In Brief: Thoughts on National Security

March 1, 2006 Topic: Security Regions: Americas Tags: Nuclear weaponsNuclear power

In Brief: Thoughts on National Security

Mini Teaser: Graham Allison, Ian Bremmer, Harlan Ullman and Derek Chollet.

by Author(s): Graham AllisonIan BremmerHarlan UllmanDerek Chollet

Nuclear Terrorism Report Card

In the first debate of the 2004 presidential campaign, the moderator asked the two candidates: "What is the single most serious threat to American national security?" Both answered: nuclear terrorism. Vice President Dick Cheney followed up, arguing that "the biggest threat we face now as a nation is the possibility of terrorists ending up in the middle of one of our cities with deadlier weapons than have ever been used against us--nuclear weapons--able to threaten the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans." Cheney concluded: "That's the ultimate threat. For us to have a strategy that is capable of defeating that threat, you've got to get your mind around that concept." (Emphasis mine.)

Given these strong words, the question is: How has the administration acted to address this threat? Success in preventing a nuclear 9/11 requires implementing a "Doctrine of Three Nos": no loose nukes, no new nascent nukes and no new nuclear weapons states. On all three fronts, the administration's first-term performance can be summed up by one word: unacceptable.

"No loose nukes" means securing all nuclear weapons and weapons-usable material beyond the reach of terrorists and criminals that might sell them on the black market. Hard as it is to believe, fewer potential nuclear weapons were secured in Russia in the two years after the 9/11 wake-up call than in the two years prior to that attack. Although the administration launched a global clean-out initiative that removed some highly enriched uranium from eight countries, the makings for nuclear bombs remain today in forty developing and transitional countries. Performance worthy of an "A" in securing "loose nukes" requires locking down all nuclear material in twelve to 18 months--not mañana.

"No new nascent nukes" means no new national capabilities to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium, the essential elements in creating nuclear weapons. The international security community has slowly come to recognize this red line: Highly enriched uranium and plutonium are bombs just about to hatch. On this front, the Bush Administration earned a "D minus." While its attention was consumed by Iraq, Iran advanced from years to only months away from completing the infrastructure for its nuclear bomb.

"No new nuclear weapons states" recognizes the reality that we have now eight nuclear powers but says unambiguously: "No more." Sharply reducing Cold War arsenals and devaluing nuclear weapons in international relations are long-term goals, but the urgent challenge is to stop further bleeding. Here the president clearly failed. When he entered office, North Korea had two bombs-worth of plutonium (acquired in the final years of his father's administration). At the end of his first term, according to CIA estimates, North Korea's nuclear arsenal had grown to eight bombs-worth of plutonium.

Beginning in early 2003, North Korea crossed every line the United States has drawn. Specifically, it withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty--with impunity. It kicked out the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors--with impunity. It turned off the video cameras that were watching 8,000 fuel rods containing enough plutonium for six additional bombs--with impunity. It trucked those fuel rods off to reprocessing factories, claimed to have manufactured nuclear weapons with the material, and restarted its reactor to make more plutonium--with impunity. Today, North Korea stands alone as a self-declared but unrecognized nuclear power.

In contrast to the first term, the good news is that in the past year the reconfigured Bush national security team appears to be "getting its mind around the concept" of a nuclear bomb exploding in an American city. In confronting the threat of nuclear terrorism, the administration has moved beyond ideological principles to a new pragmatism.

In February 2005, at a summit in Bratislava, Presidents Bush and Putin put nuclear security at the top of the agenda. For the first time, the two presidents accepted personal responsibility for addressing the issue and assuring that their governments act urgently. They agreed on a work plan that assigned responsibility to Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman and his Russian counterpart; established specific working groups on best practices in nuclear security and security culture; and required the secretaries to oversee implementation of these efforts and brief them regularly.

On Iran, the administration has gotten off the sidelines where it was carping at the EU-3 initiative and has begun actively building consensus among the major parties--the EU-3, the United States, Russia and China--on the necessity of preventing Iran from completing its nuclear weapons infrastructure. In contrast to futile attempts to stop construction of the nuclear power plant at Bushehr or deny Iran's asserted right to a full fuel cycle, it now focuses on persuading the Iranian government to forgo specific actions at its Natanz and Isfahan facilities. Moreover, the United States is showing a willingness to bring additional carrots to the table, from airplane parts to promises of non-aggression.

