Declaring an End to the Decade of Fear

With U.S. national security policy under review, Obama has a chance to cement his legacy for the better. But will he take it?

We are at a watershed moment for U.S. national security policy. The changes being ushered in will almost certainly be viewed as a vital part of President Barack Obama's legacy. It is also undeniable that the president deserves considerable credit for orchestrating and accelerating some of them and accepting others as larger trends drove them along.

That said, how he embraces these changes moving forward and whether or not he has a coherent vision for maximizing their promise and benefits on behalf of the U.S. and the American people will color that legacy greatly. Indeed, they could make the difference between seeing the president as bowing to temporal and popular forces or leading them. 

We have come to what could be seen as the end of an ignominious period in U.S. national security history, one that might be called the Decade of Fear. And though it was the 9/11 attacks that ushered this period in, our response in the months and years afterward defined it far more than those blows ever could. At a moment when the United States could have seen the terrorist threat as being as limited and peripheral, we over-reacted -- grotesquely. 

We didn't react to the moment. We didn't seize it. We succumbed to it. 

Instead, we allowed our fear to drive the creation of a massive government security apparatus, huge expenditures, and reckless global programs. Compared to the number of people, groups, or weapons systems threatening us, our investment in our response to said threats redefines "disproportionate" in the annals of a government where excess has been a hallmark of our military-industrial complex. And that's saying something.

Gradually, this excess came to haunt us. War spending with its $2-3 trillion price tag exacerbated our national financial burdens at a time of great economic crisis. Our wars of over-reach and ideological hysteria damaged our international standing and incited political backlash at home. Recently, some of the secret initiatives launched to contain the perceived (but amorphous and largely illusory) were revealed to have risked not only American personal freedoms but also international relationships in ways that no terrorist could ever hope to achieve.

This in turn has finally created a reaction, a retrenchment, and, thankfully, a movement back to a more rational national security. President Obama was elected in 2008 in large part due to his commitment to winding down our two costly, distracting, and largely unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And since then Obama has guided his Defense Department to consider cutbacks. He has avoided some foreign entanglements (perhaps too assiduously). He has sought to put threats into better perspective (for the most part). Clearly, drone programs, the expansion of our offensive cyber capabilities, the conduct of special and clandestine operations, and the continuing expansion of the surveillance state have undercut his ability to claim authorship for this resetting of priorities.


But looking at the headlines of these last two weeks, it's hard to conclude that there isn't something big afoot -- creating an opportunity to make this not only a policy turning point but also one for the Obama presidency. Secretary Hagel is today beginning the process of making public the results of his strategic review that will focus on bringing defense spending back down to a peacetime footing. An unprecedented secrecy review will finally take a look at the grossly bloated secrecy culture of the U.S. government, its hidden costs in economic, policy and efficiency terms, and the measures needed to rein it in. On the Hill, the Snowden revelations promise some efforts at reform of the NSA and related surveillance programs. The president recently sent a clear message about his commitment to departing Afghanistan on or even before the deadline of the end of next year.


But whether or not the president and his top national security advisors will orchestrate these initiatives into a coordinated effort to reset America's national security footing, advancing national interests rather than hyperventilating in the face of every potential threat and theoretical consequence conjured by the Beltway Chicken Littles, remains to be seen. Will Obama be bold? Will he not just cut back but reallocate resources? Will he leave the process to the Hill and to external actors, offering passivity as the best alternative to hysteria?

The way to gauge this will be to watch how he manages the issues framed by the aforementioned headlines. If Obama were, for instance, to insist that Hagel's review be truly decoupled from industry and regional special interests (and begin the process of rationalizing America's defense structure so that it reflects our real needs), it would mean contemplating a world in which we spend, say, just 75 percent of the next 10 biggest national defense budgets worldwide rather than 100 percent of them. (This isn't a reach given that almost all of them are our allies and none threaten us with imminent or even conceivable major conflict in the next couple decades.) It also means insisting that the secrecy review move us away from the classification mania and a system that requires millions of people to obtain special clearance. It means not spending billions on protecting information that mostly -- by the estimate of top security officials with whom I have worked over the years -- already exists elsewhere in the public domain. It means building an intelligence apparatus that gives policymakers access to the information they need rather than one that artificially inflates the importance of information by needlessly classifying it -- thus making it harder to use. 

A coherent and truly (and wisely) transformational policy shift will also involve a clear, stated reversal on the policies associated with the creation of the surveillance state in which we live. Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post did D.C. residents a big favor earlier this week when he courageously acknowledged the service Edward Snowden did for the United States ... and for the global debate on rights and privacy in the big data era. I have myself been too slow to recognize that the benefits we have derived from Snowden's revelations substantially outweigh the costs associated with the breach. It is time we move from the kind of Patriot Act thinking that overstates security threats to such a degree that we subordinate our basic freedoms to something more consistent with our historical systems of checks and balances. 

And with regard to Department of Homeland Security -- and I say this with only a slight hint of my tongue in my cheek -- this moment, when so many top spots in the department are vacant, might just be the perfect time to undo one of the biggest bureaucratic blunders of the Bush years and unmake the government institutions born of fear. I have spoken to no one in Washington ... including very, very senior officials of the Department of Homeland Security and the Directorate of National Intelligence ... who believes that creating those two enterprises did anything other than to create unneeded bureaucracy, expense, and inefficiency. And in so doing, they did not enhance security, they compromised it. (And don't worry, the key parts or functions of those agencies...the ones we need to combat whatever real terror threats actually exist...would remain.  They'd just be smaller and back in the entities from which they came.) If Republican budget cutters on the Hill were not also the biggest of America's fear-mongers, they would be leading their efforts toward fiscal probity by taking scalpels to Defense and chainsaws to the Department of Homeland Security and the Directorate of National Intelligence.

