White House colleague — a smart, energetic, dedicated guy — went away furious, convinced that “the Pentagon” was refusing to take atrocity-prevention issues seriously (an attitude that soured many later interagency discussions about Sudan, Libya, and more).

My military colleagues reacted to the request with equal frustration: This guy was a fairly senior White House official, and he didn’t understand why sensitive, expensive military assets couldn’t instantly be moved from a war zone to foreign airspace with a simple phone call to a Pentagon acquaintance? If the president wanted to make this happen, he could call the defense secretary and direct him to have Centcom undertake such a move (though he’d be unlikely to do so without plenty of discussion at lower levels first), but the chain of command can’t be accessed midway down and more or less at random. My military colleagues were insulted: How incredibly ignorant — and arrogant! — those White House people were.

She gives other examples; I commend the piece to you in its entirety.

What’s interesting is that, perhaps because it’s the bailiwick she’s claimed at Foreign Policy, Brooks has shoehorned this into a debate about the “military-civilian gap.” But it’s not really that at all; indeed, Brooks herself is a civilian and was opposite another civilian in this exchange. The cultural divide in question is between the large Pentagon bureaucracy and the White House staff.

As with all staffs everywhere, the people who work for the president come to see themselves as extensions of the president. (In my Army days, there were similar frictions between the battalion staff and the operators at the battery level. Even as a lowly lieutenant, I didn’t take orders from captains and majors in the S- shops; unless the battalion commander himself was giving the order, it was my battery commander I answered to, not the headquarters staff.) As with all staffs everywhere, they also see whatever they’re working on at the moment as Of The Highest Priority and Urgency. The boss has asked for it, wants it yesterday, and by God it needs to get done. The problem is exacerbated at the White House because the staff people are almost universally superstars used to being in charge and because their boss happens to be the unofficial Leader of the Free World.

The Defense Department, meanwhile, is a gigantic bureaucracy in possession of our society’s tools of violence. That there’s a very structured chain of command and set of protocols surrounding the deployment of said tools is very much a feature rather than a bug.

Brooks’ anecdotes also point to another fact that is constantly elided by both the press and the players themselves: The White House and the Pentagon are buildings, not unitary actors. A directive from the president to the secretary of defense is a vastly different animal from a plea from one “fairly senior” official at the White House to another at the Pentagon. POTUS and SECDEF are at the apex of the chain of command; their advisors are really smart, dedicated people tasked with making sure they have the information to make informed decisions—but they’re not decisionmakers themselves.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, National Security, US Politics, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    As a seasoned observer of the government bureaucratic wars, it never amazes me how young some of these “senior” White House staffers are, and how they like to display their powers over less equal mortals.

  2. JKB says:

    I always liked to think of Captain Brittle in ‘She Wore A Yellow Ribbon’. Near the end, as he heads to retirement, he opines, “Funny thing, one day captain of a troop, every man’s eyes upon you, the next nothing.” (paraphrase). Moving from a command position to staff was very much like that. There was a Broadside cartoon with a guy seated in a cube and his boss standing nearby. The guy goes “I commanded an aircraft carrier.” His boss says, “Now you are staff. Your TPS reports is due in 2 hours.” (or something like that.)

    Staff coordination greases the chain of command but they certainly do not break it. Sadly, the kids at the Whitehouse and newbie politicals watch to much TV where staffers ordering people around keeps the plot moving. And, of course, they would never deny knowledge of the incident when testifying before Congress.

  3. James Joyner says:

    @DC Loser: It’s something I didn’t realize until the last four or five years. Political appointees, and even some Senior Executive Service types, are often young hot shots who’ve moved up at a very rapid pace. There’s no way to be a general officer without 20-plus years of experience, no matter how well you walk on water. But you can be a general officer equivalent at 35 if you have the right connections, punched the right tickets, and excelled at every opportunity.

    @JKB: In a line unit, a mere captain (O-3 type) is a force to be reckoned with and a colonel seems almost godlike. At the Pentagon, colonels fetch coffee.

  4. DC Loser says:

    A lot of inflated egos in the bureaucracies. I survived the insanity by never taking myself too seriously. Some of the best leaders I worked under were self-deprecating and didn’t have egos. But they were invariably the exception.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    What I find troubling is the mindset: that you always have a superabundance of resources, that they’re always in the right place, that there are no limits, that there are no relative priorities, that there’s never a need to choose..

