The Obama Administration – not uniquely, perhaps, but with special verve – seems keen to co-opt the energy and urgency of “national security” priorities in support of policy initiatives designed to address problems that no one seems previously to have felt were in fact national security issues. I don’t begrudge efforts to draw attention to policy priorities, of course, for it is one of the responsibilities of every administration to advocate for its own ideas about how to solve the country’s problems. And certainly, if there happens to be a genuine national security issue that has hitherto escaped notice, it’s surely important to highlight it so that we can make up for lost time in meeting the challenge. The instinct to transmogrify the issue du jour into a “national security” priority, however, is one that serious people should distrust – especially when the fortuitous discovery of “national security” imperatives just happens to coincide with an administration’s domestic political agenda. Such convenient coincidences should be greeted with suspicion.
One recent manifestation of this phenomenon is the effort to define climate change as a “national security” issue – a discovery that conveniently followed in the wake of President Obama’s characteristically modest prediction that his presidential nomination would be remembered as “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” We’ve even heard it said of late that childhood obesity – a cause which just happens to be the personal crusade of the First Lady – threatens U.S. national security by rendering ever more young Americans unfit for military service, thus reducing the talent pool of young recruits available to our armed forces. Childhood obesity, it has been proclaimed, is “an epidemic that threatens national security.”
Not all the arguments in favor of such reconceptualizations of “national security” are necessarily disingenuous special pleading, of course. It might well be that traditional paradigms of “national security” sometimes neglect important issues that really do have dramatic security implications, and which will later – with hindsight – clearly be understood as having had genuine and direct importance in this regard all along. (If you think our security boffins are omniscient and infallible, you haven’t been paying much attention. Let us stipulate, at the very least, that they do indeed miss things from time to time.) If rising sea levels eventually force population migrations or even erase certain island nations, there could be international security implications. And I’m willing to believe that obese soldiers indeed cannot fight as well as fit ones.
So sometimes reigning paradigms do indeed need to be adjusted; sometimes they even need to be exploded. On the other hand, often they don’t, and politically convenient recastings of policy challenges as “security” questions can sometimes quite properly sound strained.
The characteristic difficulty with “national security” arguments for traditionally non-security problems isn’t their falsehood per se, but rather their analytical triviality, their enormous plasticity, and the questionable propriety of suggesting that the national security bureaucracy should have a role in their solution.
With respect to triviality, for instance, the problem is not that things like climate change or childhood obesity cannot possibly be imagined to have some “national security” implications, but that it is far from clear that this impact is either direct or immediate enough – or likely enough to be left unaddressed, or be unaddressable, by non-“security” means – to justify the expenditure of scarce and already overstretched “national security” resources in struggling with it.
Let me invent an example: cell phone use. What if the Obama Administration were to announce that “distracted driving” is a threat to U.S. “national security”? After all, Americans’ cell phone use while driving presumably does harm U.S. national security at some level, at least insofar as one is somewhat more likely to be in an automotive accidents if one engages in such activity, and people crippled in car crashes are generally unavailable to serve in the military. (This is basically the same argument made with respect to childhood obesity, which we are told is now a “national security” problem.) This is by no means far-fetched. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has taken his campaign against “distracted driving” to the United Nations, where U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice described it as “a killer” that needs “global attention and action.” I have yet to hear cell phones specifically described as a “national security” problem, but according to LaHood, distracted driving is nonetheless “a threat around the world.” Perhaps it’s the next big thing.
But the difficulty with this argument isn’t necessarily that mobile phone use cannot in any way be depicted as a “national security” challenge, at least in some rather attenuated sense. Rather, the problem is that the identifiable impact in this regard seems so trifling and so oblique alongside other security issues that it would surely be an embarrassing misallocation of resources and attention to make this matter any kind of Pentagon or Intelligence Community priority. Is there so little for our security mandarins to do with regard to international terrorism, Afghan counter-insurgency, nuclear weapons proliferation, cyber-attacks, missile proliferation, failed states, Islamic radicalism, or the developing capabilities of actual or potential “near-peer” strategic adversaries that our agencies have idle personnel and unspent money to devote to other matters? (And if our institutions do presently have such idle capacity, we shouldn’t divert it to studying obesity: we should sack their managers for dereliction of duty.)
Another problem lies in the nearly-infinite malleability of “national security” arguments. If childhood obesity is now a problem affecting our “national security,” what is not? Can any socio-economic ill not be defined in some way as to suggest at least some distant impact upon our national security? Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and thus the most senior military officer in the United States, recently declared that “our national debt is our biggest security threat.” That may well be true on some level – and I find it in equal parts amusing, fascinating, and horrifying that he seems to be suggesting that President Obama’s deficit-fueled socio-economic dirigisme has become a threat to America – but surely this sort of fashionably expansive “national security” analysis overreaches because there is essentially nothing it cannot encompass.
