National Security Policymakers—No Experience Necessary?

The United States possesses the most capable military in human history accompanied by the largest intelligence community in the world. The well-oiled machine that is our military-industrial complex underpins all other components of American national strength. Even with all of this power at our disposal, national security decisions with great ramifications are often made on the basis of executive summaries and PowerPoint briefings to congressional and executive branch officialsincluding presidentswho have little to no real national security experience of their own to draw on. Our leaders cannot properly defend America while learning about national security 45 minutes at a time. The learning curve is far too steep.


No Experience Necessary?

The President of the United States and U.S. Representatives and Senators, using history as a guide, are generally white males past middle age of above average wealth and education. They are most likely lawyers by training, clawed their way up through the ranks of one of the major political parties, held local, state, and national political offices, and served several years as a Congressman, Senator, or perhaps Governor.

On average, they have little to no military or national security experience, other than perhaps serving on related congressional committees or as commander of a state’s National Guard. This common lack of experience among our national leaders holds true even of presidents and congressmen who are notwhite, male, older, Christian, educated and rich. Lack of national security experience seems to be the common trait that our national leaders have in common, no matter their background. Yet they are the ultimate decision-makers for the most capable national security complex in the history of the world, all the way up to Commander in Chief. As the number of veterans in congress dwindles every year, it should not surprise us that we are struggling to form a coherent national strategy.

No person in their right mind would knowingly hire a dentist, a lawyer, a carpenter, or a plumber who has neither experience nor training. But America’s system elects leaders who are qualified for little else than winning elections.

Those involved in helping elected officials make security decisions update them on the full historical background, developments, and nuances of a complex international situation involving the interests of the United States and other countries that may have great implications for American national security. In this discussion, they must consider America’s national strategy, whether and how it should act, its goals if it does act, and how to achieve these goals using the specific tools—military, economic, diplomatic, and social—the country has to achieve them. The only tools for the briefing are an executive summary and a PowerPoint presentation, after which they must be prepared to answer detailed questions.

How the President’s daily window onto the world since the Kennedy administration—the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB)—is delivered depends upon their personal taste, issues they find most important, their desired level of detail, and determines which issues are left out as well as included. It is usually delivered in under an hour each day. Naturally, those, such as the Director of National Intelligence, who determine what the President is told and how and what he is not told are in a position of some power. They are responsible for building the President’s knowledge of the state of the world, especially if he has very little experience of his own to draw upon. Not all national security decision-making follows or is based upon such a complex process as the NIE. Nonetheless, the product of what may be weeks, months, or even years of work is often briefed to the President in blocks of 45 minutes at a time.

Before the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, President Kennedy only devoted 45 minutes at a time to briefings on the planning, conduct, and chances of success of the operation and later believed if he had understood the full picture and ramifications, he would never have approved it. Kennedy was a WWII veteran who initially served as a U.S. Navy intelligence officer. Some would argue—especially those without security experience—that this is proof such experience makes little difference. However, a more clear-eyed view would be that if someone with military and intelligence experience such as Kennedy could not spot the pitfalls or folly of such an operation following 45-minute briefings, what chance does someone who does not possess even that much experience have?


To the Election Victor Goes the Spoils

Though the smoke is still clearing over the imminent departure of Chuck Hagel from the Pentagon, it appears that Secretary of Defense, a former Republican and Vietnam veteran, was never accepted into the inner circle of decision-making at the White House. Hagel was supposed to simply preside over the final departure of U.S. troops from the Middle East, but instead has presided over a slowing of the withdrawal from Afghanistan and a return to military operations—against ISIS this time—in Iraq. That Hagel and Americas top Generals were at odds with the White House on Syria and Iraq was obvious almost from the beginning.

Much of America’s security policy in the post-9/11 era, spanning both Democratic and Republican administrations and multiple shifts in party control of congress, has been wrought with bipartisan policy failures that have outweighed military and intelligence successes. As Mark Lowenthal points out, we are always told about intelligence failures and policy successes, but never of intelligence successes and policy failures. The bin Laden raid, the Libyan intervention, and the targeted elimination of militants throughout the MENA region have been successes. However, these successes have been overshadowed by poor policy in Iraq and Afghanistan and the opportunity cost they represent which has left the U.S. looking impotent in the face of Russian aggression and put the “Asia Pivot” on hold.