It would be a grand irony--and indeed a tragedy--if the United States and Iran reverse roles. After a term in which American ideology scotched a denuclearization deal that Iran's government might have accepted, the new Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, could prove unwilling to accept any offer the international community can assemble.

Addressing the North Korean threat, the administration has transcended the paralysis of the first term to develop a coherent strategy. The first-term policy was summarized in Vice President Cheney's maxim: "We don't negotiate with evil; we defeat it." The administration is now actively negotiating. Significant financial inducements from Japan, South Korea and China, and a guarantee from the U.S. government that it will not attack North Korea to change its regime by force, persuaded Pyongyang to agree last September that it would "abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs." Between that pledge and the reality of a non-nuclear North Korea lies a journey of a thousand steps, many steeper and more slippery than the first. The fact that China, the state with the greatest leverage over North Korea, has become an active player in this process holds great promise.

Across the nuclear front, the administration currently confronts challenges as difficult as those faced by any American government since the Cuban Missile Crisis. We can be grateful for the recognition of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her colleagues of the reality of nuclear danger and their determination to mobilize all the sticks and carrots in the American arsenal to combat the threat. Where the stakes could mean terrorists exploding a nuclear weapon in an American city, Churchill's counsel to colleagues in World War Two surely applies. "It is not enough", he said, "to do one's best. What is required is rather that one do what is necessary for success."

Graham Allison, author of Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe (2004), is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. A former assistant secretary of defense who has twice received the Defense Department's Distinguished Public Service Medal, his teaching and research focuses on American foreign and defense policy and mega-terrorism.

Thinking Beyond States

When government officials formulate foreign policy, they tend to focus their analytical resources on the opportunities and challenges created by other governments: They coordinate policy with some states in order to overcome resistance from others. Officials at the State Department, for example, may soon be working to persuade allied countries to join the United States in a boycott of trade with Iran. The Pentagon, meanwhile, used its latest Quadrennial Defense Review to emphasize the security threats posed by the growth of China's military and the actions of "rogue states" like Iran, North Korea, Syria and others. In other words, states focus almost all their attention and analysis on the capabilities and intentions of other states.

There is an exception to this rule. Four years ago, the world learned that a small terrorist organization sheltered by an outlaw regime could dispatch a handful of men to strike a heavy blow against even the most powerful states. Terrorist networks also feature prominently in the U.S. defense review, and America is hardly the only country that spends substantial national security resources on the study of transnational terrorism.

Yet state governments have hardly begun to respond to the political and economic challenges posed by substate actors that do not directly threaten their security--or by those that do not represent a security threat at all. Multinational corporations, state-owned enterprises, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and even the people we have come to call "super-empowered individuals" have a great and growing role in international relations--and an enormous potential impact on the ability of states to pursue their national interests. Nonetheless, their political and economic influence remains poorly understood.

It is now received wisdom that the U.S.-dominated global order has begun to give way to a new multipolar model. But this multipolar system is not simply one in which rising powers (such as China and India) and influential regional institutions (such as the European Union and ASEAN) counter-balance American influence. Substate actors now enjoy unprecedented influence on the world stage. In other words, the global playing field is not so much broadening as deepening, a trend that demands that states look beyond other states for the next generation of obstacles to the pursuit of their national interests.

First, consider the geopolitical influence of large companies, corporations and state-owned enterprises. Policymakers too often think of other countries' state-owned companies as mere extensions of their government's foreign policy. This is often not the case. When CNOOC, one of China's state-owned oil firms, announced its bid to acquire the U.S. energy company Unocal in June, many in Washington were indignant and immediately blamed Beijing. A number of U.S. lawmakers were already angry with the Chinese government, because they blamed Beijing's refusal to substantially revalue its currency for the growing U.S.-China trade deficit. They were further frustrated by Beijing's willingness to strike trade deals with regimes that Washington would like to sanction and isolate.