The lazily self-inflating conceptual metastasis may have reached some kind of a nadir in remarks delivered on July 1, 2010, by Susan Rice, President Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, who proclaimed grandly that “a threat to development anywhere is a threat to security everywhere.” In her description, “the global gulfs between rich and poor are … a security threat” – a looming peril that we must meet by ensuring that no one on the planet lives “with hunger, oppression, or fear,” that all have “access to lifesaving medicines and affordable health care,” and that everyone can “send their kids to decent schools.” This is breathtaking stuff: Obama-era solipsistic grandeur at its most entertainingly self-important. With the stroke of a pen – and an ego – the entire Progressive social agenda is thus elevated to the global stage and magically transformed into a U.S. “national security” priority.
At best, such argumentation debases the coinage of public discourse about “national security” and makes it harder to devote resources and attention to things that have a much more direct and demonstrable impact upon our security. When everything is a pressing “national security” challenge, after all, nothing really is. (Well, perhaps not everything. Rice’s argument, of course, offers a marvelously convenient case for shortchanging military security. Why spend a dime on the Pentagon when the real threat comes from the fact that somebody somewhere in the world lacks “affordable health care” and a “decent school”?) At worst, such notions could open the door to a degree of government involvement – and involvement by our security bureaucracies, no less – in socio-economic policy worryingly beyond what our political system has hitherto been willing to tolerate.
After all, where there is a “national security” challenge, how could it be inappropriate to involve our “national security” institutions in solving it? If it has become the job of the CIA and the National Security Agency to worry about climate change – making its potential impact a subject for their analysis and presumably therefore also their clandestine information collection – what role should these organs play in working on childhood obesity, cell phone use, or the U.S. federal debt? (Actually, that example is too easy, since our intelligence agencies, at least, are generally barred from domestic activity. A more interesting question might concern the military, some elements of which we do often permit to have an operational role in domestic affairs in the face of significant threats, crises, or disasters.) Where there is a “national security” threat, why not a “national security” response?
There is a weird logic to the sort of inflated rhetoric we’ve seen from Ambassador Rice and others in the Obama Administration. The conceptual corollary of treating “soft power” as one’s national security tool of first resort is that broad swathes of economic, cultural, and political life suddenly become appropriate subjects for analysis through the prism of “national security.” But how easy do we wish it to be to assign our security bureaucracy responsibilities with regard to whatever issue is next offered as a “national security” challenge hitherto ignored by stick-in-the-mud traditionalists like me who apparently just don’t understand the real challenges America faces? We should be careful of mission creep grounded in such totalistic understandings, and for reasons that go beyond poor prioritization of scarce resources. The risk of deeper impropriety lurks in these shadows.
One cannot miss the enthusiasm some liberal American pundits seem recently to have acquired – as the U.S. political process has failed to make with sufficient rapidity the sweeping, transformative choices they demand of it – for an approach to technocratic rule unshackled from the inconveniences of democratic accountability. Jonathan Chait recently argued in The New Republic, for example, that because Congress was refusing to do the right thing on energy policy, this issue should be removed from the political sphere and entrusted directly to a cadre of experts who, in their wisdom, largely insulated from the “political” interferences of representative democracy, would make energy policy decisions for us in our best interest. And who can forget New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s infamous suggestion that a Chinese-style bureaucratic dictatorship might be preferable to the inelegant foot-dragging and compromises of our domestic political process, because the Communist Party oligarchs in Beijing at least know how to make correct and efficient decisions on complex issues such as climate change?
Don’t get me wrong. I am quite hawkish when it comes to the exertion of an expansive federal power to combat genuine national security threats. But my tolerance for such authority only reaches “national security” challenges as they are fairly traditionally construed (e.g., dealing with the threats presented by people who might actually attack us). It makes me nervous to inflate that conceptual currency, and it probably should make you nervous too.
In our system of government, the president is traditionally afforded much more latitude for discretion and unilateral authority in dealing with national security issues than we permit him in other arenas. This, I think, is quite proper. Precisely for this reason, however, decent people should start to squirm when expressions of frustration with the inability of our democratic process to reach the “correct” conclusion on key public policy issues come to coexist with assertions that matters such as childhood obesity, climate change, health care, education policy, and government debt are “national security” challenges. We should be wary when our government approaches that intellectual frontier. As the old mariners’ maps used to put it, there be dragons.
-- Christopher Ford