The sweeping changes recommended by a two-year commission on national security merit intense study by the Bush administration, already intent on reforming the way American foreign policy is shaped and carried out. Systems crafted to meet yesterday's threats must turn to tomorrow's targets.
Broadening the definitions of national security while attacking inadequacies in the agencies now charged with national safety, the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century has developed a blueprint for change that impacts not only security policy but the way power is exercised in Washington.
It calls for organizational mergers into a new National Homeland Security Agency, total overhaul of the State and Defense Departments, and changes in relationships between Congress and the Executive Branch. It will be costly, although there was no attempt to estimate how costly.
Yet it offers a sound and compelling argument for change. The way we face the world has not altered much since the end of the Cold War, although the world has changed dramatically. As other studies also have concluded, our national security concerns no longer are defined by a single prominent threat; instead of confronting the massed armadas of an evil empire, we now must worry about three guys and a suitcase.
The commission's two-year study concludes that mass-casualty terrorism against the U.S. homeland is a "serious and growing concern" and that a direct attack against American citizens on American soil is likely within the next 25 years. It found an underfunded security system still looking mostly in the wrong direction, and foreign policy institutions that desperately need restructuring and streamlining.
"Without significant reforms, American power and influence cannot be sustained," commissioners concluded.
The call for reform mirrors efforts already under way, including some by new Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. A separate report issued a day later by the Council on Foreign Relations also bolsters the call to revamp a State Department that has grown unwieldly and was home, in the Clinton years, to a foreign policy that seemed overly based on melodrama, and reactive rather than proactive.
Individual elements of the report will spur debate. While citing the Coast Guard as a model for homeland security forces, for example, it merges that service with Customs and the Border Patrol - all agencies with expanded missions and tightened budgets - into a new force anchored on the Federal Emergency Management Agency. While the mergers make sense from security standpoints, the Coast Guard has other equally important nonsecurity roles that should not be de-emphasized.
Retraining and restructuring the National Guard to deal with attacks within the United States also seems a good idea that would provide a real and specialized mission of the sort envisioned by the Constitution's nod to nation-defending militia. Yet that conversion would require extensive and probably expensive revamping of Guard units.
Such debates also will be part of the commission's legacy, and its report could make its most valuable contribution simply as a springboard for discussion and even better ideas.