U.S. lawmakers failed to understand that CNOOC officials had launched the controversial bid for Unocal on their own--and that Chinese government officials learned of the plan only after it was made public. It was inconceivable to U.S. officials that a Chinese state-owned enterprise could act with such autonomy. But that was, in fact, precisely what had happened.

When the Russian state-owned gas monopoly Gazprom cut supplies to Ukraine in January and briefly interrupted the flow of energy to European customers, most analysts assumed that the move reflected an official Kremlin reformulation of Russia's national interests. But why, they wondered, would Russia risk alienating European governments simply to undermine the Ukrainian government? How could such a move be reconciled with Russia's commercial interests? But Gazprom is not Russia. The state-owned firm had acted instead to assert its own interests.

Gazprom is largely controlled by a faction within the Russian government widely known as the "technocrats." Russia's state-owned oil firm Rosneft is directed by members of a competing faction known as the siloviki. The technocrats and siloviki compete within the Kremlin for influence in Russia's domestic and foreign policy formulation, but they also pursue their own interests in ways that influence Russia's relations with other states. Gazprom and Rosneft do not have formal diplomatic relations with foreign governments. Perhaps if they did, states affected by their actions would better understand the difference between Russian corporate interests and Russian foreign policy.

Some private-sector multinational corporations indirectly harm their country's national interests by complicating relations with strategic allies. Consider the case of Freeport-McMoRan, an American mining company. To create one of the world's largest open-cut copper mines in West Papua, Indonesia, the company sheared off the top of a mountain that local residents consider sacred and allegedly dumped waste into local waterways. The U.S. company has for years relied on Indonesian police and security forces to protect its controversial operations from angry locals and environmental activists.

The Indonesian government has reportedly begun a probe into Freeport's possible violations of environmental and tax laws. The U.S. Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission are reportedly considering an investigation into Freeport's alleged payments to Indonesian army officers. Both governments have good reason to limit the damage that a private mining company has done to relations between the world's largest Muslim state and the world's most powerful country.

Other corporations undermine their home country's interests more directly. Witness the Indian firms that have relocated their operations to China in order to take advantage of lower wages, a friendlier regulatory environment and more profitable near-term opportunities. In the process, these firms bring proprietary technology and new management techniques with them--to the advantage of their country's primary economic competitor. China has in fact undermined Taiwan's independence movement with a similar strategy, enticing scores of Taiwanese businessmen to the mainland with the promise of limited regulatory interference and higher return on their investments.

Further, the many kinds of non-governmental organizations have growing influence over the processes by which national governments and international organizations achieve their policy goals. Anti-globalization protest groups--and the subgroups and individuals that piggyback on their activism--have undermined the efforts of the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization and state governments to liberalize the free flow of goods, services and financing. For example, informal anti-capitalist organizations in Latin America have helped raise the cost in political capital for elected leaders who would sign on to a Free Trade Area of the Americas.

In addition, NGOs dedicated to political reform helped coordinate protests during the revolutions that overwhelmed governments in Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004 and the Kyrgyz Republic in 2005. Governments in the other former Soviet states have taken note. In January, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law a measure that restricts the work of foreign NGOs. The Kremlin has also accused some Russian NGOs of accepting funds from foreign intelligence agencies and cracked down on their ability to accept money from abroad. The European Parliament has accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of closing down more than fifty pro-democracy NGOs in advance of presidential elections in March.

China restricts the work of these organizations as well by forcing them to submit their membership rosters, project ideas and foreign funding sources for state approval. But there are now more than 2,000 registered NGOs whose sole area of activism is environmental protection. These organizations have filed lawsuits against industrial polluters and have organized protests against, for example, the construction of dams in environmentally fragile areas and the official reclamation of land for industrial use. Many within the central government fear that these groups might one day broaden their agendas and incite millions of Chinese citizens to demand sweeping political change.

NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, Greenpeace and Amnesty International are more active than ever in focusing international pressure on governments that deny their citizens basic human rights and violate international law. The growth of the Internet allows these groups to reach a wider audience than ever before. Though U.S. and European government officials generally understand the inner workings of the Belarusian presidential administration and the Chinese State Environmental Protection Agency, few analytical resources have been devoted to studying the intentions and influence of the NGOs with which state institutions increasingly do battle.

International media also have enormous influence as the Internet and cable television extend their reach across continents. To take one striking recent example: In September a privately owned Danish newspaper published a cartoon image of the Prophet Muhammad wearing a turban shaped like a bomb. In January Muslim gunmen raided an EU office in Gaza to demand an apology. Two days later, newspapers in France, Italy, Germany and Spain reprinted the cartoon. Within hours, protesters in several Muslim countries attacked European embassies, Iran announced a boycott of Danish products, Nigerian lawmakers burned a Danish flag, more than a dozen Afghans were killed in rioting and a growing international diplomatic crisis gathered momentum.

Then there is the role in international politics of the so-called super-empowered individual. For many years, foreign intelligence agencies suspected that Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan had links with foreign governments. Only in January 2004 was Khan forced to confess that a global network he had assembled had provided North Korea, Iran and Libya with sensitive nuclear materials and know-how. In fact, as the diplomatic crisis over Iran's nuclear program now gathers momentum, there is evidence that Khan provided Iran with much of the equipment and expertise it needed to enrich uranium with gas centrifuges. It wasn't the case that intelligence agencies failed to stop Kahn's nuclear proliferation because they were unaware of his network. Rather, they simply seem to have lacked the institutional imagination to recognize that a nuclear scientist had the independence to act in pursuit of his own, rather than his country's, interests.

Not all super-empowered individuals play such a malevolent role. Take Bill and Melinda Gates, founders of the Gates Foundation. The organization's endowment, at $28.8 billion, is higher than the total GDP of dozens of countries. It employs just 250 people, but it has awarded more that $9.2 billion in grants since its inception in January 2000. More than 60 percent of that money has gone to health and education projects outside the United States. By contrast, President Bush requested about $8.25 billion from Congress for fiscal year 2006 for programs administered by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Many of the states most in need of foreign aid lack the strong institutions and mature governance found in more developed countries. In such states, multinational corporations, NGOs and powerful individuals play disproportionately large political and economic roles. In some of these countries (Nigeria, Sudan, Venezuela and Burma, for example), abundant energy reserves inject these substate actors directly into international politics. But analysts and policymakers in developed states continue to focus their diplomatic and intelligence-gathering efforts almost exclusively on other governments, with little attention to this broader range of actors.

As the free flow of information, money, people, goods and services remakes the global landscape, it is time for state governments to recognize the growing geopolitical importance of all these players. Governments should devote the time and expertise of talented and resourceful civil servants to better understand how each of these substate actors influences political and economic decision-making, both within states and across international borders. Only by doing so can they fully account for many of the important drivers and variables that influence the pursuit of their national interests.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, and a contributing editor to The National Interest. He is author of the forthcoming book, The J Curve: A New Way to Understand the Rise and Fall of Nations (2006).

Known and Unkown Dangers

Looking beyond the "usual suspects" for global mischief-making, there are potential crises that could both truly surprise us in 2006 and prove enormously disruptive to our interests and well-being. Three profoundly different states offer an aperture into what could become nasty and dangerous surprises. Only one--Iraq--is an obvious candidate. Nigeria and the United States are the other two. Yes, there could also be pleasant surprises--Berlin Walls and additional obstacles to peace and stability could come tumbling down as well. My sense is that these more optimistic scenarios are less likely to occur, and my only hope is that this intuition proves faulty.

In assessing future danger, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has identified "known unknowns and unknown unknowns." Known unknowns are threats and dangers that arise from known trouble spots such as Iraq, the War on Terror, Iran and North Korea. Specific events, such as future terrorist attacks or Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons, may not be fully predictable, but they are not unexpected.

Unknown unknowns are bolts from the blue both in terms of specific events and the source. Hamas's electoral victory in Palestine--and how it takes on the responsibility of governing--illustrates this case. The election results were not expected, hence not knowable, and the consequences of this election constitute many unknowns that also are unknowable and unpredictable now.

