Friday, May 21, 2010

Thinking about national security

As The Washington Center's "Top Secret" academic seminar winds down, I offer some thoughts, and in no particular order, on what I experienced this week.

1. National security always has been complex but it has become more so because of the development of non-state actors and their ability to create war and terror. The idea of a conventional war -- one state with allies and a traditional military fighting another state with its allies and traditional military is a misnomer. (Yes, you could argue that the U.S. is involved in a traditional war in Iraq or Afghanistan, but that misses the point -- conventional wars are expected less and less often in the future.) Moreover, state actors engaged in war don't consider terror to be a mechanism for success; they seek to win through conventional techniques. Non-state actors cannot play by these rules. They use fear and terrorism to seek credibility and victory because they lack the military resources to fight in the typical way.

2. National security also has become more complex because of the rapid improvement of technology. Consider that you are reading this blog through your computer connection or smartphone. But you could use those same technologies to access the Website of an extremist organization. That's just one example of the way modern technology has allowed for the dissemination and ingestion of information like never before. The Internet allows for "the bad guys" to spread their message of hate, and the international community is struggling with how to stop the spread of such messages. But technology can also allow for states such as China or Russia to attempt to disrupt the financial industries of the United States or the West. (And, yes, the U.S. could seek to do the same thing.) Granted, as more than one speaker suggested this week, we are not in a cyberwar. But we certainly are in an international environment in which a cyber-threat is out there. How the international community deals with that in the future is loaded with complexity.

3. Terrorism is a real war, but if we live in fear of it then we allow it to have more credibility than it deserves. I am reminded of something that National Counterterrorism Center director Michael Leiter told our group on Thursday -- an average of 11 teenagers die every day in this country in car accidents, but since Sept. 11, 2001 a total of 14 Americans have died on home soil because of terrorism. No one is calling on the federal government to restrict the freedoms of teenagers to drive, but a significant majority of Americans want to attack terrorists on every possible front. Do not misunderstand me -- I'm not saying terrorism is a minor problem; what I am saying is that we need to keep in mind how unlikely we are when we are "home" to be affected by it. (And while we do that, let's be sure to thank the thousands of men and women who make that the case.)

4. The "war on terror" (and is that phrase now passe?) cannot be won through U.S. military force alone. "Soft power" is a fascinating and overused term, but it captures the many ways available to combat terror. Soft power includes (and this is not a full list) cultural exchanges, economic development, microgrants, educational programs and the like. In fact, hard power -- military force -- could lead to winning the battles but losing the wars if it is seen as an attempt to impose one's will on another country. America's young people need to be a mechanism for soft power; they need not be idealistic, but they do need to be committed to making a difference as they travel around the world.

5. Media coverage (especially through the broadcast media) of national security gets caught up far too often in what is happening right now and not often enough with in-depth reporting. I'll say little here because if you are a regular reader of this blog, then you know I often comment on the media's absence of depth and the overzealous attention on the frivolous. Suffice to say in this context that the media are abandoning their historical role of acting in the public's interest by its poor reporting of national security, terrorism and the complexities of the international world.

6. Failing states need significant attention to ensure that they don't become overwhelmed by young people (especially men) frustrated by a lack of economic opportunity. Here's your scenario -- a young man lacks a real chance to further his education in order to get a job. He is likely to fall through the cracks and grow angry. Into the breach comes a religious zealot promising a brotherhood/family, a commitment, a purpose and a chance to make a difference. (Here again, we see how modern technology can assist in that effort.) The U.S. and the West must commit itself to formal financial arrangements (including working with organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations) to bolster these nations and to give young people another view of their future.

We can approach our future with fear, or we look at it with the recognition that we have important issues that must be addressed. If we demand that our political leaders, our media, our economic agencies and the other industries that must work together keep the nation's interests and not their own at the top of their agenda, then we should envision the future with confidence and optimism.

To borrow a phrase, hold their collective feet to the fire. But also hold your own feet to the fire by staying engaged with these issues and understanding them through a variety of sources.

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