Could something good come from the catastrophe of COVID-19? Might the epic insecurity of a plague teach us something about national security?
Political scientist Micah Zenko calls the current pandemic “the worst intelligence failure in U.S. history.”
Former CIA analyst Melvin Goodman sees “the urgent need to redefine national security.”
Ilan Goldenberg, a former defense adviser to President Obama, says “the sheer magnitude of the crisis can—should—force …. [a] rethinking of our foreign policy priorities that’s long overdue.”
Anne-Marie Slaughter, former State Department policy planner, writes “if this crisis is highlighting our weaknesses as a nation, it is also bringing out some of our greatest strengths.”
But what are the lessons to be learned?
Zenko says the fault lies “solely” with President Trump. Goodman indicts all Democratic and Republican presidents of the last 30 years for national security policies that are “irrelevant to the genuine threats we face today.” Goldenberg blames “our obsession with counterterrorism and Middle East conflict in the aftermath of 9/11.” Slaughter calls for expansive domestic programs to bolster the nation’s collective security, namely a universal basic income and universal broadband.
One thing we can be sure of is: change won’t come easily, even for a stricken nation. In the March cover story of Harper’s magazine, historian and former U.S. Army colonel Andrew Bacevich argued that America’s “addiction to war” will be hard to break.
Writing before the pandemic erupted, Bacevich said U.S. policymakers have insisted for the past seven decades that the American flag “be recognized throughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming force on the other.” This ambitious doctrine, he noted, guided U.S. policy through 45 years of the Cold War and 30 years of war on terrorism.
The global mission of freedom powered by military superiority led to defeat in Vietnam, though defenders can argue that it ultimately defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War. More recently, national security doctrine has delivered the United States into failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as pyrrhic proxy war victories in countries like the Congo, Yemen, Libya, El Salvador, and Guatemala where our bloody “successes” have created failed states and triggered mass migration. About the only clear-cut U.S. victory in the last 30 years was the First Gulf War, which achieved its goal of ousting Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait.
Not until Donald Trump took office did any U.S. president dispute the fundamental tenets of post-World War II national security doctrine. In the 2016 election, Bacevich observes, “an eminently qualified candidate [Hillary Clinton] who embodied a notably bellicose variant of the Marshall tradition lost to an opponent who openly mocked that tradition while possessing no qualifications for high office whatsoever.”
In his Harper’s piece, Bacevich questioned whether the Washington policymaking elite could “even acknowledge the magnitude of the repudiation it sustained at the hands of Trump and those who voted him into office,” much less “muster the imagination to devise an alternative tradition better suited to existing conditions while commanding the support of the American people.” His pessimistic prognostication was entitled “The Old Normal.”
As America settled into the new normal of skyrocketing death tolls, spreading lockdowns, and social distancing, I asked Bacevich, the president of the Quincy Institute, a think tank dedicated to “diplomatic engagement and military restraint,” to reconsider the premise of his Harper’s piece.
Might COVID-19 force the changes that he so recently thought were unlikely?
“Possibly,” Bacevich replied in a telephone interview. “A sufficient accumulation of bad news can serve as a wake-up call.”
But, he added, “people in Washington have not noticed that the national security system has been failing for some time. Since 9/11, our system has failed in doing what it was supposed to do, which is protect our people and protect our freedoms. It launched and waged wars that are unnecessary, mismanaged, expensive, and that drag on and on.”
“At the same time,” he went on, “we have suffered a series of catastrophes from [hurricanes] Katrina and Sandy to wildfires in California that, in the old days, we would have said were acts of God that there’s not much we can do about.”
The problem, Bacevich says, is not just the intelligence failure identified by Zenko, but a vision failure.
“When something happens like New Orleans going underwater, we should look to the government for a programmatic response that anticipates and deflects such dangers. In this regard, our national security agencies haven’t done squat to improve our security.”
“Coronavirus fits into the sequence of Katrina, Sandy, and the wildfires,” he said. “It is a direct threat here at home for which this mammoth apparatus that we have created to protect our freedoms is largely irrelevant.”
“What do the Navy’s two carrier battle groups in the Middle East do for us in the time of the virus?” he asked. “Do our 800 foreign military bases around the world protect us?”
Like Goodman, Bacevich thinks the problem is bipartisan. Like Goldenberg, he says our obsession with Middle East terrorism is dysfunctional. Like Slaughter, Bacevich believes domestic security measures must be woven into foreign policy.
The problem, he sees, is bureaucratic and intellectual inertia. The Navy will not give up its aircraft carriers. The generals will not give up their dream of military superiority. Even with coronavirus decimating the economy, Bacevich notes, “it’s not going to be easy for senior military officers and top intelligence officials to acknowledge the habits of the past are part of the problem.”
The “window for making big, fundamental changes won’t last long,” Goldenberg observes, “and when it ends, and America returns to politics as usual, the decisions we make during the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis will stay with us for years and define our foreign policy.”
“I wouldn’t say the debate we need to have is going to happen,” Bacevich said. “I’m probably the least optimistic person on the planet. But the magnitude of the crisis might open the way. COVID-19 really ought to be the nail in the coffin of the national security state.”