Rumsfeld's terminology is imperfect. What is really known or unknown, for example, is not always clear. Today's enemy could be tomorrow's friend and vice versa. Though we do not like to admit it, in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein was useful to us in the attempt to counter-balance Iran after the fall of the shah, and our relations with Baghdad were quite friendly.

So-called knowns can become unknowns and vice versa. France's opposition to the war in Iraq was in direct contrast to its position on fighting terror, cooperating in Afghanistan and in preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. But Rumsfeld's dialectic is useful in deducing some of the potentially more spectacular unforeseen dangers that may emerge, especially in places where we think we "know" enough so as not to be caught thoroughly off guard.

Consider Iraq, Nigeria and the United States. One common (and perhaps surprising) thread between, and among, each is that all three states are struggling to achieve the key objective of stability. Iraq and Nigeria are focusing within their borders. The United States is outside looking in. The question is which known or unknown unknowns could precipitate the nastiest of surprises?

Getting to Know Iraq

In Iraq, we know many things. We know that Iraq faces a long, hard struggle to rebuild itself and repair or replace its crippled and still vulnerable infrastructure. We know that the insurgency refuses to die and that insurgents are becoming far more politically, operationally and technologically sophisticated in applying terror and violence. And we know that the United States will begin a force withdrawal that could be significant in the size of the reductions.

The Iraqi government elected on December 15 is responsible for all aspects of governance, including assuring security and stability under the rule of law. Iraq is deeply divided among ethnic, religious, tribal and social lines. Unless minority Sunni rights are protected and the Sunnis are enticed to play major political roles, the chances for a successful government are greatly diminished.

Unfortunately, there are more known unknowns. The new Iraqi government could splinter or become autocratic and even turn fundamentalist. Iraq could divide in three parts along ethnic and religious lines. The insurgency could turn into full-fledged civil war. Iraqi security forces could fall back to the evil ways of doing business reminiscent of Saddam Hussein's brutality, as already has taken place in a few well-publicized cases. Americans could tire of the war and the expense in blood and treasure. The Bush Administration, in contrast, would like to think that the converse of each of these more dismal prospects is indeed what will happen.

But beyond these, what else should concern us, or what have we overlooked? Perhaps the most serious, but scarcely discussed, vulnerability in Iraq is the absence of coherent leadership at the ministry levels in Baghdad. By most accounts, the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of the Interior are dominated by tribal, ethnic or religious factions, and the corruption and incompetence of the Ba'athi days have yet to be eliminated. The likely result of ministerial failure and ineptitude is no secret. Without capable support and logistics at the ministry level, the Iraqi military cannot function.

For example, what happens when an Iraqi soldier loses his weapon, is wounded or killed, or decides to desert? There are no replacements. Soldiers are still paid in cash in the field, often far from home. Without a banking or reliable and safe postal system, sending money must be done in person. How then does an army stay together when soldiers must return home to provide families with their salaries?

The most critical level is the national government. It took over a month to count the votes and verify who was elected to serve in the parliament. How long will it take to form a government and for that government to take up the reins of power? And how long will it take that government to fulfill its responsibilities to rule in a capable and equitable manner? Many nasty surprises lurk within these questions and especially at the ministry level. The answers will define the measure of success or failure the Iraqi government achieves as it assumes full responsibility for the nation.

There is no doubt that the Iraqi military is making progress in its ability to operate against insurgents. However, the Iraqi military is entirely dependent on the United States. The Iraqi army lacks indigenous firepower, logistics and mobility support, and command and control. What has perhaps done most to give the Iraqi army real operational capacity is the embedding of U.S. soldiers and marines in Iraqi units.

In both the Korean and Vietnamese wars, U.S. forces were directly inserted to serve in Korean and South Vietnamese units. The same is happening today in Iraqi units. In this capacity, American soldiers and marines provide direct training, mentoring, leadership and a direct link to external U.S. support from communications and logistics to medical aid to air and artillery strikes.

