The crippling and pervasive defects in us national-security policy—costly exertions that, time and again, fail to yield the promised results—are patently obvious, consistently bemoaned, and yet effectively tolerated. To say that the apparatus principally responsible for implementing those policies is an underperforming behemoth qualifies as a considerable understatement. The kindest verdict one can offer regarding the Pentagon is that it marginally outperforms its first cousin, the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The next president will enter office in January 2017 vowing to correct those defects. The likelihood that he or she will succeed in doing so is nil. The reasons why are legion, but prominent among them is the fact that those who ascend to the top of the national-security apparatus invariably arrive in the Pentagon as unwitting agents of the status quo. By the time they land one of the top jobs, they have long since forfeited any capacity for critical thought.
To illustrate the point, consider the case of Ashton Carter, now a year in office as secretary of defense. The 25th person to hold that position since its inception just 69 years ago, Carter is seasoned, able, and undoubtedly well-intentioned. Yet he is as much a creature of the Pentagon as he is its CEO. He embodies the culture of national security, having absorbed its assumptions, worldview, habits, and language.