Our military has performed valiantly in the face of great strain over the past decade, with 1% of the citizenry called upon to do all of the fighting. There are no signs it will let up soon. Despite all of Americans’ grumbling about elected leaders, Congress enjoys a re-election rate over 90% despite approval in the lower-teens. Congress agreed with the President that Iraq and Afghanistan should be invaded and America should stay until they were “secure and stable”, but they would not pay for civilian experts from places such as the State Department to help get the job done. Americans dislike “foreign aid.” So battle-hardened Marines and soldiers were called upon to fill the roles of aid workers, public works directors, sociologists, anthropologists, economists, and diplomats and managed to succeed in limited measures despite the impossibility of the task. Defense was forced to fill the hole left by State.

The limited successes America has experienced in the post-9/11 era show that our tools of national power still do work, it is just the decisions made by those who use them that are faulty. This is because they are operating them with no experience and they have not read the instruction manual. Working in national security is the necessary experience. The academic study of war and conflict is the instruction manual. No person in their right mind would knowingly hire a dentist, a lawyer, a carpenter, or a plumber who has neither experience nor training. But America’s system elects leaders who are qualified for little else than winning elections.

It is a no-brainer to say that national security decision-making is a complex task. Even with years of experience, academic study, or both it is still complicated. America’s premier national intelligence product—the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE)—has been likened to the final product of a complex machine that funnels the whole of the nation’s knowledge on a problem and then assembles it; validates it; interprets it; analyses it; condenses it, and; reports it to policymakers. Capabilities across the U.S. government in the intelligence community, the Departments of Defense, State, Justice, Homeland Security, Energy, Treasury, and others feed information through the estimative “machine” in order to develop a product. This product is checked and re-checked by those possessing relevant knowledge and experience within multiple organizations until it is judged fit for purpose. Inter-agency meeting are held to iron out differences and dissents.

After this complex and carefully-constructed process, the result of months or years of work by thousands of experienced, trained personnel, it ends up in the hands of presidents and congressmen who make decisions based upon a written synopsis and a 45-minute briefing. They do have staffers to help them. However, as is frequently lamented, the greatest qualification many possess is having worked on the campaign and then having stayed put, wearing their clearances and committee staff roles as qualification badges. As Kevin Parsneau found, presidents place “loyalty” above “experience” when it comes to choosing staff. Many career State Department Foreign Service Officers, often with decades of experience, lament working under political appointees who often have half their qualifications.

Many will argue that the American system was designed to ensure that civilian control over the security complex is maintained. This is true and it should be maintained. However, all of America’s founding fathers either served in the continental army during the revolution or supported the war effort diplomatically, all of them knowing from the moment they signed the Declaration of Independence that they would be hung if it failed. Today, leaders and their advisers who set troops up to fail get re-elected at no cost to themselves. George Washington set aside his uniform as America’s first military commander and its first spy chief to become its first president, but he did not set aside that experience.

Of recent note, the sequestration debacle, triggering untargeted, across-the-board cuts to defense spending, is further proof of Congress’ misguided understanding of national security. Congress is so broken as an institution that, knowing the parties could not reach an agreement on the budget, they agreed instead to place the added pressure upon one another to reach a compromise by setting this sequestration trap for themselves. They both believed that with defense spending on the line, the other party would cave.

Neither of them did. Congress played a game of chicken with the defense budget and both congressional Democrats and Republicans were willing to ride off the cliff together rather than work together. Now, as Army Chief of Staff Raymond Odierno points out, these military spending cuts are squeezing the defense budget just as more requirements are being placed upon it by the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, not to mention Russian aggression in Ukraine and the Asia Pivot. Congress is not only inexperienced when it comes to national security; it is also reckless and irresponsible.

