A National Security Agenda revisited.

AuthorParker, Elizabeth Rindskopf

    In November 2008, one week after Barack Obama was elected as our forty-fifth President, I had the honor of delivering a Donahue Lecture at Suffolk University Law School. (1) "A National Security Agenda" offered thoughts on national security challenges, priorities and strategies for a new presidential administration. Now, more than one year later, this paper is a "scorecard" on the success of these earlier recommendations and the new administration's actions. In the pages following, what has been accomplished and what remains is reviewed and judged against my earlier suggestions, in the hope of encouraging readers in their own analysis.


    1. Policy Consistency

      A principal recommendation focused on the importance of maintaining consistency in U.S foreign and national security policy during the change in presidential administrations. Abrupt changes in policy direction are not helpful and may not be possible at all. (2) They may signal weakness and present opportunities for our adversaries. Past administrations often experienced a "testing" early on as external forces sought to take advantage of the transition period between administrations, thought to be a time of weakness and vulnerability. (3) Israel's attacks on Gaza, which occurred even before the new administration took office, fall here. Correctly anticipating that the new Obama administration would be less inclined to tolerate "hard line" initiatives, but would not be well organized to react in their early days, the Israelis took aggressive action in Gaza during the waning days of the Bush administration. As a result, President Obama lost opportunities.

      As a logical corollary, I also suggested the value of learning from preceding administrations during the transition period. One serious foreign policy error for any new administration is ignoring lessons learned by one's predecessors, no matter how seriously flawed their judgments may seem. For example, both the Clinton and Bush administrations experienced this problem, ignoring the experience of their predecessors about changing national security threats until external events provided them with forceful lessons.

      In 1992, then President-elect Clinton was notoriously disinterested in the intelligence briefings offered during his transition, apparently believing domestic concerns were more important. (4) Moreover, his administration did not include an overabundance of individuals with national security experience, certainly where the emerging threat of terrorism was concerned. Attorney General Janet Reno brought substantial domestic law enforcement experience to her new position, but lacked a background or understanding of the evolving relationship between law and national security after the end of the Cold War. As a result, she sought to judge foreign policy choices against domestic criminal law standards. In one case, the Reno Department of Justice debated whether the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard of proof in domestic criminal law should apply to the United States' response to Saddam Hussein's attempt to assassinate former President George Bush during a visit to Kuwait. (5) Overall, the early Clinton administration had limited interest in the terrorist threat, thus slowing development and implementation of new policies. (6)

      For its part, the leadership of the second Bush administration and its Department of Justice team was no more interested in or ready to handle a terrorist attack than the early Clinton administration. Importantly, as the 9/11 Commission Report later made clear, they failed to take advantage of what the Clinton administration had eventually learned after eight years in office. (7) Indeed, pronouncements by national security officials in the first nine months of Bush's Presidency reflect a Cold War rhetoric that strongly suggests the new administration did not appreciate the shift in national security threats that the terrorist upsurge was creating. (8) As a result, when the 9/11 attacks occurred, the United States and its leaders were unprepared, both practically and psychologically. In my view, the Bush administration overreacted, developing an extreme approach to achieving security with little regard for legal or policy considerations. A few obvious examples of these excessive methods include the enhanced interrogation techniques, the military tribunals as originally conceived, and the process employed in expanding the National Security Agency's surveillance capabilities.

      The apparent "overreaction" of the Bush Administration to the terrorist threat produced a nation deeply divided regarding the best approaches to developing a foreign policy to insure our national security. This legacy now poses a special challenge for the Obama administration. The intensity of public reaction to the former administration's early choices in prosecuting the "war on terror" appears to justify the Obama administration's rejection of a wide range of policy choices adopted by the Bush administration: holding combatants in Guantanamo, using enhanced interrogation techniques, prosecuting alleged terrorists (or enemy combatants) before military tribunals instead of domestic courts, and increasing the reach of NSA's electronic surveillance capabilities. In fact, many of these policies had been moderated by the time the Obama administration took charge, and so charting a "middle-of-the-road" response to early Bush policies became a pragmatic necessity. This is, in fact, the course that the new president has elected to follow. (9)

      The smooth transition between the Bush and Obama administrations suggests that President Obama understands the importance of careful transition preparation and taking advantage of a prior administration's experience. The sharing of information that occurred appears to have created an unusually effective transition process. (10) President Obama's naturally pragmatic approach to governing has helped here. And so, as flawed as many consider some of the Bush administration's original choices to have been, after study, the new administration has recognized that these choices, moderated over time, have become a practical reality that cannot be magically "wished away." Moreover, many of the most controversial original choices, e.g. the structure of the Guantanamo Tribunal, have moderated over time, making them less problematic. The result is a certain inevitability of choice.

    2. Bi-Partisanship

      A related second recommendation offered by the Obama administration was the need to restore bipartisanship to our national security agenda and to maintain a steady course over time and across administrations. This was critical during the Cold War and remains so today. National political parties change according to a fixed timetable, but the national security threats our nation faces do not. Responses must be thoughtfully considered, developed and implemented over time, so that they span administrations.

      Happily, the new administration's responses in its early months have been measured, reflecting its understanding that, when it comes to changes in direction, our national security policy is more akin to a battleship than a frigate: abrupt changes in direction are not possible. (11) Our national security policy is a careful structure, built over time, involving complicated relationships and choices. Changes must be carefully developed and initiated, not abruptly introduced as a reaction to the moment. Consistency is important and is best achieved by a bipartisan approach.

      Frequently, the new President has demonstrated that he has learned this lesson well, perhaps the benefit of mentoring by Republican Senator Richard Lugar, the bipartisan dean of foreign policy. He has proceeded deliberately and cautiously, revisiting foreign policy choices of the Bush administration carefully. Ironically, the President's own party has been fretful at this consistency and bipartisanship that President Obama has consistently shown in his managing of the problems and initiatives inherited from the Bush administration. Clearly, doing the right thing has a political cost. (12)

      The President's commitment to consistency and bipartisanship was discernable from the very beginning in his initial national security appointments. He forged an experienced national security team composed of both parties, retaining Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense and Robert Mueller as FBI Director. (13) He also added practiced military leaders such as General James Jones, the new National Security Adviser, and Admiral Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence, as well as experienced former Democratic leaders such as Leon Panetta as CIA Director and Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. In other cases, President Obama selected new faces, such as former Governor Janet Napolitano as Secretary of Homeland Security, who brought highly relevant experience and excellent credentials with them. Appointing such experienced leadership reduced the "catch up" time needed for the new administration in national security and foreign policy matters, and may have facilitated later decisions to change policy.

      For example, the Obama administration altered the United States policy on missile defense, moving to shorter-range sea-based systems from longer-range land-based missiles. This represents a fundamental change in U.S. defense policy. At the same time, this decision has removed a persistent irritant to the Russians who see long-range missiles as well as NATO expansion, as threatening to their traditional sphere of influence. In place of the former missile policy, the Obama administration adopted a more realistic approach to the threat of Iranian missiles. This new policy recognizes that Iran poses a greater threat to Europe and Israel than to the United States itself. The result is that short-range missiles have been substituted for long-range missiles--at least for now.

      The new...

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