Are we overusing “crisis,” “emergency,” and “national security threat”?

Over on Just Security I have a new essay, Let’s Leave “Crisis” and “Emergency” For the Real Thing, in which I critique two posts by another author who feverishly declared recent events related to the intelligence area as a “crisis” in one instance, and an “emergency” in the other.

I argue that while the issues she describes are important, their fundamentals are hardly new and applying hyperbole to them is not helpful.  Essentially, I believe that if everything is called a “crisis” or an “emergency,” the necessary prioritization of national security tasks can be lost.  Moreover, overusing those terms dilutes their impact when you have situations which really should be described with those terms.  Using excessive histrionics – particularity if employed mainly to score political points – is not what we need these days to dispassionately analyze and, hopefully, solve the complex dilemmas we have in the national security arena.

Is “national security threat” also being overused?

A somewhat similar issue is presented by the penchant to overuse the term “national security threat” to address a myriad of ills, albeit serious ones, facing the United States.  The controversy about the Administration’s decision to omit climate change from classification as a national security threat is a recent example.

Sure, climate change has the potential for very serious consequences for the United States in general, to include its military, but my question is this: is every grave issue facing the United States productively characterized as a “national security” threat?  Would that include, for example, deficiencies in our educational system?  Mounting deficits occasioned by entitlement spending?  Inadequate health care?  Crime?  The opioid crisis?

The problem is that if you denominate something as a “national security” threat, it’s naturally assumed that it’s to be addressed (if not solved) primarily by the defense establishment (to include specifically the military).  A militarized approach to every issue is bad idea, plain and simple.  Think about it: if climate change is a “national security threat” are we suggesting that military power then the best way to confront a foreign polluter whose activities might jeopardize the climate?

More generally, do we really want the military as the nation’s all-purpose problem-solver for everything that has serious implications for our society?

I believe doing so would inevitably diffuse the focus of armed forces away from what the Supreme Court tells us is the “primary business” of our military, which is “to fight or be ready to fight wars should the occasion arise.”  The long-term implications of such diffusion (particularly for a democracy) is a central theme of the 1992(!) paper: “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012”.  Consider this excerpt from that essay:

Commentator James Fallows expressed the new thinking in an August 1991 article in Atlantic magazine.  Musing on the contributions of the military to American society, Fallows wrote: “I am beginning to think that the only way the national government can do anything worthwhile is to invent a security threat and turn the job over to the military.”  He elaborated on his reasoning:

According to our economic and political theories, most agencies of the government have no special standing to speak about the general national welfare. Each represents a certain constituency; the interest groups fight it out. The military, strangely, is the one government institution that has been assigned legitimacy to act on its notion of the collective good. “National defense” can make us do things—train engineers, build highways—that long-term good of the nation or common sense cannot.

In other words, declaring something a “national security” threat can be quite attractive for a variety of reasons.  After all, the military is considered the institution in U.S. society in which the American public has the most confidence.  Americans also think that the military is the entity that they believe will act in the best interests of the public.  There are lots of political reasons to label something a “national security threat.”

But none of that means it’s the right thing to saddle the military with responsibility to take on the nation’s most difficult problems beyond those directly linked to national defense.  The fact is that other government components are often – if not always – far better suited to take on many of the problems that are inappropriately being called “national security threats” today.  Let’s reserve “national security threats” for those risks that plainly fall within the purview of the national security establishment.

The armed forces already has plenty to do in dealing with the growing defense threats, to include existential ones, posed by hostile nation-states and organized armed terrorists groups.  It is a grave mistake to underestimate the sheer size and complexity of the challenges confronting America’s military which may be responsible for defending as much as a quarter of humanity.  We need our military not to be a ‘jack of all trades,’ but rather a master of just one: defending America and her allies.

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