This is nothing like 24. Visitors to the Situation Room will immediately notice it’s not nearly as high-tech and blinking as its Hollywood versions, and the enchantment keeps fading from there. America is a superpower, with access to tremendous capabilities, resources, leverage, and brains, but basically everything the United States might do to respond to a crisis is much harder and slower than you might imagine. As a result, the urge to skip over “required” steps in decision processes, or demand what is fast rather than what is right, is strong. Don’t give in.
Think, patiently. The most chaotic, unplanned NSC meetings can feel like a good midwestern family trying to decide on a restaurant for dinner: “What do you want to do? I dunno, what do you want to do?” National-security demi-god Phil Zelikow laments the decline of sophisticated policy development with the kind of nostalgia usually associated with first loves, wistfully recalling a time when “Arguments and choices were carefully noted and clearly communicated to those who needed to know. Relevant factual assumptions—about foreigners or our own side—were rigorously tracked.” Without such preparation, and the effort to get it on paper, meetings—even urgent meetings—are totally pointless. But quality staffwork does not spring fully formed from the heads of the folks in charge. Analysis takes time, and thoughtful analysis takes more time, requiring a trust in experts echelons below the bigwigs at the table—and all of this is a good thing. Critics have rightfully noted that there can be too much of a good thing; extensive “problem admiration” in the Obama administration launched a thousand frustrated op-eds and Cabinet tell-alls. But Zelikow reminds that policy options are generally matters of life and death and deserve slow and deliberate attention
Especially in the war room. Prayers for patience are most needed when turning toward the Pentagon. Seeking military options from the Department of Defense is a delicate dance involving a sea of acronyms, a continuous escalation ladder of “your boss will need to call my boss,” and a civil-military philosophical battle that sounds like a chicken-and-egg debate conducted solely in acronyms. Even with an abundance of former and current senior military officials in senior national-security roles, marriage counseling advice is needed to at least smooth the relationship between White House and DOD officials. Open communication, being straight about needs and limitations, and giving one another time (as military planning takes about three months more than the two hours you are anticipating) are key to minimizing mutual feelings of mutiny. As is giving CENTCOM a heads up when you’re considering a strike on Syria.
No impulse buying. Even with such understanding, folks on the national-security staff will frequently need to remind one another that, as Lieutenant General David Barno and Rosa Brooks remind us, the United States is not Super Walmart—or Amazon. The U.S. government frequently demonstrates its might by sending stuff to hot spots: humanitarian aid to disaster areas, security assistance to partners in need, etc. Years of this practice have made the (wrong) impression: that the government can move anything, anywhere, overnight, and with free shipping. Despite its many fine qualities, however, the United States has not broken the laws of physics and must adhere to time, distance, and freight charge requirements. It’s not often possible to get there the firstest with the mostest, and if it is, it’s often with spare items to which American partners will offer an “er, thanks.” Decision-makers will need to temper their appetites and avoid prioritizing what’s easy—or most camera-friendly—vs. what is needed most.