The Pendulum and the President

An exclusive excerpt from “National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear.”

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

FP Group CEO and Editor David Rothkopf's newly released book is a follow-up to his acclaimed earlier history of U.S. foreign policy making in the modern era
Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power. In National Insecurity, which covers the periods of the Obama and Bush administrations and seeks to look beyond the partisan views, Rothkopf examines the unique dynamics that have shaped America's role in the world since 9/11 and why the results of our leaders have often been so troubling.

Group CEO and Editor David Rothkopf’s newly released book is a follow-up to his acclaimed earlier history of U.S. foreign policy making in the modern era
Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power. In National Insecurity, which covers the periods of the Obama and Bush administrations and seeks to look beyond the partisan views, Rothkopf examines the unique dynamics that have shaped America’s role in the world since 9/11 and why the results of our leaders have often been so troubling.

For all of our native confidence and fundamental optimism, the United States spent much of the past decade shaken and unsteady. From the second term of the Bush administration and the Obama years, something has changed. After suffering self-inflicted wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan as a result of unilateralism and violation of international laws, reckless military spending, and fecklessness and political division at home, our perceived power waned, and the wellsprings of real power sputtered. Backlash against those policies produced an era in which America pulled away from her leadership role more strongly than at any time since the aftermath of World War I. The financial crisis, the rise of new powers, and geopolitical shifts for which we were unprepared compounded the problems.

Many of the events that created these circumstances have origins far outside America’s borders. Some, though, are of our own making. Faced with not one but two major crises and their aftershocks, our leaders responded at times with actions that put us, or our interests, in greater jeopardy. If we are to fully recover, we have to ask what went wrong. We also must try to understand where we made gains, and why. I set out to do just that in my new book.

Finding these answers requires a closer look at our leaders. It requires the discipline to set aside politics and the reflexive reactions it breeds. It demands a willingness to see our presidents and their senior advisors in their totality, the good and the bad, to know that those who blunder one day can make major contributions the next. And because so much of what happens in the American system and the world happens within the closely knit, often opaque world immediately around the president of the United States, it requires a concerted effort to pull back the curtain and truly understand what is going on in that rarified environment.

Others may take a more theoretical approach, focusing primarily on policy and process, but I have discovered that you cannot understand either of those aspects of the story without understanding the personalities driving them. The world of senior officials, generals, spies, and spin-doctors from the Cabinet Room to the Situation Room, from the warren of offices on the White House grounds to those scattered across Washington and its outposts around the world, demands consideration because there is a direct correlation between how it works, how well it works, and how the U.S. government performs, whether Americans and citizens worldwide are secure or not, and which issues are addressed and which are ignored. The United States government is the largest and most complex organization on the face of the earth. But at its heart it is people.

My new book is an effort to tell their story, to give the reader a glimpse into what it was like in the innermost circles of American power at a moment of unprecedented challenges, a moment in which America felt more vulnerable and adrift than at any time in modern memory, and to draw concrete lessons from this period for rejuvenating U.S. global leadership in a rapidly changing world. I’ve interviewed well over 100 of these individuals, split evenly between the Bush and Obama administrations, with the unenviable task of leading the country through this difficult time. Their reflections and opinions guide along the book’s narrative of policymaking and execution through two major American wars, a devastating financial meltdown, the rise of new international players and the reappearance of thorny old rivals, the surprise of popular movements and the evolution of the ever-elusive terror threat.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 are the seminal event that shaped foreign policy decision-making in the first decade-and-a-half of the twenty-first century. This moment electrified us, firing neurons that often bypassed the reasoning lobes of our brains and pumped adrenaline to our hearts. This spoke without translation or dilution to our animal selves. Little did we realize that those images and what they etched on our hearts would usher in an age more defined by emotion than any other in memory. We were entering an era in which emotions — from fear to an appetite for revenge — more than reason, would dictate our actions, invite our errors, and in the end transform how the world would view us and how we would view ourselves. Terror and vulnerability, revenge and preparedness became the only lens through which we saw the world.

