In an earlier column, I wrote about some of the things President Barack Obama should do in his last year in office to secure his legacy. My focus wasn’t on pie-in-the-sky achievements — peace in Syria or a complete reversal of climate change — but on things the president has the power to do on his own, such as repudiating indefinite detention and bringing an end to secret wars and secret laws. Obama won’t be doing Hillary Clinton much of a favor if he leaves those messes for her to clean up — and he won’t be doing the world much of a favor if he hands Donald Trump the power to covertly imprison or kill anyone he deems an enemy.
But that’s not the end of my to-do list for Obama. Before he leaves office, the president should also try to repair America’s flawed security discourse — and fix some of the broken structures and organizations within the executive branch. Specifically, the military, the intelligence community, and the White House national security staff itself are ripe for reform.
1) Fix America’s flawed security discourse. As I wrote in December, more Americans are killed by cows than by terrorists in a typical year, but if opinion polls and public hysteria levels are any indication, you’d think that the threat posed by extremist Islamic terrorist groups was greater than the threat once posed by Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin — combined. This ludicrous threat inflation distorts our politics, policies, and budgets, leading us to turn a blind eye to threats that are, in the long term, far more serious than terrorism — even as we court disaster through strategically incoherent military interventions in the Middle East and elsewhere.
It’s not Obama’s fault that we’ve become the United States of Spinelessness, but he hasn’t always helped, either. On the one hand, he has done a fine job reminding Americans of the folly of equating Islam with terrorism, and he has steadfastly resisted foolish calls to respond to the Islamic State with, say, a wholesale U.S. invasion of Syria. Occasionally, he even reminds Americans of a few important facts: “If you look at the number of Americans killed since 9/11 by terrorism, it’s less than 100. If you look at the number that have been killed by gun violence, it’s in the tens of thousands.” But most of the time, he succumbs to political pressure and describes terrorism in semi-apocalyptic terms: It’s a “hateful vision” versus “all of humanity,” meriting an ongoing “war with terrorists.”
If Obama’s serious about not wanting “perpetual war,” he should stop treating terrorism as an epic threat to human progress. Terrorism is a tactic that has been employed by thousands of organizations over thousands of years. It’s a brutal, unsavory, and illegal tactic, but it’s not going topple Western civilization. We can and should work to minimize the risk of serious terrorist attacks, but not at the expense of other vital national priorities.
2) Fix the military. “We have the strongest military in the history of the world,” President Obama says. If military power is measured solely by the ability to blow up more stuff faster than anyone else, he’s surely right. But the point of blowing things up is to achieve political ends — and it’s less and less clear that the U.S. military has what it takes to translate destructive power into strategic success.
In many ways, the U.S. military (and much of the rest of the national security apparatus) is still configured to respond to the Cold War world, not the more complex transnational challenges we face today. Command responsibility is divvied up along geographical lines, making it difficult to address threats that span several regions. Rivalries between the services create needless inefficiencies and duplication of resources while anachronistic weapons systems eat up a disproportionate share of the acquisitions budget.
Recruiting, training, and personnel policies are equally out of date, still emphasizing attributes and skills more suitable to mid-20th-century warfare than to countering threats that relate to cyber-issues, climate change, epidemic disease, and political instability. While senior military leaders unanimously agree that the military needs to become more agile and adaptable, almost everything about the military’s own structures militates against agility.
There’s no shortage of smart and provocative proposals for reform. Some would require congressional cooperation, while others could be accomplished solely through executive action. And it’s not fundamentally a question of dollars: A bigger defense budget won’t improve military effectiveness if the money largely maintains the organizational status quo (or adds more pork). Conversely, a smaller budget won’t necessarily hurt, if the right activities are prioritized.
No, Obama won’t be able to completely reform and restructure the military in his remaining time in office. But he can use his final year to lay out a comprehensive reform agenda — and light a fire under the Defense Department bureaucracy and the armed services committees. This isn’t a simple partisan issue, and, for once, he might even find some allies on the Hill.
