No Time for ‘Nobody Home’

By Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state in the Bush administration and Michèle A. Flournoy, president and co-founder of the Center for a New American Security and former principal deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration (THE WASHINGTON POST, 09/06/08):

The early months of 2009 may well be the most precarious period in recent American history. As the next president takes office, some 350,000 U.S. military personnel deployed overseas will await orders from their new commander in chief, the first wartime transition since Johnson-Nixon 40 years ago. The next administration will not only take charge of two wars but will also inherit daunting national security challenges: a global struggle against violent extremism; the continued proliferation of nuclear weapons to hostile states; growing challenges associated with energy security and climate change; an overstretched military under enormous strain; an economy sliding toward recession; and U.S. global standing at an all-time low.

The “nobody home” phenomenon that occurs between Election Day and the inauguration, as the old administration empties out and the new one has yet to fill its ranks, poses serious risks. It is imperative that this transition proceed quickly and effectively. As Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently noted, “It’s important for us to get as many principals in positions as rapidly as possible in a time of war.”

If recent history is any guide, however, the transition will last six months or longer. In the Clinton administration, it was May before the first undersecretary of defense was confirmed. More recently, Secretary of State Colin Powell waited six months until his senior team made it through the laborious process of nomination, confirmation and security clearances.

But the world does not wait for presidencies to get established. Several American presidents have been tested within their first few months: Kennedy became embroiled in the Bay of Pigs (April 1961); Nixon ordered secret bombing campaigns in Cambodia (March 1969); Clinton inherited a deteriorating situation in Somalia (May 1993); and George W. Bush had to deal with China’s grounding of a U.S. Navy EP-3 aircraft (April 2001).

The next president is even more likely to be tested early. The nation cannot afford to wait six months to have key national security officials in place. We should aim to have them in office within days or, at most, weeks of Jan. 20, 2009.

An expedited clearance and confirmation process is also critical to enabling the president to engage his national security team in an intensive strategy development process to set clear priorities, determine how to pursue them and decide how to manage the inevitable trade-offs. The best historical example of such an exercise was President Dwight Eisenhower’s Solarium process, in which he commissioned three senior teams to develop and debate alternative strategies for dealing with the Soviet Union. A modern-day Solarium process would offer a new president an invaluable opportunity to chart a new course for the United States in the world and form a cohesive national security team that shares a common vision and understands the president’s intent.

The United States cannot afford a business-as-usual approach to the vetting, clearance and confirmation processes in wartime. We should seek now to build a bipartisan consensus among the presidential candidates, the executive branch and the Senate to orchestrate an expedited clearance and confirmation process for the top 40 to 50 members of the new president’s national security team. Specifically:

· Both presidential candidates should commit to submitting a slate of nominees for the top 40 to 50 national security positions at State, Defense, Homeland Security and the intelligence community by Dec. 1.

· The Office of Personnel Management should commit to vetting this slate and expediting their nomination packages.

· The FBI and other agencies responsible for vetting appointees for security clearances should expedite the process for this slate, with the aim of having each official cleared by the time he or she is confirmed.

· The chairs and ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the majority and minority leaders of the Senate should commit to expedited confirmation hearings for this slate, with the aim of having secretaries and deputy secretaries in place within a few days of the inauguration and undersecretaries and key assistant secretaries in place no later than the end of February.

· Departing administration officials with oversight responsibilities for Iraq, Afghanistan and other ongoing military operations should take pains to debrief their incoming counterparts to ensure smooth handoffs of operational oversight.

· The incoming administration should attempt to keep key national security personnel in place until their successors are confirmed.

Such an approach is essential to reducing the risks inherent in a wartime transition and to enabling the next president to grapple effectively with the most daunting national security inheritance in generations.