Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Will we have a civil war? A SF officer turned diplomat estimates chances at 60 percent

For most of my career I have been traveling the world observing other countries in various states of dysfunction and answering this same question.

Shays Rebellion monument
Shays Rebellion monument


By Keith Mines

Best Defense guest respondent


By Keith Mines
Best Defense guest respondent

What a great but disturbing question (the fact that you can even ask it). Weird question for me as for most of my career I have been traveling the world observing other countries in various states of dysfunction and answering this same question. In this case if the standard is largescale violence that requires the National Guard to deal with in the timeline you lay out, I would say about 60 percent.

I base that on the following factors:

— Entrenched national polarization of our citizenry with no obvious meeting place. (Not true locally, however, which could be our salvation; but the national issues are pretty fierce and will only get worse).

— Press and information flow is more and more deliberately divisive, and its increasingly easy to put out bad info and incitement.

— Violence is “in” as a method to solve disputes and get one’s way. The president modeled violence as a way to advance politically and validated bullying during and after the campaign.  Judging from recent events the left is now fully on board with this, although it has been going on for several years with them as well — consider the university events where professors or speakers are shouted down and harassed, the physically aggressive anti-Israeli events, and the anarchists during globalization events. It is like 1859, everyone is mad about something and everyone has a gun.

— Weak institutions — press and judiciary, that are being further weakened. (Still fairly strong and many of my colleagues believe they will survive, but you can do a lot of damage in four years, and your timeline gives them even more time).

— Total sellout of the Republican leadership, validating and in some cases supporting all of the above.

Events that could spark it:

— Impeachment of the president or his fall from office.

— Major terrorist attack and sense that the establishment can’t manage security — vigilantes, etc.

— Opaque call to action by a failing president. (Consider Haiti’s Aristide.)

— Economic downturn, with blame placed on certain groups by the President and his people. Self-protection begets militias on both sides.

— Racial event that spirals out of control.

— A war gone really bad that polarizes the country, with blame apportioned in such a way that groups start to lash out.

Here’s other interesting scenarios to consider:

— Military coup. I can easily see a scenario in which a wartime decision is so bad it has to be disobeyed, and in the course of consolidating the refusal to carry it out, the only real recourse is to remove the president.

— Breakup of the republic. I was thinking about what it would take for things to start to break apart. This is much more than 15 years out, but some of the above could spark it, where we realize we are just different peoples and fundamentals divide us so strongly on core issues that it no longer works. I could see six states — California and the West Coast, the Rockies, the Heartland, the South, and the Northeast.  Texas gets its own gig.

— Precipitous decline. Could be defined in a number of different ways, and I guess we are already in it. But certainly internationally it could happen very quickly, and I think the results are very unclear. A large ship (the international order) losing its anchor (America) in a storm, could lead to all sorts of consequences.

All this makes me think of Hackett’s 1985, which as I understood it, was written to warn off the decline of Western military power that was in play, and spark the needed reforms and new systems. Perhaps we should be writing also about what it would take now to stave any of this off.

And it reminds me of Pericles’ funeral oration, which I was reviewing recently for a book I am working on. We once, of all the nations of the modern age, embodied this; we would find it nearly incomprehensible now.

“If we turn to our military policy, there also we differ from our antagonists. We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger.

“…the palm of courage will surely be adjudged most justly to those, who best know the difference between hardship and pleasure and yet are never tempted to shrink from danger. In generosity we are equally singular, acquiring our friends by conferring, not by receiving, favours.”

They loved Athens, because she first loved them. They sacrificed for her, because she was worthy of sacrifice. To us, it all about the spoils.

Keith Mines served as a special forces officer in Central America and Grenada and has served with the Foreign Service in El Salvador, Haiti, Mexico, Hungary, Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur, and Israel. The views expressed are solely his own based on years of observing political transitions.  

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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