There are three years left in the Obama term. Whether or not he uses them to seize this moment and turn it into a coherent transition toward an efficient, effective, and focused national security apparatus -- one that we desperately need -- will play a large role in determining how history views his presidency.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

Tokyo Drift

Naming Caroline Kennedy ambassador to Japan sends a terrible message about America.

Being something of an op-ed writer myself, I consider the nomination of Caroline Kennedy for ambassador to Japan to be a breakthrough. While America's diplomatic envoys have been chosen on the basis of a variety of criteria before -- key posts during the Obama years have, for example, been awarded for reasons ranging from the bundling of donations to the actual giving of their own personal cash -- the Kennedy nomination is perhaps the first time in history that an individual has been nominated for a top ambassadorial post primarily for having written an opinion column.

Early in 2008, back in the days when Barack Obama was hardly a shoo-in to be the Democratic nominee for president, Kennedy penned a piece for the New York Times called "A President Like My Father." In it, she described Obama as a man who could inspire a new generation of Americans as her father, President John F. Kennedy, had inspired a previous generation. It provided Obama with a big boost and, along with the support he received from Sen. Edward Kennedy, gave the candidate the imprimatur of the political-celebrity wing of the Democratic establishment -- a leg up in his tight race against then-Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Other than writing this op-ed, Kennedy has not the slightest hint of a qualification to be ambassador to Japan. Trained as a lawyer, she has led a worthy life of dedication to family charities, other nonprofit organizations, and writing. But she has no particular experience with Japan, no experience with diplomacy or foreign affairs, and no government experience. Hers is a nomination that reflects more on the president's views toward the diplomatic service and by extension the entire Department of State than it does on anything she has ever done or shown interest in doing. It also by extension illustrates the ever-growing centrality of the White House and more importantly the president himself to the conduct of U.S. international relations.

This is well illustrated by the comments of former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell in the New York Times article announcing Kennedy's nomination. "For those who say she doesn't know a lot about Japan, I say 'sure,' but neither did Walter Mondale," said Campbell, referring to the former vice president who once served in the Tokyo post. He then went on to say: "What you really want in an ambassador is someone who can get the president of the United States on the phone.… I can't think of anybody in the United States who could do that more quickly than Caroline Kennedy."

I have great personal regard for Campbell; indeed, I view him as a good friend and as one of the most successful assistant secretaries of state for East Asian affairs the United States has ever produced. But this comment is both ill-considered and disturbing. It is ill-considered because it dismisses the foreign policy and government experience of Mondale, a former vice president and senator, as being as flimsy as that of Kennedy. Indeed, it is worth noting that the other political "marquee figures" who have served in the Japan job are Howard Baker and Thomas S. Foley, one a former Senate majority leader, the other a former speaker of the House. These were men chosen because they sent a message to Japan that America considers the job of U.S. representative to Japan a very high priority and honor. Sadly, so too does the selection of Kennedy, who is succeeding another appointee whose sole qualification for the job was the ability to get the president on the phone, John Roos, a big-time fundraiser for the president.

The disturbing message is the part of the Campbell statement that is rich with irony, given that it comes from someone who bears so many scars of the tug of war between the State Department and the White House over who should shape U.S. foreign policy. It is the idea that the most important thing in U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy more generally is access to the president. (I will leave aside for the moment the rather unsettling notion that the person in the very best position to get the president to take her or his call is Caroline Kennedy, whose primary political contribution is that of celebrity endorser.)

The idea that the principal job of an ambassador is to get the president on the phone grossly undervalues the role of the entire State Department and the rest of the U.S. government in relations between the United States and Japan or any other government. It suggests that all major policy issues travel through the White House, are resolved by the White House, are implemented at the behest of and with the influence of the White House, and that central to each of these is the president.

Giving out ambassadorial posts to those who have personally helped the president but who otherwise have no diplomatic experience or, in some cases, no experience with the countries in which they are being called upon to serve sends a host of lousy messages. One is that real diplomatic experience doesn't matter. Another is that in America cronyism trumps all. And another is this very un-American idea that U.S. foreign policy is more about the president than the actions of an entire government, a system, or national interests.

The concentration of the foreign-policy apparatus in the White House (which now boasts by far the biggest national security staff in American history, a staff almost 10 times larger than that overseen by Henry Kissinger), the acknowledged shift of much critical decision-making and actual implementation of foreign policy to the White House staff and away from the State Department, the fact that foreign governments and senior officials now often bypass the State Department and go straight to the White House to do their business, and the recent tendency to view White House or presidential statements of opinion on world affairs as the primary foreign-policy output of a United States that seemingly wants to do little other than comment on many issues -- all are bigger, more important signs of the oversized role the chief executive now plays in U.S. diplomacy. But actions like the Kennedy appointment underscore this in an unsettling way. History and common sense both show that such a concentration of focus around a single individual or seat of power reduces the input of many with vital experience and views, makes it harder to implement policies that require solutions from key departments or the whole of government, makes it harder for those agencies to do their mandated jobs, and, on top of it all, sends a really terrible message about American politics and values.

Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images