America’s national security, especially in an era of great uncertainty, is too important to leave in the hands of amateurs. You cannot teach nor learn national security with an executive summary and a 45-minute briefing. We are often told that our leaders are surrounded with the best advisers. They are most often surrounded with those most loyal to them and those who tell them what they want to hear. To sort this mess out, going forward those without experience need not apply.


[Photo: Flickr CC: Chuck Hagel]


Chris Miller is a U.S. Army veteran and  Purple Heart recipient and has worked as a military contractor in the Middle East. His work currently focuses on strategic studies. His interests are CBRNe, military and veterans issues, the Cold War, and international security affairs.



  1. Colonel of Thought 2 December, 2014 at 12:26 Reply

    Chris makes a sound argument. Civilian control of the military is sacrosanct, and should remain so. But each side has a role to play. The military’s job is to execute the White House’s policy in a manner that adheres to the Laws off War, and minimizes the loss of American blood and treasure. But the President’s 10 September strategy speech on the Islamic State didn’t provide an overall policy vis-à-vis Syria, instead it listed tactical tasks. The nation needs a Strategy – what is the desired end state? See a good, concise review of this argument at http://www.strategicdiplomacy.com/articles/a-comprehensive-us-strategy-for-syria

  2. Ray Finch 2 December, 2014 at 14:16 Reply

    What a crock! A watered-down,stab-in-the-back’ commentary from a former soldier. Yes, let’s get rid of civilian/political leadership and replace with the smart and efficient military. The guys wearing the stars know how to get things done. Consider their brilliant successes from Vietnam to Afghanistan. Suggest Mr. Miller try reading the US Constitution.

    • Ron Riml 2 December, 2014 at 14:52 Reply

      So we contract running the Government out to ‘Ex-Military Government Contractors?? No Thanks!!! It’s bad enough that the present crew of Knuckleheads are bought and paid for; we want the likes of ‘Blackwater’ et al legislating for us??? Gimme a freakin’ break!

    • Mike L. 2 December, 2014 at 15:01 Reply

      I did see anything that said replace anyone with any particular type of person other than someone wise enough to listen to those with experience and consider the options in more detail than a barely hour long powerpoint dog and pony show.

      But then I guess we have to implement foreign policy to see what it is, kinda like health care legislation. Why would anyone want to actually understand something before they arrange their lives around it.

    • Chris Miller 2 December, 2014 at 16:56 Reply

      I suggest you actually read the article before commenting because it clearly says we SHOULD NOT get rid of civilian leadership. I like how you threw the meaningless Constitutional reference in there as well.

    • Joe 2 December, 2014 at 17:01 Reply

      Try reading the article again.

      “Many will argue that the American system was designed to ensure that civilian control over the security complex is maintained. This is true and it should be maintained.”

      Mr. Miller is arguing for foreign policy education and experience within our civilian leadership in Congress and the White House. Pointing to the Policy failures of Vietnam and Afghanistan only bolsters his argument. The decisions to take America to war, and the strategies of the wars, in both cases, were appropriately made by civilians.

    • Moses S. 2 December, 2014 at 17:45 Reply

      I’ve a suggestion; how about we allow only those who’ve served in the U.S. Military to advise or serve as Chief of Staff of POTUS or similar positions in senior positions. This way would eliminate those who have served the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), like Rahm Emanuel to serve in position of influence; or other Neo Cons who have served at the Pentagon or the State Department during the 2003 war in Iraq. We must first serve the national security and interest of the U.S., and not Israel or other countries.

  3. Tom 2 December, 2014 at 15:46 Reply

    Well said, Mr. Miller. All true. However, what’s your solution? Restrictions on who can run for office? A test for candidates? Designation of certain positions that require set qualifications. None seem workable, feasible or appropriate.