This drastic psychological shift pushed us towards the defining event of the next decade for U.S. foreign policy, our ill-fated prosecution of the war we chose to wage in Iraq. Our reaction to being attacked was so overheated, so ill considered, of such scale, and so broad in its unintended consequences that it became more defining, constraining, and damaging than the original event to which it was intended to respond. It was a second-order catastrophe. The desire to get out of it ultimately led Barack Obama, the president who was effectively elected to get out of it, to "double down" in Afghanistan to make the political point he was not "weak on terror." That in turn became a third-order calamity. The desire to move away from conventional means of fighting our enemies, and embrace instead drone warfare, cyber-attacks, and more special forces operations violating the sovereignty of other states than any previous post-World War II president, produced fourth- and fifth-order calamities. Still another set of calamitous consequences is associated with the fear that another big attack might come, particularly one that might employ weapons of mass destruction.

That singular concern about terror grew so great that it was used throughout both the Bush and the Obama years to justify the creation of a massive global surveillance apparatus, which in turn triggered a global backlash of cyber-nationalism that is Balkanizing the Internet and undercutting its globalizing, unifying, democratizing capacity. First the Bush administration and then that of Obama accepted the central premise, fueled by the darkest part of our imaginations, that if a few individuals living in a far corner of desolate Afghanistan could do us great damage, then perhaps anyone, anywhere could as well. A dozen years later, with Osama bin Laden lying at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, we have learned that it would not be a matter of strike and counterstrike, identification of a threat and its elimination. Losing 3,000 people and watching an iconic symbol of the United States crumble into dust had instilled Americans with an unfamiliar but palpable sense of looming risks, feelings that would in turn lead the country’s leaders to take actions that even more than the attacks themselves would weaken us and produce bouts of national introspection and self-doubt that would alter our worldview and our sense of our nation’s role in the world. Our strength and our distance from the rest of the world had given us a sense of security that had now been shattered, making it difficult for us to absorb the blow, respond in an appropriately tough but measured way, and simply go on about our business, as governments and peoples more accustomed to such attacks, from Israel to Colombia, typically did.

Not inconsequentially, the actions we would take while decapitating the old al Qaeda that had launched the 9/11 attacks would indirectly result in new, greater, more diverse terrorist threats. Although at the time of America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 there were essentially no elements of bin Laden’s organization in that country, at the time of the writing of this book there are thought to be perhaps more than had belonged to all of al Qaeda in 2001, and they were threatening the very existence of the country, killing thousands, and controlling large swaths of territory. Today we know there to be tens of thousands of extremists in just Iraq and neighboring Syria, with at least 7,000 of them having shipped in from Europe. In fact, a Rand Corporation report published in June 2014 asserted that the number of Salafi-jihadist groups had grown from just 28 in 2007 to 49 in 2013, that the number of Salafi-jihadists, which was between 18,000 and 42,000 in 2007, had grown to between 44,000 and 105,000, and that the number of attacks attributed to these groups had increased more than nine fold in the same period, from 100 to 950. Northern Mali is the largest al Qaeda controlled territory on earth. In fact, al Qaeda in North Africa and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have grown to be threats on a par with what we once found in Afghanistan and on the rugged mountains of neighboring Pakistan.

Today, the threat of terrorism is embodied in the Islamic State (IS), a group whose lightning-fast rise to power and since January 2014 has gripped the country’s attention. It is clear that as much as Obama’s recent actions in Syria and Iraq are a response to the growing threat of IS, they are also a response to a growing sense that the consequences of American withdrawal from the region became too dangerous to ignore. Obama was forced to go back into the region with military force, it seemed, at least in part because he had gotten out too quickly, too completely. The situation was linked as much to Bush’s inflammation of the region as it was to Obama’s desire to be well done with it. Nothing so well illustrated the extremes of America’s era of fear — of overreaction and overreach in the wake of 9/11 and of the ensuing self-doubt and risk aversion that followed. Error begat error and America’s interests and those of our allies suffered, as did millions in the region buffeted by the fact that we had gone in 20 years from a bi-polar world to the costs of contending with a bi-polar superpower.

