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Opinion: U.S. Should Adopt Interest-based Approach to National Security

white-house-2Our next president, like Barack Obama, will face a multitude of national security challenges, ranging from violent extremists, ambitious China, belligerent Russia, impetuous North Korea, treacherous Iran and heartbreaking human catastrophes.

While there have been times of greater danger in American history (the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War II, periods of the Cold War) there has never been a time when the threats facing our nation have been as numerous, diverse and interdependent as they are today. At the same time — for a variety of reasons having largely to do with past commitments of resources and current political gridlock—the means available to address these challenges are increasingly wanting.

In the midst of such complexity, it is easy to forget Henry Kissinger’s maxim that “No country can act wisely simultaneously in every part of the globe at every moment in time.” The responsibility inherent in the office of the president for making prudent decisions about our nation’s short- and long-term security demands the utmost in disciplined analysis detached from the whims of popular pressures.

So, what framework will our next president use for dispassionately aligning ends, ways and increasingly scarce means in support of both policy and investment decisions in the best interests of our nation?

Interests may well be the best answer.

We would recommend that the next president clearly articulate and consistently draw upon a set of prioritized national security interests—which must be protected or advanced in the service of our nation and that best meet the president’s beliefs about the role of the United States in the world.

This idea is not new, but it previously has been used more carelessly than effectively.

The new president’s list would need to serve the interwoven goals of security and prosperity and be wrapped in pragmatic fidelity to our nation’s values. It absolutely must be prioritized because some situations are worthy of greater risk, cost, and executive attention than others. It must be enduring and abstract in order to impose discipline on thought and to avoid the temptation of citing interests for expediency—we simply cannot make this up as we go along.

The content and priority of such a list of interests would be unique to each president. Any president’s first responsibility is the survival of the nation—both physically and as a free democracy. We expect every president would next turn to the prevention of catastrophic, Sept. 11, 2001-style attacks against the homeland. From there, personal ideology and priorities could orient different presidents in different directions.

As a draft of such a prioritized list, we would offer:

1. The survival of the nation as a free democracy.
2. Prevention of catastrophic attacks on the homeland.
3. The health and security of the global economic system.
4. Secure, reliable, and confident allies and partners.
5. Protection of U.S. citizens abroad.
6. Protection of universal values of freedom and respect for human rights.

But the point here is not the content of the list; rather, it is to have and use such a list.

However, interests do not live in a vacuum—there is a real world out there, and of course the interests are linked.

So how would a president use this method? He or she would cast issues and situations against the list of interests, looking for three types of intersections that would determine the degree of required application of the various levers of U.S. national power. First, a threat or event impacting a very highly ranked interest would tend to demand more action than one found further down the list. Second, action would be more likely required where many interests are affected rather than very few. Finally, where a particular interest is more deeply impacted—for example, a more likely or grave type of terrorist attack an extremist group is assessed as being able to conduct—stronger application of power would be in order.

Where the combination of priority, number, and depth of threat to interest is more severe, we would be more willing to use force, to do so unilaterally, to accept greater risk to our combat forces, to take more geopolitical risk (including outside the region in question), assume a greater financial burden (funded by either revenue or, more likely, debt), and push harder against the strictures of international law. And the reverse is true, despite strident calls for action from particularly interested parties.

For example, consider how a future president might design the U.S. response to a Chinese attack on a Philippine fishing vessel in the South China Sea.

First, the president would receive refreshed analysis on the ongoing dispute between China and the Philippines over sovereignty in the area. This would lead to recognition that at least three interests (the health and security of our global economic system; secure, reliable and confident allies and partners; and the protection of universal values) are at risk. If the situation escalates, it could spill over into other interests.

In this scenario, the combination of priority, number and impact is reasonably (though not extremely) high, indicating that a commensurate application of the various national instruments of power is warranted. The president would also balance a decision on resource allocation to respond to this incident against other ongoing situations and their respective priority within the model. This model can be used for any number of current issues including the Russian saber-rattling in Europe, climate change, or even the outbreak of a pandemic.

