In one of his first official statements, President Obama wrote — or at least signed — “I believe that Homeland Security is indistinguishable from National Security — conceptually and functionally, they should be thought of together rather than separately.”
The new National Security Strategy is consistent with this belief, to the detriment of homeland security.
From the perspective of international security and homeland defense I have no serious problem with the strategy. It is clear-eyed regarding our nation’s essential strengths and current vulnerabilities. If I were part of the foreign policy, intelligence, or defense establishments I would find some obscure aspect with which to demonstrate independence and otherwise congratulate the White House for being wise enough to agree with me.
But instead of the establishment, I am part of a fractured, intellectually immature, strategically incoherent, often squabbling, sometimes foolish, usually courageous crowd of competing tribes that, if pushed hard enough, travel together under a ragged banner on which is scrawled “homeland security.” The new National Security Strategy — unfortunately — reflects the tattered nature of this very loose alliance.
According to the National Security Strategy the role of homeland security is similar to that of Puerto Rico in major league baseball, or Ringo Starr in the Beatles, or the Gauls in the early Roman Empire. We are occasionally crucial, usually peripheral, and just not something those at the political pinnacle spend a great deal of time thinking about.
On page 15 of the National Security Strategy, homeland security is explained as one element in a whole-of-government approach. Here is the full description:
Homeland security traces its roots to traditional and historic functions of government and society, such as civil defense, emergency response, law enforcement, customs, border patrol, and immigration. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the foundation of the Department of Homeland Security, these functions have taken on new organization and urgency. Homeland security, therefore, strives to adapt these traditional functions to confront new threats and evolving hazards. It is not simply about government action alone, but rather about the collective strength of the entire country. Our approach relies on our shared efforts to identify and interdict threats; deny hostile actors the ability to operate within our borders; maintain effective control of our physical borders; safeguard lawful trade and travel into and out of the United States; disrupt and dismantle transnational terrorist, and criminal organizations; and ensure our national resilience in the face of the threat and hazards. Taken together, these efforts must support a homeland that is safe and secure from terrorism and other hazards and in which American interests, aspirations, and way of life can thrive.
The use of “strives” is key to reading this paragraph. As Sisyphus strives to roll his rock up the hill, homeland security strives to adapt the tribal jealousies of narrow-minded provincials into some semblance of strategic value. Strives is derived from an old Gallic term for quarreling and disputing, neatly implying the interdisciplinary, inter-governmental, and public-private struggles that characterize homeland security. Gaul was divided into three parts, homeland security into three times thirty.
Notice too the strategic value that — if only our striving is one day successful — might be squeezed from this unwieldiness. It is mostly responsive, defensive, and protective. Other more agile players are needed to analyze, prevent, mitigate, and strategically engage. And even within these limitations, there is something mournfully uncertain in the use of, “taken together these efforts must support…” It is the tone a frustrated father might take with squabbling children.
I sympathize with the frustration. There is a part of me that respects the realism of the White House in framing homeland security so narrowly. But — perhaps only from partisan pride — I regret this disemboweling of potential.
It is as if the wise (wo)men of foreign policy, defense, and intelligence have decided homeland security is beyond civilizing. Rustics related to homeland security are to be integrated into the national security state as subordinate tribes were integrated into the ancient Imperium. John Brennan is our Julius Caesar. He has been assigned as our provincial governor, but serves purposes far beyond our province. Janet Napolitano is our Titus Labienus. She understands us better, but given our fractiousness such knowledge is no great advantage.
Returning to the text: did it seem to you that “other hazards” has been inserted in the last sentence apropos of nothing else in the paragraph? I imagine Richard Reed arguing that some courteous nod be given the old creed. Otherwise, the National Security Strategy gives intense focus to eliminating al-Qa’ida and its network. This narrow targeting of the enemy may be the strategy’s principal strength. Other hazards, it has been decided, can be managed by the B team.
If homeland security is in fact conceptually and functionally indistinguishable from national security, this strategy desiccates the capabilities-based approach that many in homeland security have struggled to cultivate. While resilience is often referenced in the National Security Strategy, it’s absence from the summary definition above is significant. The cross-cutting, silo-busting, resilience-building capabilities-based potential of homeland security is ignored, neglected, dismissed, merely missed… choose your verb.
A White House blurb offers, “The strategy is grounded in a pragmatic understanding of our strategic environment – the world as it is.” Long-time national security professionals have considered homeland security as it is and concluded our “traditional and historic functions” are only capable of a supporting role in confronting our threats and achieving our priorities. Given the world as it is, I will not argue.
But in his foreword to the National Security Strategy the President writes, “Simply put, we must see innovation as the foundation of American power.” What I have seen in the years since 9/11 is innovation in interdisciplinary and intergovernmental collaboration, in regional planning, and in risk assessment. Since Katrina I have seen the traditional and historic functions of homeland security begin to work together to craft authentic, community based resilience. In just the last few months I have seen the private and public sectors plan and work together in unprecedented ways to anticipate a range of natural, accidental, and intentional threats. Whatever else, I hope the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico will spur public-private collaboration in risk-readiness and catastrophic planning. (See: BP “not prepared”) Innovation is underway.
The National Security Strategy underestimates and, as a result, under-values the potential role of homeland security. This should not discourage further innovation. If those of us loosely linked to homeland security are true to our traditional and historic values, we will find the National Security Strategy’s implicit critique an impetus to further and faster innovation.
For further consideration:
The Gallic Wars by Gaius Julius Caesar
Bomb Power by Garry Wills
Creating the National Security State by Douglas T. Stuart
Obama’s NSS: Promise and Pitfalls from the Council on Foreign Relations