    • Chris Miller 2 December, 2014 at 17:02 Reply

      No, those are all a bit drastic. I’d like to see less folks in natsec positions whose only/sole natsec qualifications are committee staff or advisers to presidents and members of Congress without any service in uniform or in law enforcement or intel. We’ve got enough lawyers and businessmen in DC. We need to elect and appoint some folks who have that experience. I’m not saying it should be a sole criteria, but it certainly should be a much more important criteria than it has been over the last decade. The numbers of vets in Congress is dwindling every year and we haven’t had a president with combat experience since George HW Bush. That’s got to change. We can’t expect better national security policy out of elected officials and their advisers when they lack experience. Political and bureaucratic infighting is not natsec experience in my book.

      • Whit W 2 December, 2014 at 18:14 Reply

        Mr. Miller, you’ve passionately pointed out a problem with our current national security “machine” with a provocative essay! At the same time, I question whether you’ve diagnosed the problem correctly or completely. Regardless your article is a thought provoking. As I look at the thrust of your argument & a couple of your key points, I’d offer a couple questions and counterpoints.

        Issue 1: Lack of military/combat experience by actual decision makers. For our political leaders to have this type of experience (1) requires a combination big and/or protracted conflict and (2) a substantial time lag for young people to gain this experience and then grow into those decision-making positions. George HW Bush which you cite was a combat veteran in the 1940s and then a decision maker (DCI, VP, Pres) in the 1970s-90s. IF xxx IF the trend continues, then one positive of the past decade is that in the 2030s this may change. On the other hand, the proportion of experienced leaders was a lot higher in the 1960s and what did we get … Vietnam … doh!

        Issue 2: Staffers with only campaign and committee backgrounds. While there are real examples of this, I wonder if this is not a straw man. Many of the political appointees in OSD Policy – my experience as a retired Army SOF guy – have a pretty fair amount of time with what you call “the instruction manual” (the academic study of war and conflict). I guess I’d like to see actual, vs anecdotal, data on the staffers, as well as specificity on the bureaucratic population/organization we’re examining.

        Issue 3: Limitations of politicians. You mention civilian control, which for the US is very important, but there is another issue here. It is one where I don’t think you give the politicians enough credit. They bring (or the good ones do) an understanding of the American public, its hopes, fears, needs and wants. They also bring an understanding of the “political” environment – what consensus can be established among the political class, what can be funded and sustained long enough to accomplish those strategic and operational military, diplomatic, etc. end states, goals and objectives. Yes, these two are both dynamic and interactive relationships that leaders can shape, not just take as a given. At the same time, neither military nor foreign service officers have expertise in these areas.

        Issue 4: the current domestic political environment. I agree sequestration is stupid, that the environment is polarized and dysfunctional! At same time, your description (maybe you nuance was edited out…) makes the same mistake of framing the two parties as each being unitary actors. In Iraq we initially defined the problem as “Iraqis vs terrorist/dead enders” then broadened the lens to Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurd. In reality we have gridlock there, like here, due to reality that each is riven with factions that dislike and differ with each other almost as much as other parties. We have these factions and lack of consensus for a combination of reasons — some national security related, but most not.

        Again, your article is thought provoking and we do need better human capital in the process. At the same time, the US national security leadership class and its machine has never been particularly good at strategy (not that it is at all easy!). The more geo-politically insulated a country is, the more “overmatch” national power-wise a country has, the less critical strategy is and the more a flawed strategy can be overlooked. The US has been blessed with both, though times they are a changin’! We need better human capital, but that ain’t enough by half.

        • Chris Miller 2 December, 2014 at 19:20 Reply

          That’s all well said and well founded. I’d take up your first point briefly because I’m getting a good amount of feedback on it. It’s true that it would take years in the sandbox to develop the kind of real experience necessary and then to turn around and build a political career after that is a daunting task. But that accepts that our current system of lifetime politicians clawing their way up through party ranks and adhering to party doctrine is the way to do things. You can either change the shape of the peg or change the shape of the hole. In this case, we need better national security policy. Rather than accepting that its hard to find a guy (like you) whose used the hard-power tools and has also spent some time reading the instruction manuals won’t have opportunity to pursue running for office, maybe should ask: WHY NOT? (lacking tons of money is usually why not) To me, our system is set up to elect ‘leaders’ who are good for little else than winning elections. This country is not that old and we’re certainly not infallible. I wonder how much longer we can sustain this? Why can’t you run for Congress?