None of us could have imagined the degree to which the al Qaeda attacks would achieve their goals of shaking America to its very foundations that day. Indeed, it hardly seems possible that bin Laden himself could have anticipated that the superpower against which he had struck would so consume itself with a desire for revenge and to restore a sense of security that it would spend trillions of dollars it could ill afford, deplete to the point of near inoperability its armed forces, violate the most fundamental principles for which it had long stood, alienate its allies, and ultimately turn inward. Nor could bin Laden have dared hope that the United States and indeed the international system would eventually largely abandon Middle Eastern battlefields, leaving them to descend into a void that Islamic extremists battled to fill. Further, none of us, nor our attackers, could have imagined the greater costs associated with ill-conceived reactions to the perceived new threat to a degree that made it impossible for us to truly identify, debate, or respond to the greater next-generation threats to American leadership and prosperity.

The question is now whether this period of swinging from one extreme to another may be followed by one of greater balance, whether the era of fear through which America has just passed may in fact be drawing to a close. There are some encouraging signs. But beyond addressing the flaws associated with individual personalities, failures of management in the executive and the nearly complete breakdown of the U.S. Congress to contribute positively to America’s international role, there are also serious challenges associated with adapting to the requirements of the new forms of American leadership that will be demanded in the era to come.

We need to understand emerging threats and how we are going to treat them. But we do not yet have a fully developed sense of new threats. For one thing, we have been over-reactive during the past decade and a half to one single, narrow set of those threats while we have devoted less than appropriate attention to emerging powers or emerging means of conducting warfare and their consequences. Here are some of the challenges we have overlooked:

At the heart of the national security establishment of the United States lies a serious organizational problem. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration created the Department of Homeland Security, the Directorate of National Intelligence, the Homeland Security Council in the White House, and the newly beefed up Counter-Terrorism Center. All this does not even account for the vastly increased spending for new defense and intelligence programs. Although some of these moves created important missing capacity to address extant and emerging threats, some just created needless fat in the already bloated, grotesquely and ineffectively White House-centric national security bureaucracy. Disserved by a bloated and centralizing NSC, the three communities that the interagency process was designed to link — diplomatic, defense, and intelligence — are at a point where their structures are ill suited to their missions. Their missions are changing and they have yet to develop the kinds of doctrines and underlying philosophies of future operation necessary to help inform the kind of sound restructuring that is required.

To pick one area in which a gap exists, nowhere are the gaps in the system clearer or more dangerous than in the areas of science and technology. The pace of change is breathtaking. Nothing illustrates that like the story of the national security challenges we have faced, the threats that have emerged, and the solutions, tactics, and strategies that we have embraced in the years since the attacks of 9/11. Today, the cutting edge of American military technology used to combat terror are fleets of unmanned aircraft linked to batteries of operators a world away, depending on networks of aircraft and satellites, and massive processing power. They are guided by intelligence that combs the Internet with new surveillance capacity and they are augmented by cyber-offensive capacities that would enable the United States to effectively shut down entire societies without firing a single shot. And our enemies and rivals, and even some of our friends, are employing similar techniques, not just to fight wars, but to steal ideas from us in times of relative peace.

Yet, the United States has no doctrines to guide us in this new era. The Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House is, in the words of one very senior recent official with whom I spoke, "little more than a speech-writing operation." It should be made more substantive. Another top Obama administration official said, "science and technology is treated as a kind of ancillary ‘over there’ footnote to how we think about national security. But . . . technology makes the world now. It is the world. We have failed to understand how powerful this is and where it’s going." That official pointed out that the government expends almost no effort thinking about the future trajectory of technology and what it means economically or to our national security. For one example, "the president announces with great fanfare we’re going to spend $100 million on brain science. And the New York Times announces this terrific study…that shows the number of cases of Alzheimer’s is going to double along with the costs by 2040. But the juxtaposition of the two — you know here’s the president announcing this piddling amount of money for this very poorly thought out initiative and at the same time we have this massive freight train bearing down on the economy and society, on the well-being of the generation that is going to have to take care of us, etc., etc." There is, clearly, a need for the kind of interdisciplinary conversation that currently does not take place.

