In spite of the shock of the Sept. 11th attacks, the United States hasn’t faced a conventional existential threat since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As a result, our defense planning documents, from our National Security Strategy to the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review, reflect a veritable laundry list of objectives—some as essential as securing our borders, and others as aspirational as stopping climate change.
I have a unique perspective on our national security, as I spend my days instructing some of our finest Special Forces officers, and counterterrorism agents and just a few days ago, I had the privilege of swearing an oath of allegiance that at last made me a proud citizen of the United States.
The ceremony gave me occasion to reflect on the non-negotiable characteristics of our nation—the things that makes us who we are. These are most clearly identified in the founding documents that established the Republic: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Together, as Paul Nitze famously wrote in NSC-68, the declassified memo that guided us through the Cold War, these provide the “purpose of the nation.”
The five greatest threats to our country, and the government these documents define, are mass-casualty terrorism, subversion of the Constitution, the unsustainable growth in entitlement spending, the constriction of U.S. economic growth and global mobility, and our own lack of strategic vision.
1. Mass-casuality terrorism
On mass-casualty terrorism, little more need be said: al-Qaeda killed more people in 102 minutes on September 11th than the Irish Republican Army killed in 30 years.
Few doubt that if al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers could acquire weapons of mass destruction, they would do far worse, and that remains the primary short-term threat to the United States. (WMD use by religious extremists is primarily an al-Qaeda issue, but the apocalyptic designs of Tehran link that country to this category of threat).
2. Unsustainable entitlement growth
On entitlements, America’s political elites—left and right alike—have led us to the brink of national bankruptcy. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the bank bailouts, and the president’s health care law are all consequences of an environment in which leaders know they’ll never be held to account for the debts they incur in our names. This represents a very serious long-term threat to the nation.
3. Subversion of the Constitution
By now, the Arab Spring has made clear that fundamentalist zealots can rise to power by the ballot as well as the bullet. The Muslim Brotherhood and its fundamentalist Salafist allies now hold over 70 percent of the seats in the post-Mubarak parliament, and their sister organizations are faring similarly all across the Middle East and North Africa. More importantly, the Brotherhood has spent decades establishing front organizations here in the U.S., dedicated to chipping away at the founding principles upon which our Republic was built.
The list of these organizations was revealed in 2007, in the federal Holy Land Foundation trial, the biggest terrorist financing case in U.S. history. Today these organizations daily undermine U.S. national security, be it by making it impossible for the NYPD to gather information relevant to stopping the next 9/11, or convincing the White House to politically censor federal counterterrorism training.
We remain a military power without peer, but we continue to understand war as a kinetic activity rather than something much broader: accomplishing our objectives through coercion and information warfare.
4. Constriction of U.S. growth
China is not a direct kinetic threat to America—does anyone foresee Chinese tanks rolling down U.S. interstates?—but if current trends continue, China will increasingly dominate the natural resources the U.S. needs to maintain its economic growth. (The most glaring example that will affect us soon is Chinese control of over 90 percent of African rare-earth minerals).
5. Lack of strategic vision
This last threat is not a country or non-state actor, but a weakness in ourselves: We can’t seem to think or act strategically. The future of Mexico is far more important to the United States than the future of Afghanistan, for instance, but you wouldn’t know it by the actions of our government. If we refuse to think strategically, we will continue to run into trouble, and condemn our nation to second-class status sooner rather than later.
Responding to these five threats will require a renaissance in strategic thinking and strategic action. America can no longer afford to “wing it,” expending blood and treasure with wild abandon.
The views expressed above do not necessarily reflect the views of the DoD or any other U.S. government agency.