During my recent trip to Iraq — not conducted in conjunction with the U.S. Embassy, military, or any U.S. government agency — I had the opportunity to meet with both clerical officials, top political leaders, and senior members of the cabinet and national security apparatus, as well as ordinary Iraqi professionals, academics, and members of civil society. Almost to a man, most believed that the United States was not serious about fighting the Islamic State. While those inside government knew what the United States was doing (even if they no longer believed they could count on Washington), those outside of government believed that the United States actually supported the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh).
One of the problems, several Iraqis suggested, was not just the disinterest of the Obama administration in Iraq and in the campaign against the Islamic State once media interest moved on, but rather the glacial pace of the U.S. bureaucracy. When ISIS conquered Mosul in June 2014, the Iraqi government was in a panic. According to officials in Baghdad, both Washington and Tehran promised immediate assistance. Iran delivered weaponry within three days. It took the State Department and Pentagon until November, Iraqis said, until they had hammered out a legal agreement and then another several months to begin to deliver assistance. (Yes, the United States bombed targets, but there is general consensus air power alone cannot defeat ISIS). Simply put, when authorities in Baghdad feared they might face an existential threat, the Iranians delivered but U.S. authorities prioritized their process. U.S. diplomats might explain the process to the Iraqis, but explanations of how the U.S. bureaucracy works and how many committees and offices need to sign off on any transfer provides little solace.
The same problem holds true with Ukraine. Even if President Obama were serious about helping the Ukrainians counter Russian aggression — and there is no indication he is — it would take the Pentagon months in order to transfer the weaponry and, because of transparency and oversight requirements within the U.S. bureaucratic process, the Russians would know exactly what the Ukrainians were to receive weeks if not months ahead of time. It would take the Kremlin only days to provide equipment to their militias and irregulars inside the Ukraine to counter whatever the United States had provided.
The simple fact is this: U.S. bureaucracy is not on war footing. The government has gotten so large and those with a role in any decision and transfers so many, that the net effect is that U.S. authorities expect enemies to conform to the U.S. bureaucratic timeline, rather than rush the bureaucracy to deal with an enemy that can pivot on a dime. The National Security Council was once meant to coordinate bureaucracies, but across recent administrations, it has simply become bloated like those departments for which it was once a patch to functionality. A new president who philosophically embraces American leadership will not be enough, nor will tweets against terrorism win the long war. It’s time for candidates to have a serious discussion about how to put the bureaucracy on a war footing to enable victory.