Where might such a framework have made a difference in the past? Given the level of resources required to achieve all the goals we set in Iraq in 2003 versus the true interests that were at stake (principally, allies and partners secure from an Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction), a different course of action may have better served the need to balance national ends, ways, and means. Perhaps using force to coerce Saddam into providing complete access to weapons inspectors, rather than the more drastic measure of overthrowing the regime, would have been more in keeping with a balance informed by our true security interests.

In contrast, the Syrian civil war and the rapid growth of ISIS in 2012 and 2013 touched numerous core interests (preventing attacks on the Homeland, the security of our regional allies, protecting American citizens abroad, and preserving universal values) fairly strongly. This combination suggests that a more fulsome initial response from the administration may have been in order, including pushing against international law to use limited force to force Bashir al Assad to the negotiating table and in striking ISIS harder and more quickly before it could develop an external attack capability.

To be most effective, the framework we are suggesting should be part of nearly every discussion in the White House Situation Room. A typical Situation Room meeting begins with an intelligence briefing to equip policymakers with the most up-to-date information and analysis on an issue and then proceeds directly into a policy discussion. Optimally, a formal discussion of the U.S. interests at stake, based on the framework, would precede the policy discussion to place the issue at hand into the broader context of U.S. strategic goals.

This framework would aid policy discussions by forcing policymakers to grapple with several questions. How much should we care about a particular issue? How much of our national resources should we expend on one issue as opposed to others across the globe with which we must contend? Which interests are the most important where multiple interests at stake seem to steer policy in radically different directions?

The framework would not only serve policy decisions. It also offers a very useful underpinning for some of the more difficult and costly investment decisions that will be faced by the next administration, such as the best way to recapitalize our nuclear deterrent, and the mix of capabilities, capacities, and readiness that are really required to face evolving threats.

Without such a framework, we risk policies that are inconsistent, or that are swayed by gusts of public opinion, partisan politics, or personal relationships among world leaders—and subsequent action that is misaligned with core U.S. interests. There is also a risk that policymakers from different halls of government would believe they think the same way about our core interests as their colleagues, when in reality they don’t. Perhaps worse, as Bernard Brodie suggested when he said “strategy comes with a price tag,” we could find ourselves in situations in which our ends reach well beyond our means.

Collectively, we spent over a decade in the Situation Room—in Deputies, Principals, and National Security Council meetings. We think this modest proposal—which is intended more as a guide for decision-makers than a formula—would pay dividends for the next president in crafting policy on looming national security issues that are among the toughest our nation has ever faced.

  • Mike Ingelido

    Excellent recommendation. Wasn’t this the concept behind the National Security Strategy series of documents (National Defense Strategy and the National Military Strategy) in the 1980’s/90’s? Get everyone on the same page and keep ’em there. I’m not aware if these documents are still being generated.

    • John Locke

      Yes, those documents still exist and are updated periodically. In a nutshell there is a flow-down of guidance from National Security to the Services and supporting research facilities e.g. ONR with each producing their own guidance documents in degrees of granularity to provide traceability of capabilities, programs and funding that support the National Strategy.

    • Marcd30319

      And was this National Security Strategy document an annual undertaking required by law under Goldwater-Nichols? And is it now a fact that the White House has NOT issued the 2016 National Security Strategy in contravention to that law? Just another failure of this current administration to take our national security requirements seriously.

      • John Locke

        By your logic it would seem Dumbya failed to take our national security requirements seriously as well however Clinton was quite timely with one exception.

        http://nssarchives DOT us/

        • Marcd30319

          I suppose the difference is between fighting the global war on terror with a hallowed-out military from the previous decade as opposed to not fighting the global war on terror while hollowing out our military

