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.