In most campaigns, it’s a safe bet that bromides and talking points will dominate instead of bold ideas and proposals for real reform.  Let’s hope the 2016 race taking shape is an exception—and includes a serious look at the flawed tools we use to fight our enemies.
 
The reason that every major foreign threat has grown more acute in recent years is not just the poor choices that comprise President Obama’s foreign policy. Those decisions are the icing on the cake of a national security establishment in Washington that fails the American people and has grown more feckless under presidents of both parties.

The reason that every major foreign threat has grown more acute in recent years is not just the poor choices that comprise President Obama’s foreign policy. Those decisions are the icing on the cake of a national security establishment in Washington that fails the American people and has grown more feckless under presidents of both parties.

For example, George W. Bush’s decision to justify the removal of Saddam Hussein primarily by alleging that the Iraqi dictator had weapons of mass destruction stemmed from an incorrect consensus held by America’s $50+ billion-per-year intelligence bureaucracy. More recently, those espionage agencies missed the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the onset of the Arab Spring, and nearly every new nuclear weapons breakthrough by our enemies.  

In 2007, the intelligence bureaucracy reached a laughable conclusion that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program. Several nations have top-notch capabilities to collect so-called human intelligence, which can reveal the thinking and plans of enemies that are hard to discern from satellite images. The United States isn’t one of them.
 
Similarly, the White House’s quest for a deal with an Iranian government whose fondest dream is the destruction of America fits nicely with assumptions held by Washington’s permanent bureaucrats.  The State Department’s Foreign Service has seldom found an enemy it wouldn’t like to try treating as a partner.  In recent years, that bureaucracy happily abetted decisions to ignore democratic protesters in Iran, embrace the Muslim Brotherhood as prospective partners, and downplay the threat posed by ISIS.  The late senator Jesse Helms once quipped that the State Department needed an “America Desk”—a slight of the Department’s regional bureaus and country desks that at times seem more sympathetic to their subject than their employer.  Many who have dealt with the China Desk, for example, know Helms’s angst.   
 
Furthermore, Foggy Bottom’s incompetence at strategic communications or information warfare—known more soothingly as “public diplomacy”—is a wonder of the world.  Last month, the State Department tweeted that radical Muslim women demanding Sharia in the West were somehow icons of free speech.  It was just the latest of umpteenth examples of failure at America’s chief foreign affairs agency.
 
Even the part of our national security apparatus that still enjoys broad pubic support—the military—is in need of reform.  As recently as 2003, a new aircraft carrier cost about $4.5 billion.  The new carrier USS Gerald Ford, by the time she is commissioned in 2016, will have cost about $13 billion—30% more than expected.  The Pentagon’s newest fighter plane, the F-35, which will have cost $400 billion once fully procured, is perhaps the greatest fiasco in the history of military acquisitions. Unchecked health care and other ballooning personnel costs also decrease the effectiveness of dollars spent on defense.
 
Fixing these problems will require big fights with entrenched interests.  All of these constituencies have backers in both parties on Capitol Hill. Congressional committees that are supposed to act like stingy paymasters working for taxpayers often instead protect agencies in their jurisdictions, seeing them as their own fiefdoms.
 
The next president should reform or even break up the CIA, let multiple agencies collect human intelligence, and eliminate the useless office of the Director of National Intelligence.  He should resurrect the Cold War-era U.S. Information Agency to wage non-violent political warfare on Islamists and other key U.S. adversaries like Iran, China, and Russia.  The next president should merge the Foreign Service with the regular State Department workforce, and open competition for overseas positions to all government employees.  He should streamline the Pentagon and reel in the National Security Council staff, which in Republican administrations is often a vehicle for liberal bureaucrats to manage the president instead of vice versa. 
 
Proposing these reforms would cause Beltway insiders to have kittens.  Washington’s cardigan-wearing guilds would also smear as “dangerous” and “naive” any president who speaks truthfully about our enemies.  Even George W. Bush had difficultly labeling Islamists and other adversaries accurately.  He proclaimed a War on Terror, even though “terror” is just a tool.  Added to this slow start will be eight years of the Obama-Clinton refusal to acknowledge the link between Islamism and many of the threats we face.  Correcting these soothing but wrong self-deceptions will draw the support of the American people—but a firestorm among the elite.  
 
It will not be sufficient for the next president merely to halt harmful Obama-era policies like hollowing out the military, alienating allies while romancing adversaries, or fighting indecisive wars in the Middle East with little regard for what comes next.  The Pentagon needs more funding, but reform is crucial.  The federal government needs to confront Islamism globally, but tasking the same agencies that already failed to detect, understand, or combat this hostile political force will only lead again to failure. 
 
America’s national security apparatus needs sweeping reform on the scale of that which occurred after World War II, resulting in new tools and practices for new threats.  To be successful, the next president will have to seek similar reform—and be willing to plunge into the political firestorm that inevitably results. 

Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration. He is author of "2003-2009. He is the author of "Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War" (Potomac Books, 2013).