  • Curtis Conway

    If the United States shrinks from this task, then we do not deserve to lead in the expansion into space in the future. The Chinese stand ready to take the lead in that arena . . . if we let them.
    “…the whims of popular pressures” would see the United States turn back into an isolationist nation. Then, we can only ‘react’ to international concerns, not be ‘proactive’ by helping our friends and neighbors, setting the appropriate example of sacrificial service for all, feeding the starving, and supporting just causes in words, actions, and deed. The policies suggested in this article strikes of selfishness and narcissism. G-d has blessed the United States down through HiStory . . . so we can shrink to this task? I am ashamed of the authors of such a concept, and for suggesting this self-interest based proposition, for they are not up to the challenge.
    Investments must be wise and true, not “we will invest in infrastructure” then the money goes to organized labor that only turns into political support for the squanderers. Our defense has been reduced and depleted to the point where our proactive presence can no longer be sustained, and we are at the mercy of the bad actors present, until we are able to react with concentrated force.
    This article ‘begs the question’ of what our national interests really are, and what strategy we will use to support those interest. In the past (until this administration) the mantra has been that we are the “Land of the Free, and Home of the Brave”, and supported Human Rights, and Democracies seeking self-determination. What will be our new international goal?
    “It must be enduring and abstract in order to impose discipline on thought {so much for Freedom and Liberty} and to avoid the temptation of citing interests for expediency—we simply cannot make this up as we go along.” What the author cautions against here is exactly what has been going on for over a decade. This is why using Scripture, which is balanced and principled, Eternal, Wise, determined by G-d Almighty Himself, makes so much sense, for it has been a true guide throughout HiStory, particularly since our founding.
    As a draft of such a prioritized list, I would offer:
    1. The survival of the nation as a free Democratic Republic. In Democracies the mob (majority) rules, driven by SELF-INTEREST. Public opinion can be bought, scared, or otherwise influenced in the negative against one’s own best interest for short term gain by the investor in that influence. That is why the 17th Amendment was a terrible idea. The people already had the House of Representatives, and then took the power from the states and concentrated more power in those who could be driven by fear and the proclivities of acting on SELF-INTEREST alone.
    2. Prevention of catastrophic attacks on the homeland. HEAR! HEAR!!
    3. The health and security of the global economic system. BY WHICH MODEL? Keynesian model or Austrian modeled economics? Keynesian is killing us, stifled growth, and relegated us into little proposition of success in the future. Will we return to our roots of Free Enterprise, and Capitalism, governed by Christian Ethics, that has served our country so well for so long? The Austrian Economic Model requires principled and disciplined actions with the long term view of the future in mind. Those who BoHo the Christianity part, are not Christian, and know not G-d who is the author of our freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution of The United States.
    4. Secure, reliable, and confident allies and partners, and that these partners understand that we stand on principle in this respect with our Allies, and will be a true reliable friend.
    5. Protection of U.S. citizens abroad, as well as an affirmation of what it is to be a Citizen of These United States!
    6. Protection of universal values of freedom and respect for human rights, which is an extension of treating everyone with dignity and respect at all times, a corollary of “Do unto others as your would have them do unto you”. Hum-mm . . . I wonder where that came from?
    In short we must re-establish trust in the Spirit of America, in which this experiment of governing oneself, which has encouraged peoples of the world for over 200 years, and been trampled upon and discouraged recently.
    “First, a threat or event impacting a very highly ranked interest would tend to demand more action than one found further down the list.” NO! We will act out of principle in word, action, and intent (received or real). If perceived, we will use intelligence and diplomacy to determine the real intent, and communicate consequences of our actions and response.
    One can act out of self-interest yet defy a stated principle. The South China Sea example ‘mentions NOT’ the principle of Freedom of Navigation in International Waters by ALL Countries (purpose and Spirit of UNCLOS), which is the first and foremost principle, particularly in that body of water, based upon the impact on . . . how many countries? The author alludes to an intent of dealing from a selfish and self-serving interest metric. The author even talks of Climate Change influencing policy.
    Principle does not change, and reigns true for eternity. Self-interest can change from day to day, based upon how one FEELS! The dispossessed can be left to suffer under such a system, and the current administration has made that malady worse, not better. What side of HiStory do you want to stand on as a country, people, and society? I’ll stand on the side of right by definition, not blow with the wind of self-interest. Righteous principle is universal and recognized by the common man around the globe, and does not change, regardless of race, religion, color or creed!
    The Combined Commanders exist for a reason. The Situation Room should always be manned by experienced and principled individuals who have a record of successfully serving the nation, and the planet, not by an ideology driven by self-interest. THAT (selfishness, not selflessness) is what has gotten us to where we are today . . . and killed sacrificial servants in Benghazi.
    Just my 2Ȼ.