  6. Scott says:

    The White House staffer kept “quoting” the President. If I were on the receiving end, I would be very doubtful about what the President “wanted”. I’ve seen too many times a general making a casual remark and then watching the bureaucratic machinery leap into action. It was always a good idea to confirm with said General if they was what he (or she) really meant.

  7. JKB says:


    That bothered me about he quoted interaction. The staffer cited the President but was unwilling to push this through channels.

    As I rose toward command, I learned to be very precise in my language around subordinates and careful about idle comments. Your words could be come their actions twisted to something completely off the wall.

    I did like this:

    “You,” I told him, “are the wrong civilian.”

  8. Scott says:

    @JKB: Yeah, it sounded too much like someone wanting to be a hero. There is a lot of immaturity in new administrations.

  9. jan says:


    “Funny thing, one day captain of a troop, every man’s eyes upon you, the next nothing.” (paraphrase).

    It’s the common ode of either being a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond — it make a difference as far as how much self importance one is entitled to, I guess.

  10. Tim says:

    One day, approximately 20 years ago, I was serving as a watch chief in a 24/7 operations center and the phone rang. When answering the phone, I identified myself as a Master Sergeant along with my name. The call went something like this:

    “This is MAJOR Johnson at the White House Situation Room and we need you to (insert ill-advised action here)!” Frankly, I can’t even remember what the call was about and the emphasis on his rank was how he spoke it at the time.

    I then proceeded to respectfully inform the Major that the action being requested was not the proper action to take for the desired effect and not something that could be accomplished without a series of proper authorizations that needed to move up the chain-of-command.

    After some fairly interesting back-and-forth in this conversation, the Major then blurted, “Master Sergeant, I am ORDERING you to (insert ill-advised action here)!”

    I calmly replied something along the lines of, “Major, don’t you find it interesting that a Master Sergeant has to explain the concept of chain-of-command to a field grade officer?” Then I hung up on him.

    When he called back, the phone was being answered by my boss who had overheard my end of the conversation. He was a Marine Colonel and he was NOT amused. A few minutes later, the Major at the White House had a very good understanding of chain-of-command.

    There were days I really loved that job!

  11. Richard Gardner says:

    Interesting comments so far. As I was reading the original post, I was thinking Ollie North. It isn’t just a Dem thing. I’ve had to explain several times years ago how most military officers think Marine LtCol Ollie North is a jackass by his creation of the Iran-Contra Scandal. Patriot, yes. Illegal, yes. Wrong, yes.

    Reminds me of a lady I saw checking into a military berthing facility (in Agana Guam), “I’m Mrs. Captain Jones (Navy, so Colonel elsewhere).” Civilian clerk responded, no, you’re Mrs Jones, your husband is the Captain. (CO SLC ~87)

    Then we have the Washington interns either:
    – Trying to change the world because they are so damn smart (usually at NGO/PVO)
    – Taking a year break to get into a better law school because they partied their undergrad away and a year working for a Congressman (Chandra Levy anyone) gets them up a law school tier in admissions.

    Then I saw a Clinton-era cabinet secretary arrive at a place with unreasonable demands, expecting 4-star resort amenities (specifically “I want a massage” after arrival at 8PM). Ask in advance, fine, can be accommodated ( WTF? Hazel O’Leary is her name).

    Twice in my military career I authorized actions I wasn’t fully allowed to do – but I covered them within 2 hours – had to do with spending money – I said do it though I didn’t have disbursing authority – then called the financial folks to make it right – both were after hours and I was in ops (lives were at stake in one case, and US National pride in the other (total cost under $10K)). Sometimes you have to wing it. But invading the airspace of a foreign country isn’t something a single NSS staffer should be capable of. (cough, act of war?)

  12. mannning says:

    When working with the Artillery, James, did your chain of command recognize the old saw: “Don’t displace on the first order!” (Wait for confirmation or redirection.)

  13. James Joyner says:

    @mannning: I was MLRS, so displacing and getting set to fire again was a bit easier. And, no, we got our orders digitally and moved as expeditiously as possible to get rockets down range.