The investigative arm of Congress scolded the Bush administration last week for its failure to craft a single, comprehensive, interagency strategy against terrorism.
It's not that the administration lacks plans. In fact, the Government Accountability Office concluded, the problem is just the opposite: an excess of disjointed efforts. The CIA has one plan, the State Department another - and the military probably has 50.
This is not a small matter. The lack of a unified approach has played a significant role in permitting Osama bin Laden and his closest associates, post-9/11, to regenerate their ability to attack the U.S. by securing a haven on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
The GAO report recommends that the government develop and implement a single strategy against al-Qaida that encompasses all elements of America's hard and soft power. That basic recommendation is sound, but the GAO's proposal for achieving it is flawed. It calls for the heads of the individual government agencies - the defense secretary, secretary of state, director of national intelligence and others - to hash out this plan among themselves.
The leaders of America's bureaucracies must communicate constantly in today's era of nontraditional, asymmetric threats. But it is a fool's errand to believe that department chieftains will selflessly allow their individual agencies' resources to be reduced for another's benefit. The nature of bureaucracy lists toward self-preservation.
Instead, a neutral panel of experts should oversee the effort, clarify the role of each department, set funding priorities and require more stringent congressional oversight. On national security, the buck stops with the president. But if this president will not force agencies to compromise, the next administration should establish a neutral arbiter to forge a governmentwide counterterrorism strategy. This panel, ideally composed of independent former agency heads, elected officials, academics and other experts, should launch a brief but intense study of how America allocates resources to fighting terrorism.
Though aspects of this panel may sound like the 9/11 commission, it would go beyond that group's jurisdiction. Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton's team sought to dissect the 2001 attacks and make broad recommendations to improve the country's defenses. However, the 9/11 commission had neither the time nor a mandate to referee interagency budget decisions.
The new panel should tackle two issues. First, it would articulate how military, intelligence, economic and diplomatic agencies should collaborate against terrorism's immediate threats and root causes. Second, it would force agencies and departments ill-equipped for that mission to sacrifice resources in the name of national security.
Consider what is happening in the absence of a coherent, unified strategy. Since 2001, the Bush administration has shipped about $10.5 billion to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, of which 96 percent reimbursed his military's counterterrorism operations. Just 1 percent ($40 million) was spent on development assistance, and 3 percent ($187 million) on border security. The results speak for themselves. The new panel would address those skewed numbers and force the bureaucrats to allocate resources more effectively.
Despite the good work of the 9/11 commission and legislative efforts of Congress, that panel faced an uphill battle in enacting its recommendations because it lacked the president's support. A similar risk would present itself to the new body. Therefore, the executive should avow full faith in the panel's findings before deliberations begin. Only a determined president will be able to pry agency leaders' fingers from scarce budget dollars.
For all the tough talk about securing America, it is unlikely President Bush will, in his waning months in office, prove he is a real leader by demanding hard choices among America's agencies. It is to be hoped the next administration will push for the comprehensive solution this complex problem demands.
Jim Arkedis is director of the Progressive Security Project at the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington. His e-mail is email@example.com