The National Security Bureaucracy Is Unwell

  • November 21, 2023
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Justin Logan

The national security bureaucracy is working itself to death. The syndrome is particularly acute among the leadership of the uniformed military. The Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Eric Smith recently suffered a heart attack at 58, from which he is thankfully recovering, having reported the month before feeling exhausted by a schedule that has him beginning work at 5 a.m. and ending work at 11:30 p.m.

Smith isn’t alone in burning the candle at both ends. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s chief of staff reported that Lt. Gen. Douglas Sims, the director for operations at the Joint Staff, “probably works about 18 hours a day, 7 days a week.”

Much of the blame for this state of affairs is presently falling at the feet of Alabama GOP Senator Tommy Tuberville’s hold on bulk military nominations, provoked by President Biden’s use of Defense Department funds to, in violation of the Hyde Amendment, pay for out‐​of‐​state abortions. But it’s far from clear that he is the real culprit. As the Marine Corps Times noted, in the case of Gen. Smith, “it’s unclear how the hours that Smith is working actually compare to the hours worked by other military leaders, past and present.”

Moreover, the problem exists outside the uniformed military and it predates the Tuberville hold. Take National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, for example. A New York Times article revealed that the president’s chief adviser on national security matters averaged two hours of sleep per night across three weeks during the Afghanistan withdrawal. More recently, an intruder broke into Sullivan’s house earlier this year at 3:00 a.m., only to find Sullivan still awake working.

When he was at the State Department during the Obama adminstration, Sullivan reported that while on travel, he could at best get 3, 4, or 5 hours of sleep per night, and was in “pretty terrible” physical condition. What kept him going was “adrenaline” and a “persistent sense that if I made mistakes, the consequences would be awful.”

So rather than Tuberville, most of the blame lies in threat inflation among the national security establishment. As Sullivan noted above, the belief that he was the barrier between a dangerous world and his countrymen kept him going. Or as Austin’s chief of staff described the reason Sims was working so much, he “is literally holding the world together as the J3.”

Perhaps nothing illustrates this outlook as well as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ description of the pressures on the upper levels of the national security bureaucracy today:

There’s this gigantic funnel that sits over the table in the Situation Room. And all the problems in the world end up coming through that funnel to the same eight or 10 people. There’s a limit to the bandwidth those eight or 10 people can have.

All the problems in the world! Even before Hamas attacked Israel and Israel responded in Gaza, Gates was warning darkly that the United States was facing the most dangerous threat environment “perhaps ever.”

It is this view of the dangers the United States faces—and of the role of the national security bureaucracy in vanquishing those threats—that causes these people to abandon their families and their sleep, and plunge into a years‐​long frenzy of memos, meetings, and misery. It’s like Bill Lumbergh meets the Justice League.

The crowning tragedy here is that while there are a host of conflicts raging from Ukraine to Gaza, they do not pose great dangers to Americans at home unless the national security bureaucracy gets Americans into the middle of them. Geography, nuclear weapons, and the world’s most powerful military purchase the United States a large measure of safety that can still be leveraged against most problems in most places. Other countries’ national security bureaucracies don’t think of themselves—and don’t abuse their employees—in this way.

Even viewed in light of the complex literature on sleep loss, it is clear that we should not want national security decisionmakers to be operating under this kind of sleep deprivation, all while being separated for great stretches from the things that renew and refresh most people: family, love, and recreational pursuits.

G. K. Chesterton famously remarked that the true soldier does not fight because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him. In far too many cases in today’s national security bureaucracy, the principals might not even recognize what’s behind them. Acting on the illusion of barbarians at the gate, they are working themselves to the bone, unnecessarily.

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