What happens after the U.S. military presence is reduced? Based on experience and observation, some senior American officers speculate that it may take another two years of intense training before the Iraqi army is up to the task of defeating the insurgency on its own without U.S. support or embedded "mentors." During this transition, it is presumed that Iraqi forces would develop both the confidence and the prowess needed to finish the job. And this period would allow the crucial logistics and support system to be put in place. Part of this task includes ensuring that doctrine, culture, education and all of the supportive elements crucial to keeping an army operationally effective and morally bound are in place. If that task is not properly handled--meaning that the various ministries are not able to do their part--future collapse of the Iraqi army becomes a real danger.

Based on both official and reliable press reports, the weakest link may be the Iraqi police force, which remains infiltrated by insurgents. Unless the police corps can be culled of terrorists and professionalized, it will lack the ability to deal with crime and violence or, in conjunction with the army, end the insurgency.

General of the Army Douglas MacArthur declared, "there is no substitute for victory." In Iraq, the definition of victory will be far more modest. In thermodynamics, cold is defined as an absence of heat. In Iraq, victory may well come to be seen as an absence of catastrophe.

The Nigerian Unknowns

Of the less visible potential danger spots, Nigeria must rank among the highest on this list. We know that Nigeria has the largest population in Africa, with its 129,000,000 people, half of whom are Muslim; that is has huge oil reserves (2.3 million BPD, about the same as Iraq on a good day) and natural gas reserves; and that it is being led by an elderly president, Olusegun Obasanjo, who is term-limited. Presidential elections will occur this time next year. The makings for crisis and insurgency are present and intensified by rising tribal and ethnic brutality, huge levels of corruption (including the theft of about $1 billion of crude oil a year, called "bunkering"), and the desperation of a population riddled with AIDS and other diseases.

In January insurgents attacked two oil rigs belonging to Royal Dutch Shell and attacked an Agipa pumping station. Meanwhile, China acquired a majority interest in a Nigerian company as part of its strategy to secure long-term access to energy. That acquisition followed its decision to withdraw its bid to buy the U.S. energy firm Unocal, following a strong negative reaction from Congress.

The unknown unknowns are striking. Are Al-Qaeda and other jihadi extremists eyeing Nigeria as a potential target, given the size of its Muslim population? We have already seen a rise in Islamic militancy. If Nigeria is being actively targeted by jihadists, what is the timetable for action? If an Islamic insurgency--or, for that matter, another civil war--were to break out, to what extent would central Africa be affected? Also, how might oil-importing countries, such as the United States, and the world economy be affected if an interruption in the Nigerian flow of oil should send the price sky high?

Despite the Bush Administration's best efforts, Congress has restricted financial and military assistance to Nigeria because of its sheltering of Liberia's former dictator, Charles Taylor, from an arrest warrant filed by Sierra Leone, even though Nigeria took in Taylor in order to aid Liberia in its efforts to recover from years of ruinous civil war. Unfortunately, American public and preventative diplomatic efforts have been minimized. Nigeria is a good bet for a crisis in the not-too-distant future--an unknown unknown that poses the most profound implications for U.S. and global security, both because of oil and the potential for humanitarian disaster that chaos would create. Should a real Islamic insurgency break out and the flow of oil be cut, gasoline at $5 a gallon or more is not unthinkable.

Our Own Vulnerabilities

The third and perhaps most surprising case is the United States. The unknown unknown is obvious and yet hidden from plain sight. The State of the Union address and the Democratic rebuttal predictably made not a single mention of the most pressing issues facing the nation. In blunt terms, America's government is failing to meet its obligations to the nation. This failure is bipartisan. And both Republicans and Democrats alike are ducking responsibility and accountability for this failure.

The instability and violence in Iraq, the overly zealous promotion of democracy (and the administration's current quandary in dealing with Hamas's electoral victory in Palestine), the Hurricane Katrina response, the Medicare prescription-drug fiasco and many other problems should make Americans angry with government and with both political parties for tolerating or causing such unsatisfactory performance. Meanwhile, the tough issues--from retirement and health care to the War on Terror--get tougher and more intractable to political solution.

