An excerpt from Secretary Napolitano’s September 10 remarks to New York City first responders:
Tomorrow is also a reminder that each of us bears a unique sense of responsibility to one another, to our communities, to our states, and to our nation. Whether you are a police officer on the street, a firefighter, a doctor, a businessman, a student, or a stay-at-home parent, you – we – are the very backbone of our nation’s homeland security. We are all interconnected in the effort to protect this country.
Right around this time last year, I gave a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations here in New York where I described a new framework for how we’re approaching homeland security. It didn’t involve a complex restructuring of DHS or big, flashy new programs. In fact, we streamlined operations, prioritized efficiency, and organized ourselves around our core missions.
Our starting point was the idea of interconnectedness and mutual responsibility. The question we kept asking was: “how can we do a smarter and better job of broadening the collective mission of protecting the homeland?” And our answer was this: we do it by seizing every opportunity to build a bigger and stronger security team and then equipping that team to succeed.
Therefore, over the past year and a half, I have made one of my very top priorities for DHS to get information, to get tools, and to get resources out of Washington, DC, and into the hands of the men and women serving on the front lines. That includes you – the first responders – but it also includes citizens, community groups, and our partners in the private sector.
This may not generate big headlines. But this hometown-centric approach has a big impact on our ability to be effective – and more important – to support you in the field.
The Secretary seems intent on being heads-down and practical. Avoid flashy promises, make expectations realistic, and keep ambitions in-check. As I listened to her I thought, again, about what Art Botterell had written in response to my September 2 post:
In our ambition we’ve defined Homeland Security so broadly as to make it for all practical purposes impossible. Now the very scope of the turf we’ve carved out threatens to swallow up our ambitions. What can we learn from this?
By the same token, we’ve always had ideological divisions in this country. What makes our current environment different, IMHO, is that folks seem to be entertaining an unbounded ambition to make their own ideologies, if not universal, at least unchallengeable.
The common factor, I’m afraid, is that many of us have been acting as if we only need to feel a thing in order to make it so. Passion has become its own rationale. It’s not so much that the center doesn’t hold as that each of us individually seems to imagine we are, and have a right to be, that center. More than anything else I think a bit of humility is what we need.
And so yes… there’s nothing like a real emergency to help us get in touch with our own limits, dial back our personal and institutional ambitions, and refocus ourselves on our obligations to one another. So maybe this natural hazard will offer us a brief respite from man-versus-man arguments over who and what comprises the Homeland. (I did not ask Art’s permission to move this comment to the front page.)
The natural hazard referenced was Hurricane Earl, which stayed well out-to-sea. As a result, our abstract arguments over the homeland continued apace. (I don’t even agree with Art on capitalizing the word.)
I have, though, continued to reflect on Art’s comment. I am tempted to offer a riff on the Baby Boomers’ sense of entitlement (including my own), the dangers of esteem-based parenting, and self-criticism as a lost skill.
I will stick to something just a bit — but barely — more practical.
I am an advocate for broadening the homeland security discussion. Spend any time with me and you will hear, “What’s the strategic objective for that?” or “Why is that important?” or “How does that reinforce (or challenge) policy X?” or “What is the relationship between A and Z?” Regular readers can imagine I sometimes see relationships where no man has gone before (and for good reason).
There are substantive motivations for this broadening. There are also instrumental reasons. I bet the instrumental is more important than I want to admit.
For example, homeland security competes for mind-share — attention, funding, and more — with defense, diplomacy, and intelligence. Over the last half-century all of these older disciplines have created sustainable ecological systems. By this I mean they each have far-reaching networks of political, intellectual, and institutional support. Think tanks, corporations, academic departments, fellowships, conferences, journals, and much more foster a shared lexicon, common– if contentious — concepts, and a rich web of personal relationships.
While the defense, diplomatic, and intelligence communities spend plenty of time on tactics, operations, and nuts-and-bolts, there is clearly a high priesthood and a sustained engagement in “high-end” strategizing, conceptualizing, and such. Homeland security? Not so much.
I generally consider the homeland security core as consisting of law enforcement, firefighting, public health, emergency management, and the owners/operators of critical infrastructure and supply chains. Give any of these groups, alone or together, a real problem (e.g. hurricane, fire, pandemic) and they will tackle it with a vengeance. Pose an abstract question of strategy or policy and it can be tough to keep the conversation on track.
As a result, others shape the strategic and policy context. Consider most of the staff and members associated with the Bipartisan Policy Center’s new Terrorist Threat Assessment. No critique of substance is implied by noting the absence of many with deep connections to the homeland security core listed above. They are mostly distinquished veterans of long-time work in defense, diplomacy, or intelligence. Law enforcement gets the most traction, usually through former prosecutors. Even the BPC’s project name signals the issue: National Security Preparedness Group. (If you access the link, please notice that the URL reads homeland-study-group. This suggests to me a conscious rebranding at some point.)
When Steve Flynn, a member of the BPC’s preparedness group, wrote The Edge of Disaster, I enthusiastically called a colleague to suggest he read it. He already had and responded, “Oh, you mean where Steve discovers emergency management?” Well… yes, exactly. Steve did a great job of restating core principles of emergency management within a meaningful strategic context. The book was, by the way, published by the Council on Foreign Relations.
Some of this reflects that nine years in, homeland security remains the new kid. But much of this is also the result of homeland security professionals not stepping up to the challenge… or opportunity. They (we?) have stepped up to the tactical and operational challenges with intelligence, courage, and creativity. But there is something about the strategy and policy “game” that they (we?) seem to disdain.
I share Art’s frustration with most of our “man-versus-man arguments over who and what comprises the Homeland.” But my frustration is often with the lack of ambition reflected in the arguments. In homeland security’s very practicality we too often cede strategic leadership to those with much less knowledge and competence regarding our domain.