3) Fix the intelligence community. I’ve always found “the intelligence community” an odd phrase, implying, as it does, that employees of America’s 17 intelligence agencies are constantly getting together for block parties and summer barbecues. Much of the time, those 17 agencies still go in 17 different directions — and the post-9/11 creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence added a new layer of bureaucracy without substantially increasing coordination or information sharing.
At the moment, the United States has a hodgepodge of agencies spending a great deal of money to accomplish — well, who knows? No one can doubt the astonishing technological capabilities of U.S. intelligence agencies: They can eavesdrop on global communications, distinguish between different types of missile tests conducted clandestinely a world away, and do a host of other truly amazing and sometimes scary things. You might think this would translate into an equally amazing predictive capacity, but the intelligence community missed 9/11, missed the Arab Spring, missed the rise of the Islamic State, missed the Russian invasion of Ukraine, missed the Paris attacks, and so on. Some of those community block parties must get a little awkward.
As Yogi Berra once said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Fair enough — but the intelligence community’s predictive track record is still distinctly underwhelming, particularly when compared to the track record of many NGOs and journalists.
Why? For one thing, the sheer number of agencies and individuals makes it easy for vital evidence to get lost in the bureaucracy — and the problem is exacerbated, rather than reduced, by high-tech programs designed to enable the mass vacuuming up of information. More data often just means more noise: more to analyze, more dots that might or might not connect, and more false positives.
Meanwhile, the CIA’s shift toward tactical paramilitary counterterrorism operations draws energy and resources away from analysis and longer-term strategic concerns, and human intelligence is also hampered by a dearth of employees with vital language skills: As of 2013, for instance, the entire intelligence community reportedly had only 903 Chinese speakers and 1191 Arabic speakers. The United States is one of the most diverse countries in the world, with thriving immigrant communities from virtually every corner of the Earth, more than a million residents who speak Arabic at home, and more than 3 million Chinese speakers — but by and large, the intelligence community remains overwhelmingly white and male. That’s not a recipe for success when it comes to understanding a world in which nearly three-fourths of the population is non-white and half is female.
Like military reform, meaningful intelligence reform may take decades. Nonetheless, here too, Obama should, at a minimum, leave his successor with both a clear analysis of current problems and a concrete blueprint for change. This blueprint should include the elimination of duplicative programs; the elimination of the CIA paramilitary programs (why have the CIA do something the military’s already good at?); a recalibration of counterterrorism efforts; clearer prioritization (and a less politicized process for determining intelligence priorities); improved external oversight mechanisms; improved and streamlined mechanisms for getting minority views to decision-makers; and a renewed attention to recruiting and retaining a linguistically and culturally diverse workforce.
4) Fix the White House National Security Council. If any issue has united national security experts on both sides of the political aisle, it’s shared frustration with the Obama administration’s national security staff. It’s too big, too full of political hacks and inexperienced campaign aides, too prone to micromanagement, and too focused on making policy itself rather than channeling policy ideas from the departments and agencies to the president. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it in his memoir, “I (as well as [then-Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton, [then-CIA Director Leon] Panetta, and others) saw … [Obama’s] determination that the White House tightly control every aspect of national security policy and even operations. His White House was by far the most centralized and controlling in national security of any I had seen since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger ruled the roost.” Unsurprisingly, there’s substantial bipartisan consensus on solutions: The NSC should get smaller, flatter, less process-fixated, less inbox-driven, and more focused on enabling efficient problem solving at lower levels — preferably within and between executive branch departments and agencies rather than in the White house itself.
Effective military and intelligence reform will at some point require congressional engagement, but the president can handle this one all by himself. Sure, he could leave it for his successor, who will inevitably want to tweak things regardless — but why not start fixing the NSC now and leave less of a mess for the next president?
None of the items on this to-do list is glamorous, and none is likely to raise President Obama’s status in opinion polls. But he’s not running for anything anymore. So come on, Mr. President: Get to work.
Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GettyImages
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