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.