Capacity challenges face the U.S. national security establishment. There are some areas that just don’t get enough attention. Some are regions that have for so long been economically challenged and of limited political interest to the United States that we simply haven’t developed a depth of expertise. These include, notably, Latin America, Africa, and Central Asia. The latter two of these are, however, very likely to be the focus of much greater attention going forward. Africa is home to seven of the world’s ten fastest growing economies.

One recent assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs said, "I don’t like admitting it, but on occasion we have had to jump up and down and wave our arms to get attention. It’s not just within this building [the State Department] but interagency and from the White House as well. Almost every administration I have been in starts out thinking they’re going to pay a lot of attention to Latin American and then they turn their attention to whatever is in crisis."

No policy suffers more for this habitual neglect than the treatment of women’s issues. Although there is no doubt recent administrations have given women senior roles to play in national security agencies of the government, women’s issues are regularly derided as being "soft" and of secondary importance. (I tried to underscore this in my recent piece for Foreign Policy entitled "How Malala Can Help Defeat the Islamic State.") Despite the really valiant and historic efforts of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to move women’s issues front and center in the policy debate, much of the most influential part of the Obama White House policy community, including that in the White House (especially prior to the arrival of Susan Rice), was in the eyes of several senior Obama administration women who held top official roles "a boys’ club."

On such issues and generally, the presence of women in power is not enough. Attitudes must change about who can have top jobs, and there must be equity in how those jobs are filled. Moreover, issues like the fate of women around the world have to be allowed take their place atop agendas in the Situation Room and as the focus of the most highly funded projects in the research and policy communities, rather than being left in the kitchen or the drawing room while the men sit around the table of power and smoke cigars and plan future conquests.

Wrapping our heads around these challenges of increasing complexity requires more than just knowledge and capacity but perspective. The very leaders whose power of will and personality guided us in this age of fear will have to look forward with clear eyes and purposeful intent. Perspective requires understanding our circumstances and options, which in turn requires knowledge of our resources, our priorities, and the higher values we seek to serve. This is not just a requirement of leaders or policymakers. In a democracy, it is also one of average citizens. If Americans are ill-informed about the world, our true choices, and long-term interests, it is natural that they will revert to biases, prejudices, and political and ideological reflexes. Without perspective we also lose sight of what we are reacting to and what our real goals are.

Yet our fast-paced world leaves little time for our leaders to gather their thoughts and develop the context and understanding required. The years since 9/11 have not been easy ones for those nationally in power in America. They have been whipsawed by external events whether from far away or as a consequence of complex domestic economic cycles. In every case, the revolution in new information technologies has both assisted them and made their jobs more difficult.

Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken explained it this way: "the single biggest change in doing these jobs is information technology, the flow of information and its abundance or overabundance. It challenges our absorptive capacity and makes it harder to be proactive instead of reactive. When I worked here in the 1990s probably everyone in the White House did the same two things. At 6:30 we stopped what we were doing and turned on our televisions and watched the national evening network news. And then in the morning we all opened our front doors and picked up a hard copy of the New York Times and the Washington Post and maybe the Wall Street Journal. Everyone did that. And you got some clips at the office. Now of course, it is this intravenous feed that doesn’t let up and that is constant, constant, constant. One statistic: during the eight years of the Clinton administration, there were 1 million emails in the NSC system. During Bush’s two terms, about 5.3 million, and now, six years into Obama, 10 million. The pressure that it exerts — and of course it had already started in the ’90s — is enormous. And the difference between the early ’90s and the ’80s when Reagan was president — three networks, no cable, no Internet, not so much talk radio — a totally different world. Clinton endured that as it mushroomed, and so did Bush."

It is my strong belief that in order for America to return to the kind of growth and leadership that its people expect and deserve, we must bring an end to this Age of Fear — a period in which responding to perceived and often overstated threats, like terrorism, has distracted us from looking to the horizon as we should. As trying as this period has been, as counterproductive as many of our responses turned out to be, we cannot let the bitter experience of the past few years, our broken politics at home, our fatigue, or our lack of clarity about our goals serve as excuses to keep us from grappling with the hard problems that are being thrown at us by the world daily. It is the equivalent of pulling the sheets over our head when the alarm goes off and hoping the day will pass us by. It never works.

This excerpt has been edited, drawn from the opening and closing chapters of the book.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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