A Letter to Elizabeth Warren
by Andrew Bacevich
Senator Elizabeth Warren
317 Hart Senate Office Building
Dear Senator Warren:
As a constituent, I have noted with interest your suggestion that you will “take a hard look” at running for president in 2020, even as you campaign for reelection to the Senate next month. Forgive me for saying that I interpret that comment to mean “I’m in.” Forgive me, as well, for my presumption in offering this unsolicited — and perhaps unwanted — advice on how to frame your candidacy.
You are an exceedingly smart and gifted politician, so I’m confident that you have accurately gauged the obstacles ahead. Preeminent among them is the challenge of persuading citizens beyond the confines of New England, where you are known and respected, to cast their ballot for a Massachusetts liberal who possesses neither executive nor military experience and is a woman to boot.
Voters will undoubtedly need reassurance that you have what it takes to keep the nation safe and protect its vital interests. And yes, there is a distinct double standard at work here. Without possessing the most minimal of qualifications to serve as commander-in-chief, Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016. Who can doubt that gender and race played a role?
So the challenge you face is an enormous one. To meet it, in my estimation, you should begin by exposing the tangle of obsolete assumptions and hitherto unresolvable contradictions embedded in present-day U.S. national security policy. You’ll have to demonstrate a superior understanding of how events are actually trending. And you’ll have to articulate a plausible way of coping with the problems that lie ahead. To become a viable candidate in 2020, to win the election, and then to govern effectively, you’ll need to formulate policies that not only sound better, but are better than what we’ve got today or have had in the recent past. So there’s no time to waste in beginning to formulate a Warren Doctrine.
Of course, the city in which you spend your workweek is awash with endless blather about a changing world, emerging challenges, and the need for fresh thinking. Yet, curiously enough, what passes for national security policy has remained largely immune to change, fixed in place by two specific episodes that retain a chokehold on that city’s policy elite: the Cold War and the events of 9/11.
The Cold War ended three decades ago in what was ostensibly a decisive victory for the United States. History itself had seemingly anointed us as the “indispensable nation.”
Yet here we are, all these years later, gearing up again to duel our old Cold War adversaries, the Ruskies and ChiComs. How, in the intervening decades, did the United States manage to squander the benefits of coming out on top in that “long twilight struggle”? Few members of the foreign policy establishment venture to explain how or why things so quickly went awry. Fewer still are willing to consider the possibility that our own folly offers the principal explanation.
By the time you are elected, the 20th anniversary of 9/11 will be just around the corner, and with it the 20th anniversary of the Global War on Terrorism. Who can doubt that when you are inaugurated on January 20, 2021, U.S. forces will still be engaged in combat operations in Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and various other places across the Greater Middle East and Africa? Yet in present-day Washington, the purpose and prospects of those campaigns elude serious discussion. Does global leadership necessarily entail being permanently at war? In Washington, the question goes not only unanswered, but essentially unasked.
Note that President Trump has repeatedly made plain his desire to extricate the United States from our wars without end, only to be told by his subordinates that he can’t. Trump then bows to the insistence of the hawks because, for all his bluster, he’s weak and easily rolled. Yet there’s a crucial additional factor in play as well: Trump is himself bereft of strategic principles that might provide the basis for a military posture that is not some version of more of the same. When he’s told “we have to stay,” he simply can’t refute the argument. So we stay.
You, too, will meet pressure to perpetuate the status quo. You, too, will be told that no real alternatives exist. Hence, the importance of bringing into office a distinctive strategic vision that offers the possibility of real change.
You will want to tailor that vision so that it finds favor with three disparate audiences. First, to win the nomination, you’ll need to persuade members of your own party to prefer your views to those of your potential competitors, including Democrats with far more impressive national security credentials than your own. Among those already hinting at a possible run for the presidency are a well-regarded former vice president and possibly even a former secretary of state who is a decorated combat veteran and chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Although long in the tooth, they are not to be dismissed.
Second, having won the nomination, you’ll have to motivate voters who are not Democrats that your vision will, in the words of the preamble to the Constitution, “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” In this context, motivation should start with education, with, that is, disabusing citizens of the conviction — now prevalent in Washington — that “global leadership” is synonymous with a willingness to use force.
Finally, once you enter the Oval Office, you’ll need to get buy-ins from Congress, the national security apparatus, and U.S. allies. That means convincing them that your approach can work, won’t entail unacceptable risks, and won’t do undue damage to their own parochial interests.
To recap, a Warren Doctrine will need to appeal to progressives likely to have an aversion to the very phrase “national security,” even as it inspires middle-of-the-roaders to give you their vote and persuades elites that you can be trusted to exercise power responsibly. All in all, that is a tall order.
Yet I think it can be done. Indeed, it needs to be done if the United States is ever to find a way out of the strategic wilderness in which it is presently wandering, with the likes of Donald Trump, John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, and James Mattis taking turns holding the compass while trying to figure out which way is north.
1 + 3 = You Win
A strategic paradigm worthy of the name begins with a tough-minded appraisal of the existing situation. There is, to put it mildly, a lot going on in our world today, much of it not good: terrorism, whether Islamist or otherwise; unchecked refugee flows; cross-border trafficking in drugs, weapons, and human beings; escalating Saudi-Iranian competition to dominate the Persian Gulf; pent-up resentment among Palestinians, Kurds, and other communities denied their right to self-determination; the provocations of “rogue states” like Russia, Pakistan, and North Korea; and, not to be forgotten, the ever-present danger of unintended nuclear war. As a candidate, you will need to have informed views on each of these.