  4. C Martel 2 December, 2014 at 16:22 Reply

    All those “foreign policy experts” through all their diligent work have given us what in terms of coherent foreign policy? Russia reset? An Iran prevented from developing the Bomb? A multicultural Iraq as a beacon of democracy for the Middle East? Peace and tolerance in Libya? Democracy in Egypt? Before you start saying that the Congress should just get out of foreign policy and leave it to the experts, take a look at what the “experts” have given us. Maybe telling in this article is that the history of sequester is misrepresented. It was the President’s proposal, so why is it just Congress’ fault that it was enacted? Maybe the problem with the foreign policy establishment is a failure to look at history from an objective viewpoint, not that too many dilettantes are meddling.

  5. William Stanley 2 December, 2014 at 16:52 Reply

    Interesting. While I agree the “45 minute” information briefings are insufficient, they are the same type our senior military leaders receive as well and while senior military leaders have years of tactical and operational experience it does not always translate into strategic knowledge. One could argue that the most recent coherent strategies were developed by civilians (Dr. Kissinger to name one). Key is to get people in place who have studied national security and strategy to provide the advice (not necessarily the decision maker but a trusted advisor) and assist in the development of the strategy that takes advantage of all the tools (diplomatic, information, military and economic) and then fund the executing organizations appropriately (article briefly touches this). My experience has been you personally do not have to be the expert, but have to be willing to listen to the experts. Our system may be flawed but it has worked better than most others for more than 200 years – civilian control is a good thing.

    • Joe 2 December, 2014 at 17:25 Reply

      Our senior military leaders get a great deal more education and experience than a 45 minute brief. Years of Professional Military Education (PME) often includes more than one postgraduate degree. Years of exercises in Egypt, South Korea, and Germany trying, failing, and trying new tactics and strategies. Years of staff work Organizing, Training, and Equipping our forces, gaining an understanding of how far you can push one squadron of EA-6Bs. And Years being in the combat zone, planning and leading conventional, COIN, and special ops conflicts.

      All this does not mean they will be right in their strategies. It only gives them a perspective that 45 minutes cannot give.

  6. incompetent 3 December, 2014 at 01:41 Reply

    The problem with this thinking is that congressmen and the preaident also have important domestic duties. People with national security experience may have no experience at all in US law. They would likely know very little about economics, healthcare, civil rights, education, etc.

    • Chris Miller 4 December, 2014 at 02:06 Reply

      Clearly a breadth of experience is desirable, but the kind of domestic experience that is also clearly required in law or business is quite easily obtainable in comparison to the the experience of the 1% of Americans who have real national security experience. It’s a dime a dozen. We have tons of lawyers, businessmen, and economists in Congress and the White House already. It’s time to add some more folks who know how to apply hard-power alongside soft-power and the limits of those tools through experience and education, rather than a lot of amateurs with political appointees for their closest advisers. They don’t all have to have this qualification, but a lot more who do is what we need to make sure our military misadventures don’t continue.

  7. Karley 3 June, 2015 at 01:20 Reply

    Hi there. I am doing a masters in NZ on International security and I find what you write really interesting and I want to research it more – however there are no references within your literature. My current essay is on why intelligence fails and how it links to policy – and I am interested in particular your reference to Mark Lowenthal’s when talking about intelligence failure and policy success. Can you point me in the right direction as to where I will find information around this ?? I would appreciate your help.

    Thanks. Karley

    • Chris Miller 1 December, 2015 at 21:26 Reply

      Hi Karley

      Probably way too late, but here is the reference. When this article was migrated over from the old site the hyperlinks did not transfer. Sorry about that.

      Lowenthal, M. (2010) “The Policymaker-Intelligence Relationship.” In The Oxford Handbook of National Security Intelligence, edited by Johnson, L., pp. 437–451. Oxford Handbooks. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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