The Bush Administration sees the offensive as the only way to play politics. Dismissive of criticism, the administration refuses to make changes, except under great duress. On only a few occasions, such as delaying the president's quest for social security reform and withdrawing the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers, has the administration backed down. The administration also treats Congress as if it were a junior cousin to Britain's House of Lords and mostly an inconvenient debating society.

Until late last year, and impelled by controversies over strategy for Iraq, torture, domestic spying and Jack Abramoff's thick wallet, Congress has been sadly absent without leave. It has persistently failed to conduct meaningful oversight of the administration. The blundered rebuilding of Iraq, a dysfunctional Homeland Security Department and divisions within the "reformed" intelligence community still have not provoked Congress into any real action.

The hearings over Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito decomposed into partisan bickering and posturing. The tidal wave of reform legislation to clean up the excesses and possible illegalities of lobbyists will do more harm than good if it concentrates on the superficial symptoms and not the causes of what ails the legislative process. And we will see if hearings on domestic wiretapping produce any light.

Republican control of Congress has provided the White House with a nearly free pass in accountability. While Democrats rightly complain that Republicans have virtually excluded the minority in Congress, they have done nothing in mounting any effective response. Partisanship has become catastrophically destructive, and members from both sides of the aisle have acted more like spoiled children than officials elected to serve the public good. Many Americans believe that Congress is collectively advancing the interests of both parties and individual members at the expense of the nation

The upshot is that, given this breadth of horrendously difficult problems at home and abroad, the nastiest surprise can be the failure of the United States to be able to respond to these issues competently and effectively. Problems will not wait for the United States to find the capacity to solve them, or take a "back seat" because Washington is too preoccupied with Iraq. The upset victory of Hamas and what this means for the entire U.S. strategy for the Arab-Israeli peace process and, in the aftermath of the Bolivian elections, the possibility that an "axisito of evil" is forming south of the border among Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia are but two examples of perplexing problems and unkowns that must be addressed.

Surprises for good and ill will be part of 2006. However, we need to be objective and honest in assessing the dangers that are both known and unknown, and the steps that are needed to prevent or deal with them. Otherwise, 2006 could be even more depressing than 2005.

Harlan Ullman is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a columnist for the Washington Times. His latest book, America Restored--Preventing Culture, Crusade and Partisanship from Wrecking the Nation, is due out in June.

A Consensus Shattered

When thinking about the new challenges we face, we must do more than look abroad. We have to take a closer look at ourselves--and ask the fundamental question of whether a strong national security policy can be conducted with a polity that is losing faith in its leaders and institutions.

Americans' trust in government has been declining steadily since the 1960s, and so far the first half-decade of the 21st century has done nothing to reverse this. If anything, it has gotten worse, especially when it comes to Americans' views of the making of national security policy. With the September 11 attacks and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, they have witnessed two of the greatest intelligence failures in American history. The bloody occupation of Iraq and the inept response to last year's Hurricane Katrina disaster have cast alarming doubts about the government's competence to plan and implement policies. The revelations about domestic spying on Americans and the torture of detainees in U.S. custody have raised deep concerns about the growing power of government and the breakdown of congressional oversight over an unchecked executive branch. Add to all this the bitter partisanship and unrelenting drumbeat of scandal in Washington--from the Valerie Plame affair to the Jack Abramoff lobbying crimes--and the cynicism many have about government and its motives has only deepened.

The cumulative effect of all this? Many Americans' confidence is shaken, and their opinions of elites and the institutions they inhabit are even worse. In terms of national security policy, this means that there will be stronger resistance to taking on new challenges. There has been a resurgence of isolationism and more ambivalence among many about whether the United States should maintain a posture of assertive global leadership. Fewer Americans seem willing to accept the costs that their leaders' ambitions might require. President George W. Bush seems to sense this--which helps explain his repeated warnings against isolationism in his 2006 State of the Union address.

