The Obama National Security Team: Old Wine in Old Bottles

It’s ironic that, in unveiling his new national security team, then President-elect Obama would state: “The time has come for a new beginning, a new dawn of American leadership.” Though offering himself as a transformative leader who represents a dramatic alternative to the status quo, Obama bears the burden of both his own personal inexperience and the Democrats’ perceived weakness on national security. Expectably, therefore, he has sought to buy instant credibility by surrounding himself with credentialed Washington insiders possessing name recognition. In thereby seeking to compensate for his inexperience with the credentials of others, his inexperience has seemingly blinded him to the fact that placing his fate–and ours–in the hands of these and other, yet-to-be-named establishmentarians essentially endorses the status quo he has railed against.

The problem is that there is little to distinguish Democrat from Republican or liberal from conservative members of the card-carrying national security establishment. It is a closed, inbred, elitist clique whose members–as the price of entry, acceptance, and retention–all buy into and perpetuate the same tired ideas and ways of thinking. At root, they are hard-wired realists who think of security as national security, not as something grander (global security) or more primal (human security); who tend, notwithstanding occasional rhetorical diversions and deceptions about “soft power” and “smart power,” to equate security with defense and to concern themselves with the accumulation and exercise of national power defined primarily in military terms; who believe national interests actually exist and can be identified, not that they are mere rhetorical contrivances politicians use to rationalize action or inaction for other reasons; who similarly believe there are real threats to those interests that objectively exist, rather than being mental constructions manipulative politicians generate to engender fear and galvanize unity; who subscribe to the enduring primacy of state sovereignty over human sovereignty; who see the future as an inevitable continuation of the iron laws of the past, not as a tabula rasa that can be written anew; and who, unquestioningly and unimaginatively, cling to a singular conception of the military as an instrumentality whose supernal purpose is to prepare for and wage war.

Thus, there is irony in Mr. Obama’s selection of “strong personalities with strong opinions” who, by implication, can be expected to be in disagreement as often as not. Yet at the most fundamental level, hardly any daylight separates these individuals from one another on the philosophical underpinnings of statecraft to which they subscribe, consciously or not.

There is also irony in Mr. Obama’s announced desire to balance “experience and fresh ideas.” Yet in choosing this particular national security team, he has clearly sacrificed the latter to the former. The experience these individuals bring to the table is experience as bureaucratic and political tacticians, not as sources or stewards of fresh ideas. Call them pragmatic, call them parochial; by experience and temperament, they are neither visionaries nor strategic thinkers.

What we can expect from them, therefore, is a focus on the little-picture tactics of crisis management that consume politics today–reacting to headlines, shaping messages, projecting imagery. But what the new president, the American people, and even concerned external audiences should demand of them is bolder, more elevated–in other words, strategic–thought and action. For example:

1. Promulgating a bona fide grand strategy for the country–not merely the formulaic periodic report to Congress that goes by the name of U.S. national security strategy, nor a superficial “Obama doctrine” of sales-worthy buzzwords (like “smart power”), but a coherent architecture for the future that has intellectual staying power comparable to our Cold War containment doctrine and can thereby galvanize the American people in common cause over time.

2. Restoring constitutional intent by realigning legislative-executive relations in matters of statecraft and warmaking, even to the point of requiring congressional declarations of war as a precondition for future commitments of U.S. forces abroad.

3. Ending the rhetoric and reality of the “long war” against terrorism in favor of a criminal justice-based approach to counterterrorism that (a) places terrorism in its proper context as merely one of innumerable transnational challenges worthy of attention and (b) reaffirms the rule of law as the centerpiece of our domestic and international behavior.

4. Committing the United States to the effectiveness and success of the United Nations by demonstrating a willingness to relinquish selected sovereign prerogatives, accord deference, and expand support to that body.

5. Fostering the establishment of a network of permanent regional multilateral security institutions that could relieve the United States of its self-anointed role as global policeman; and committing us to sustainable multilateral relationships as ends in themselves–not simply as expedient means–that thereby justify relinquishing certain unilateral prerogatives, capabilities, and preferences for a larger good.

6. Accentuating the primacy of diplomacy and civilian supremacy by creating regional super-ambassadors around the world, armed with regional portfolios and charged with direct oversight of the military’s “combatant” field commands.

7. Taking the lead in pursuing global denuclearization, delethalization, and demilitarization as necessary preconditions for attaining the ultimate strategic aim of global security and enduring peace.

8. Seeking, accordingly, the progressive demilitarization of the military by reorienting it from warfighting to peacekeeping, nation building, humanitarian assistance, and disaster response, thereby making it a strategically effective instrument that (a) serves the larger aims of society and humanity, rather than being simply a militarily effective instrument serving those in power, and (b) thereby redefines for the world what twenty-first-century militaries properly do.

9. Similarly addressing the demilitarization of domestic affairs by giving serious consideration to the disestablishment of both the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Northern Command.

10. Demonstrating, at long last, that we have moved beyond the Cold War by superseding the 1947 National Security Act with a United States Security Act of 2009 that, at a minimum, (a) replaces the National Security Council with an expanded, more inclusive, symbolically relevant strategic advisory body whose statutory members include, among others, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, and (b) disestablishes the most provocative and parochial vestige of the Cold War: the CIA.

11. Reestablishing the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the U.S. Information Agency, and revitalizing the Agency for International Development, as independent organizations that reflect renewed seriousness toward the strategic functions they perform.

12. Creating a standing presidential Council of Strategic Advisors and pushing Congress to establish permanent select committees on strategic affairs.

13. Redirecting the defense debate from its tiresome rhetorical focus on “stronger defense” to “better defense” by (a) eliminating strategically irrelevant weapon systems (tanks, submarines, intercontinental ballistic missiles) and perhaps even a redundant arm of service (like the Marines), (b) undertaking a Manhattan Project-like effort to develop and field a family of nonlethal weapons, (c) eliminating the advocacy-oriented, oversight-averse civilian armed service secretariats, and (d) replacing the Joint Chiefs of Staff, composed of service chiefs, with a Council of Military Commanders, composed of combatant field commanders.

Such initiatives, precisely because they are so heterodox and provocative, are also seemingly infeasible. For the establishmentarians who dominate the field of national security, feasibility–and the associated minimization of political risk–is the overriding desideratum for action or inaction. But legacies are born of vision, boldness, and elevated political risk. So, if President Obama is to avoid being totally consumed and defined by the intractable problems that confront us, if he is to leave a lasting strategic legacy, if there is in fact to be “a new beginning, a new dawn of American leadership,” he must let his so-called high-political instincts overcome his low ones and push his national security team beyond the deeply ingrained inhibitions of their experience. For a United States that faces becoming a superpower emeritus, nothing less should suffice.

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