Needed: New National Security Thinking

by on December 1, 2009 · 6 comments

in Civil Rights, Media, Peace Movement, War and Peace, World News

Demo Whitehouse

by Katrina vanden Heuvel / The Nation / Dec. 01, 2009

Tonight President Obama will announce his new Afghanistan policy. By all accounts it will be one of military escalation. This is a tragic moment–both for the nation and his presidency–and it is one I had hoped the President would avoid by courageously leading us in a wiser direction, one that views 21st century challenges anew, in fresh and necessary ways.

It is true that Obama would have needed real political courage to extricate himself from his predecessor’s war. He would have faced toxic blowback from a military and media establishment poised to attack. But in a war-weary nation, amidst great economic trouble, he could have used his great oratorical and political skills to marshal people of all kinds to his side.

Instead, with this escalation, we see the continuing grip of the National Security State–whose premises have been shared by the conservative and liberal hawks for close to 60 years, and which essentially remain unchallenged among the establishment and the mainstream media. Obama will now be held hostage to this mindset as a war bequeathed to him by a reckless and destructive administration becomes his own war.

This retro thinking and failure to explore real alternatives to military escalation reveal a deeper structural problem–the fact that there are too few countervailing voices or centers of power and authority to challenge the liberal hawks and interventionists, and very few if any are allowed to enter the halls of power. The political establishment works from its narrow consensus; meanwhile, the media fails to offer a full range of views.

Our challenge now as progressives is to begin to lay the groundwork so that the failed National Security States premises are exposed as ones no longer suited to addressing central challenges and threats of our time–from global pandemics and economic inequality and instability, to nuclear proliferation and, yes, decentralized networks of terrorists. We need structural reform if we’re to have a rich and deserved contest of ideas and views in our politics and society.

As James Carroll argues in a Boston Globe op-ed, “The time when ‘new thinking’ is most needed is before war starts,” and we must “put in place the structures of new thought that will prevent its repetition.”

How do we build pressure for structural reforms and the changes we believe in? How do we change the paradigm so that we expose the retro National Security State as the failure it is? The structural problem demands action on several fronts. We need a serious think/do tank on national security issues which is capable of contesting the underlying premises for specific interventions, and also challenging the prevailing assumptions underlying the National Security state. It also needs to work closely with progressive organizations with ties to the grassroots in order to build a broad-based movement for change. (Raising the idea of a new think/do tank is not meant to diminish the valuable work already being done at a handful of existing places.)

If we don’t look at the structural issues, we will always be fighting against the latest, newest, terrible, bad person/country that requires invading, occupying, or bombing with the latest weapon. We will also continue to lose reform-minded leaders to the powerful post-Cold War Military-Industrial-Terrorism complex. Its not hard to see how a Democratic candidate and now President like Obama–relatively unschooled in security issues–got caught up in establishment thinking. In choosing his foreign policy team, he looked to experienced advisors from the last Democratic presidency–a Clinton administration replete with establishment Democrats.

And then there’s the example of Lyndon Johnson, a Southerner, a master of the Senate, who did not have political courage to face down his military and counterinsurgency best and the brightest. Listen to the tapes of his conversations with his friend and mentor, Senator Richard Russell, and you hear a man who would face down almost anyone but was terrified of his right-wing, terrified of being called “soft.” So how do we change the meaning of “being tough” in the 21st century?

I believe we progressives/ethical realists/clear-minded people/citizens who believe in common sense–share some blame in not building a more powerful alternative foreign policy bench to compete with these counterinsurgency experts populating DC think tanks and Congress. Structural reform must now be the work for thinkers and activists working with elected officials who are open to understanding the world and its future in new and not-ready-for-primetime ways–even as a President we had high expectations for is escalating a war that may well deplete this country of the resources needed to rebuild its promise, while doing little to nothing to make us or the region more secure or stable.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar bodysurferbob December 1, 2009 at 9:40 am

someone on the nation mag said that the iraq surge was a cover for bush’s exit strategy. perhaps obama has taken a page out of that play book – surge in afghanistan to cover the exit. this could be the plan, my friends, so before you totally vilify obama, click on the ol brain.


avatar annagrace December 1, 2009 at 9:49 am

Anybody remember the massacre at My Lai? “We had to destroy the village to save it.” I remain unconvinced that a surge is a viable exit strategy.


avatar Shawn Conrad December 1, 2009 at 9:41 am

I get different chills down my back now when I watch Obama on the campaign trail and he smiles and says “Yes we can”

The citizens were convinced they were the “we”, but “we” once again turned out to be the Federal Government.


avatar doug porter December 1, 2009 at 9:48 am

obama said on the campaign trail that the real battle (!) was going to be in afganistan, so we all shouldn’t be so surprised. the real the article points out..should be against the entrenched corporate sponsors of the National Security State.


avatar Leah Talley December 1, 2009 at 1:02 pm

I love the way people who point fingers and use the word “Conservative” as if calling someone “Yellow” all seem to forget that it was Presedent Clinton who first injected us into the war against Iraq.

I am ultra conservative, but not a Republican. I am a Constitutionalist; AND I still recall the “Frontline” (PBS) show where they showed George Bush Sr. Shaking hands with an Iraqui national while big weapons were being off loaded on the Iraqui airstrip they stood on.

America MUST fight this war because failure to do so would be like leaving Charlie Manson on the streets.

However the Government needs to remember where the enemy is; The enemy is not “We the People”.

The President, as Chief of our Military is responsible for securing our borders. Have you heard he wants to implement a “Afghan War Tax?”

The Liberal President Clinton told the USA, “I did not have sex with that woman” he lied – yet we forgave him. Are we forgiving Obama too for lying when he promised all the ill-informed Liberals who think this war is about oil that he would cease fire and withdraw? I hope not!


avatar Shawn Conrad December 2, 2009 at 9:06 am

Dear Leah Talley,

The hardest part about the United States “winning” a war there would be the travel time. We could win that war from the air with no ground troops harmed.

Drop one big A bomb on those pesky bastards and it would be over. Instead, it is a puppet show and a cost center.

Here’s war:

Arm troops
Be victorious
Muddle the conquored bloodlines


Arm troops
Be plundered
Be Imposed Upon
Lose heritage

One airplane, its crew, and at least one big, juicy canister of 100 tons of exploding peace will stop this nonsense in its tracks. Seems overall cheaper as well in both financial aspects and in cost of human lives.


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