Recent public opinion polls reveal these trends. In a survey done by the Pew Research Center and the Council on Foreign Relations last November, 42 percent polled said the United States should "mind its own business" internationally, a figure only matched during the past thirty years by two other low points of American foreign policy, the Vietnam hangover of the mid-1970s and Bill Clinton's post-Cold War nadir of the mid-1990s. Only a quarter of the public favors a strong U.S. role in the world, and just a third think that the government has done a good job protecting the country. This research shows that such doubts are shared by elites who usually show more confidence and support for internationalism. Such figures are even more startling when compared to less than five years ago, in the wake of 9/11 and the strong consensus then about America's interests and role in the world.

Reordering security priorities will be meaningless if no one wants to follow. Just as experts earnestly argue that the threats to U.S. interests are becoming more varied and complex and deserving of greater attention, awareness and engagement, many Americans' appetite to act--or willingness to place much faith in such expert warnings--is waning significantly. Even if our strategists and leaders were more focused on other challenges, it begs the question of whether they could create and sustain the domestic support to do much about them. Many Americans are looking at future threats through the prism of the recent past and justifiably feel once burned, twice shy.

This decline in trust runs across the ideological spectrum, but it cuts deepest within the political Left. Its convulsions that began in the late 1990s (illustrated by the rise of the anti-globalization movement and division over the military interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo and the 1998 air strikes against Iraq) have only become more severe and divisive. To be sure, this reflects a great degree of anger with--and personal animosity for--President Bush. But it is more than that.

When it comes to national security issues, the Left has become splintered in a way not seen since the 1970s, when Vietnam split the Democratic party and sparked a reaction against the so-called establishment. A similar dynamic is at work today, as a new generation of liberal activists (call it the "new new Left") is raging not just against Bush, but against the insider Democrats in Washington, especially when it concerns national security issues. Many remain uncomfortable with the use of American power. When combined with a conservative movement that is itself divided--and facing its own debate about what elements of President Bush's approach toward the world should be continued after he leaves office in 2009--the result is a policymaking environment that is more embittered, confused and partisan.

In some cases, this outrage has forced sober course corrections in policies--such as the gradual scaling-back of our goals in Iraq--and taken other issues off the table--like all the talk from a few years ago of pivoting from Iraq to attack Syria. In many ways that's a good thing. As Henry Kissinger observed about his own struggles to conduct policy during another period of deep partisan division and mistrust, "ideologues have a tendency to drive societies as well as international systems beyond their capacities", and therefore the public's skepticism reflects a desire to have a foreign policy that is, well, more humble.

But the question is whether this might go too far; whether the anger and deep suspicions many have developed about the making of our national security policy will only linger and fester; whether the demands for ideological purity and the perceived political payoff of criminalizing honest policy differences will continue to grow; whether this will keep both the strategic community and the general public looking backward and make it harder to look forward; and whether, if unaddressed over the long term, such cynicism and distrust will inhibit political leaders from acting effectively to meet challenges--both existing and new.

Writing over sixty years ago, as the debate about how to shape the post-World War II world was underway, Walter Lippmann sounded a warning that remains as relevant for our historical moment as it was for his.

[W]hen a people is divided within itself about the conduct of its foreign relations, it is unable to agree on the determination of its true interest. It is unable to prepare adequately for war or to safeguard successfully its peace. Thus its course in foreign affairs depends, in Hamilton's words, not on reflection and choice but on accident and force.

Lippmann's words still ring true. America's economic and political power remains unmatched, and it still remains the one country most capable of dealing with whatever threats the future brings. But its prestige abroad has been damaged, and the political will to act weakened. If a government and a strategic community can be so wrong and prove so incompetent, many Americans ask, why should we trust them anymore?

This is not a failure of the American people; it is the failure of our leaders. Throughout our history Americans have shown a fundamental optimism about the world and a willingness to sacrifice to make it a better place--as they did during Lippmann's era six decades ago. But mistakes matter, and so does the truth. The domestic consensus that propelled policy in the immediate wake of 9/11 has been shattered. To ensure that the United States is guided by policies derived from reflection and choice, leaders from both sides of the political aisle must work together to rebuild this consensus from both Left and Right and restore faith in government. This might not sound like the stuff of high strategy, and given the damage already done, it certainly won't be easy. But it is now imperative.

Derek Chollet is a fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and author of The Road to the Dayton Accords: A Study of American Statecraft (2005).

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