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The Real False Sense of Security

May 19, 2011

One of our senior associates, Christopher Holshek, wrote this for the Huffington Post:

In the wake of the celebrations and commemorations over the death of the personification of what America has perceived to be the most palpable threat to its national security since September 11, 2001, we are likewise taking an appropriate moment to think about what this all means now and where we go from here. All well and good, but perhaps in all the discussion we have more of an opportunity than we may at first realize, and for longer than we think.

Of course, Americans would be sadly mistaken in assuming a false sense of security over the death of Osama bin Laden in terms of terrorism and unfinished business in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a friend put it, “it’s a bit like the crowd going wild because you got a three-pointer at the buzzer to go on top, but then realize that it’s only the end of the first half”. The end of bin Laden does not spell the end of terrorism, even though it could mean the end of Al Qaeda. Still, we can now at least place a war named against an age-old tactic fully in the rear-view mirror and think in more realistic terms about our security interests.

Indeed, there is an opportunity for the Obama administration, with the removal of this symbol of nemesis, coincidental to the re-assignment of Gen. David Petreaus — the architect of U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan — to the CIA, to seriously scale down our military commitment in Central Asia as well as our defense budget overall, and find the ever-elusive “decent interval” there. The flow of events may now be creating the conditions to expand our political and military room to maneuver on the Asian landmass and ultimately reorient U.S. foreign-policy priorities.

There may also be a chance to put our relations with Pakistan on a more balanced footing. For a while, at least, there will be finger-pointing and high political tension. But the rout of Al Qaeda in Pakistan is removing a serious point of tension and political fixation for both sides, creating room for a more open dialogue about other things. As I pointed out to a friend of mine in Islamabad, America’s interests with regard to Pakistan are complex and, to some extent, self-contradictory. The same is true when it comes to Pakistan for Americans. So, if Americans and Pakistanis truly want a better working relationship, they could start by giving each other a little more benefit of the doubt. To channel Disraeli, we may be neither friends nor enemies, but we certainly still have some common interests.

The most promising development in Pakistan appears to be a galvanizing public discussion about the one institution that has hardly come under scrutiny and yet has had a virtual veto on governance in Pakistan since its independence — the military. Perhaps the American removal of bin Laden is inadvertently leading to more serious civil governance and democratization in Pakistan. It’s up to them more than us.

What is up to us, in sheathing some of our own swords, is taking advantage of an even greater opportunity for America to change permanently how it is viewed around the world, by starting first with how we view ourselves.

Which brings us back to 9/11 and what we should have learned from it in the first place.

On that day, when national security became globalized and other than something “over there”, I noted to the Army civil affairs team I was then leading: “The world has come to America; now America must come to the world”. I meant, however, with an open hand and not a clenched fist. Instead, our national security reflex response was to go out like cowboys and cavalry looking for Indians, with some disastrously costly results. Driven by the military-industrial complex, we applied the most expedient and familiar form of power we know, only to find out that we now find ourselves in a strategic environment in which soft power and diplomacy and development are really more efficacious.

That is because, while national security writ large had not only become more globalized by 9/11, it had also become more humanized. Outside Iraq and Afghanistan, with which Washington has largely been obsessed for nearly a decade, in places like Africa that represent the bulk of security and development challenges around the world, “human security” and civil society challenges such as poverty and food security, rule-of-law and justice, governance, economic development and job creation, and public health contextualize the security problem. Human security is about individuals and communities, empowered by global interconnectivity and the 24/7 media — terrorists as much as protest organizers.

Our still predominant national security paradigm is more about security through the prism of protecting the state rather than the individual, and heavily weighted towards hard power. We would still rather launch a precision-guided bomb from a drone controlled by some computer jockey 12 times zones away than drink three cups of tea, then wonder why those people hate an America with no human face, ceding the “information space” to our enemies who live there.

It took us nearly ten years to kill Osama bin Laden in large part because our intelligence community, which like our military has been more predisposed to gadgetry, has had to painstakingly build the complex network of personal relationships and win trust for our special forces to get even get close enough for a shot.

In truth, by September 11th, our national security model was already out of synch. Many of the same conditions that led to the strategic intelligence failure of 9/11 in the first place, our difficulty in “winning the peace” in Iraq and Afghanistan, our difficulty in exploiting opportunities such as those occurring in the Arab world, and perhaps most of all our retarded capacity to prevent future conflicts, persist to this moment.

As James Locher III, executive director of the Project on National Security Reform, pointed out to Connecticut residents about the perils of our outdated national security machinery as the news broke out, the raid by the SEALS in Abbottabad was a dramatic example of the efficacy of a U.S. new security model — but this retail exception is not the wholesale rule.

“We have always been able to win ugly by throwing money at a problem, but that is no longer the case. We have lost our margin for error and we are headed for a decade of austerity, when even great programs are being killed. The times call for a national security system that is effective, efficient, participatory and agile. Unfortunately, we don’t have it. We have the opposite of that — a system that is archaic, designed 63 years ago, that still clings to Cold War concepts. How can we secure our children’s future with our grandparents’ government?”

As we did nearly 10 years ago, we have an opportunity to overhaul what Col. Mark Mykleby calls the “national strategic narrative” and secure the blessing of liberty in ways, for ourselves and our posterity, that resemble more of what we’re about than what we’re afraid of. If we’re not careful, the real sense of false security may not be in believing the threat of terrorism is a thing of the past, but in believing that the ways and means with which we have traditionally sought collective protection, in great part leading to 9/11 in the first place, can still do so in the future — and that we can still somehow afford that.

And that we still have the time to fix it later than sooner.

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