If everything is a “national security” priority, nothing will be

Should every challenge America faces be categorized as a “national security” priority?  If so, the country is in for trouble as the authentic national security threats need the full focus of America’s national security enterprise.

What would those sorts of threats be?  Look no further than the headlines about the escalating violence in Israel and Gaza that could engulf the Middle East, to those relating the shocking, foreign-sourced cyber attack on the Colonial Pipline that has caused panic among motorists as thousands of fueling stations have run out of fuel.”  Meanwhile, the Department of Defense’s “number one” priority remains, apparently, the domestic public health issue of COVID-19, even as it has yet to order troops vaccinated.

Beyond the recent headlines there’s real reason for deep concern about a lack of focus and reasoned prioritization.  The new Administration’s Interim National Security Guidance is an ‘anything and everything’ kind of document that invites a dangerous distortion of priorities away from the staggering challenges presented by an array of hostile state and non-state actors, including China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea – not to mention resurging terrorist organizations like ISIS and Al Qaeda.

In an especially insightful March 17th essay (“Don’t Let the Department of Defense Become the Department of Distraction) retired Army lieutenant general Thomas Spoehr analyzes the Guidance:

Unfortunately, if you were the secretary of defense hoping to glean insights on how the administration wants you to shape the nation’s defenses, you would come away unfulfilled after reading this document.

While many believe a strong Navy will be important to contain China, there is curiously no mention of the service in the new guidance.

Maybe some thoughts about the new Space Force and the significant challenges America faces in space? Nope.

The role of the Air Force?  Nada.

What about climate change? Jackpot!  Mentioned 14 times.

COVID-19 gets a shout-out nine times, and racial justice or equity—three times. Keep in mind, this is national security guidance.

Spoehr contends – as I do – that “failing to establish clear priorities leads to wasted effort or, worse, mission failure.”  He adds “a famous maxim warns leaders: ‘if everything is important, nothing is.’”

What’s being stuffed under the aegis of “national security”

The fact is that if the aperture of “national security” is widened enough, almost any societal ill can be characterized that way. The grim reality is that we are seeing just that.

Here’s a litany of some of the things that have been stuffed under the aegis of “national security”: obesity (as well as universal health care), racism, the environment, political corruption, global poverty, policing, illicit drugs, the K-12 education system, infrastructure, street gangs, UFOs, religious freedom, transnational crime, higher education curriculum, the economy, gun control, abortion, international trade, social media, protectionism, immigration, hunger, homelessness, solar storms, clothing, unusual behavior, and more.

Yes, most of these “national security” claims precede the Biden presidency, but the point is that the current administration now seems too willing to open the aperture of “national security” and accommodate them.

The nation’s most important interest

Many, if not most, of those issues are – in fact – very important national concerns, but their nexus to national security – if any – is just too tangential to appropriately be labelled as such.  They need to be subordinated to clear-cut national security threats.  The Supreme Court put it plainly in Haig v. Agee: “It is “obvious and unarguable” that no governmental interest is more compelling than the security of the Nation.”

What is more is that diluting the focus from the complex threats presented by nation states and international terrorists creates immediate risks.  More than 65 years ago the Supreme Court made some vital observations about the purpose of the military.  Although the comments arose in a different context (military justice), the underlying concept is particularly relevant when we see what is happening today:

[I]t is the primary business of armies and navies to fight or be ready to fight wars should the occasion arise…To the extent that those responsible for performance of this primary function are diverted from it…the basic fighting purpose of armies is not served. 

The dangers of diffusion 

Almost thirty years ago I wrote a fictionalized essay entitledThe Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012 where I warned about the dangers of the military’s focus becoming too diffused and it becoming too enmeshed in peripheral enterprises.

(Allow me to make something clear: as I said them, and reiterate now: “It goes without saying (I hope) that the coup scenario…is purely a literary device intended to dramatize my concern over certain contemporary developments affecting the armed forces, and is emphatically not a prediction”).

I recalled the Coup of 2012 in an earlier post (Don’t militarize the response to the challenge of climate change).  I want to reiterate some of what I said then:

Commentator James Fallows expressed what was then ‘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.”