    • John Locke

      Which god?

      • Curtis Conway

        The G-d of Life, and who Created All Things, and is the Giver of all Good things. The G-d who sent His Son to die for the sins of the world, once and for ALL, and adjudicate Himself to all (core value of Christianity) if ‘they choose’ to embrace his precepts. The G-d who sent his Son who was completely a man, and demonstrated that man does not have to live life in contempt or competition with each other in search of self-serving pleasures, rather finding solace and satisfaction in the service of others. If one cannot ‘See’, then one will not worship, as testified in the Book of John, Chapter 9. The G-d who blessed this country from before its founding until today, and still wishes too if we would but return to his will in our actions and deeds. That G-d!

        • John Locke

          you do realize that a lightning bolt isn’t going to strike you dead for writing your gods pseudonym.

          • Curtis Conway

            He is the G-d of Love . . . and I always capitalize His name regardless of reference method.

  • FedUpWithWelfareStates

    …or, we could learn to start minding our OWN darn business!

  • John B. Morgen

    The United States needs to repeal the Sequester, and increase the manpower strengths of the Armed Forces, including the Department of Homeland Security, etc. The leadership of the United States must also end the policy of [appeasement] with China, Russia and North Korea. Finally put an end with ISIS by sending more A-10s, attack helicopter gunships and troops. Fighting ISIS should have been mopped up over a year ago—enough with placating ISIS.

    • John Locke

      Cause those ISIS CVN’s and LHD’s are just over the horizon!!

      • John B. Morgen

        Don’t forget about Russia and China; especially, the PLAN over the horizon in the South China Sea. Our foreign policy should be bull with resolution but aggressive by inserting military strength when needed, for protecting both our economic and national security interests. No more appeasement or isolation policies when dealing with tyrants or despots.

  • Marcd30319

    Congratulation for taking over 24 hours for such a snappy response.

    Next, I am not drinking anyone’s Kool-Aid, and unlike yourself, especially Obama’s.

    As a longtime member of the Naval Institute, I do have some idea about military capabilities, and I can count sortie rates.

    This administration is not serious about the global war in terror, and per Bob Woodward’s book, the current budget sequestration originated from the White House.

    Stop throwing rocks when you live in glass house, Johnny.

  • chesty52

    The first thing for which the next President must come to grips is that the US is in strategic overreach. Our inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the diminishment of our moral authority caused by those wars, the wars’ continued drain on our resources, the destabilization of the Middle East, North Africa, and Pakistan, the economic, diplomatic, and military coming of age of China, and a Russia emboldened by our strategic overreach and the economic/financial shambles of the EU have placed us in a very dangerous position. The next President must stay engaged in the international community, but our ability to “direct” that community is a fantasy. We are in a fix, specifically that we are unable to bring our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to a honorable conclusion but cannot simply take our toys and go home. Again, we are in strategic overreach. And that is why, in part, the US/EU negotiated the nuclear agreement with Iran. We need a regional power that is willing and capable of bringing order and stability to the Middle East.

    • agnosic1

      Well said.

  • Marcd30319

    Wow! It took you three whole days to come up with yet another snappy response.

    And you talk about me going to sleep?!? LMAO

    Again you dodge the fact that Bob Woodward’s book details that it was the White House who originally came up with idea for the current sequestration. How typical of this current administration and its enablers and apologists to dodge responsibility and refuse to take ownership of poor policies.

    Yes, I am a long-time and proud member of the US Naval Institute whose annual dues pay for this news blogs so that any freeloader who has a Disqus account can post here for free. What a deal!

    I look forward to your next snappy posting next week.