So, yes, my essay concedes that the military can get things done in our society, but I went on to warn about the strategic dangers of diluting the military’s focus on its raison d’être, that is, as the Supreme Court put it, to fight or be ready to fight wars should the occasion arise.”

Today, there are plenty of genuinely “existential” nation-state and even terrorist threats to keep our armed forces fully occupied. Think about what the military has to confront these days: cyber-attacks, autonomous weapons, urban conflict, hybrid war, drone swarms, hyper-sonic missiles, nuclear bombs, chem/bio-armaments, and much more.

In the Coup of 2012 I also wrote about how the classification of every ill the nation faces in national security terms inevitably – and dangerously – politicizes the military because unavoidably it comes to involve domestic policy matters best left to elected politicians.  Armed forces, I further argued, that become too enmeshed in domestic, non-warfighting tasks erode their ability to fight external aggression by authentic military powers.

Using the defense budget as a piggy bank

It isn’t hard to understand why the advocates of the myriad of other issues bedeviling the U.S. want to tag the appellation of “national security” to their particular cause.  Not only does it have the cache of tying it to the institution in which the public has the most confidence, it also opens up the possibility of raiding the defense budget.

The oft-misunderstood Pentagon budget has long funded matters few realize are paid for by the Defense Department (see e.g., here).  But the proliferation of so-called ”national security” issues will only accelerate an unhealthy trend.

In fact, we’ve already seen that begin to happen: There have been proposals to transfer billions from the defense budget to the State Department; the Pentagon has picked up a more than $500 million bill to police Washington, DC.; and additional millions have been spent providing public domestic health services during the pandemic.

What’s next?  Just look at the list of issues above that are being framed as “national security” matters and you can be sure to see—sooner rather than later—a lengthening line of supplicants wanting the Pentagon to foot the bill for their preferred project.

The cyber-crime exception

Does this mean we should never expand the appropriate understanding of national security threats?  No.  Professor Audrey Kurth Cronin has observed that available technology can super-empower small numbers and even individuals to the point where they can present extraordinarily dangerous threats.  For example, Thomas Friedman warns that technology could make it where one of us can kill all of us.”

Cyber is one of those technologies that the national security enterprise must address even if, to date, the attacks might still be technically classified as “cyber-crime.” 

Thus, massive “cyber-crime” events (such as SolarWinds and the Colonial Pipeline attack) should nevertheless be accorded “national security” status, much because in the digital age…a surreptitious cyberattack [can deliver] latent but potentially catastrophic effects on the target.”  And experts insist that cyber attacks can have truly “existential” consequences for the Nation.

Concluding observations 

Allow me to re-emphasize: the issues being touted as “national security” in many and even most cases are very important national concerns.  However, putting the responsibility for addressing them into the national security apparatus can turn that enterprise into the proverbial jack-of-all-trades, master of none — a circumstance the country can ill-afford.

The gravity of the threats that are inarguably military—hostile nation-states, sophisticated cyber-attacks, terrorism, WMD proliferation, and more—are such that we need to the Pentagon and the rest of the national security community to fully focus upon them.  The national security enterprise is just not the right organization to address the country’s every ill — not if we want to be ready to truly protect and defend our nation.

Sure, there is – for example – a relationship between the obesity epidemic and the potential number of able-bodied persons available to conscript in an emergency, but is that nexus really tight enough to warrant taking a “national security” attitude over a national health approach?  A militarized methodology could involve compulsory activities and punitive consequences for failures.  Is that really what we want?

Let’s not forget that America’s armed forces have responsibilities unlike any other military on the planet.  As the Washington Post has observed, it is obliged to defend a “quarter of humanity.”  That’s certainly enough for a full “national security” agenda.

The moniker of “national security” should be used judiciously and discreetly even as we recognize other important national priorities.  Again, if everything becomes a “national security” priority, nothing will be.  The inevitable diffusion of energy, resources, and focus cannot serve America’s interests.

Still, remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

(You may also want to take a look at: Could hyping climate change with warlike rhetoric spur military conflict with China or Russia?)


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