Yet let me suggest that these are legacy issues, most of them detritus traceable to the twentieth century. None of them are without importance. None can be ignored. If mishandled, two or three of them have the potential to produce apocalyptic catastrophes. Even so, the place to begin formulating a distinctive Warren Doctrine that will resonate with each of those three constituencies — Democrats, the general public, and the establishment — is to posit that these have become secondary concerns.
Eclipsing such legacy issues in immediate significance are three developments that Washington currently neglects or treats as afterthoughts, along with one contradiction that simultaneously permeates and warps any discussion of national security. If properly understood, the items in this quartet would rightly cause Americans to wonder if the blessings of liberty will remain available to their posterity. It’s incumbent upon you to provide that understanding. In short, a Warren Doctrine should tackle all four head-on.
Addressing that contradiction should come first. Its essence is this: we Americans believe that we are a peaceful people. Our elected and appointed leaders routinely affirm this as true. Yet our nation is permanently at war. We Americans also believe that we have a pronounced aversion to empire. Indeed, our very founding as a republic testifies to our anti-imperial credentials. Yet in Washington, D.C. — an imperial city if there ever was one — references to the United States of America as the rightful successor to Rome in the era of the Caesars and the British Empire in its heyday abound. And there is more here than mere rhetoric: The military presence of U.S. forces around the planet testifies in concrete terms to our imperial ambitions. We may be an “empire in denial,” but we are an empire.
The point of departure for the Warren Doctrine should be to subject this imperial project to an honest cost-benefit appraisal, demonstrating that it leads inexorably to bankruptcy, both fiscal and moral. Allow militarized imperialism to stand as the central theme of U.S. policy and the national security status quo will remain sacrosanct. Expose its defects and the reordering of national security and other priorities becomes eminently possible.
That reordering ought to begin with three neglected developments that should be at the forefront of a Warren Doctrine. The first is a warming planet. The second is an ongoing redistribution of global power, signified by (but not limited to) the rise of China. The third is a growing cyber-threat to our ever more network-dependent way of life. A Warren Doctrine centered on this trio of challenges will both set you apart from your competitors and enable you to take office with clearly defined priorities — at least until some unexpected event, comparable to the fall of the Berlin Wall or the attack on the Twin Towers, obliges you to extemporize, as will inevitably happen.
Here, then, is a CliffsNotes take on each of the Big Three. (You can hire some smart young folk to fill in the details.)
Climate change poses a looming national security threat with existential implications. With this summer’s heat waves and recent staggering storms, evidence of this threat has become incontrovertible. Its adverse consequences have already ruined thousands of American lives as evidenced by Hurricanes Katrina (2005), Irma (2017), Harvey (2017), Maria (2017), and Michael (2018), along with Superstorm Sandy (2013), not to mention pervasive drought and increasingly destructive wildfires in a fire season that seems hardly to end. It no longer suffices to categorize these as Acts of God.
The government response to such events has, to say the least, been grossly inadequate. So, too, has government action to cushion Americans from the future impact of far more of the same. A Warren administration needs to make climate change a priority, improving both warning and response to the most immediate dangers and, more importantly, implementing a coherent long-term strategy aimed at addressing (and staunching) the causes of climate change. For those keen for the United States to shoulder the responsibilities of global leadership, here’s an opportunity for us to show our stuff.
Second, say goodbye to the conceit of America as the “last” or “sole” superpower. The power shift now well underway, especially in East Asia, but also in other parts of the world, is creating a multipolar global order in which — no matter what American elites might fancy — the United States will no longer qualify as the one and only “indispensable nation.” Peace and stability will depend on incorporating into that order other nations with their own claims to indispensability, preeminently China.
And no, China is not our friend and won’t be. It’s our foremost competitor. Yet China is also an essential partner, especially when it comes to trade, investment, and climate change — that country and the U.S. being the two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. So classifying China as an enemy, an idea now gaining traction in policy circles, is the height of folly. Similarly, playing games of chicken over artificial islands in the South China Sea, citing as an imperative “freedom of navigation,” exemplifies the national security establishment’s devotion to dangerously obsolete routines.
Beyond China are other powers, some of them not so new, with interests that the United States will have to take into account. Included in their ranks are India, Russia, Turkey, Japan, a potentially united Korea, Iran (not going away any time soon), and even, if only as a matter of courtesy, Europe. Recognizing the imperative of avoiding a recurrence of the great power rivalries that made the twentieth century a bath of blood, a Warren administration should initiate and sustain an intensive diplomatic dialogue directed at negotiating lasting terms of mutual coexistence — not peace perhaps but at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.
Then there’s that cyber-threat, which has multiple facets. First, it places at risk networks on which Americans, even tech-challenged contributors to TomDispatch like me, have become dependent. Yet deflecting these threats may invite “solutions” likely to demolish the last remnants of our personal privacy while exposing Americans to comprehensive surveillance by both domestic and foreign intelligence services. A Warren Doctrine would have to ensure that Americans enjoy full access to the “network of things,” but on their own terms, not those dictated by corporate entities or governments.
Second, the same technologies that allow the Pentagon to equip U.S. forces with an ever-expanding and ever-more expensive arsenal of “smart” weapons are also creating vulnerabilities that may well render those weapons useless. It’s a replication of the Enigma phenomenon: to assume that your secrets are yours alone is to invite disaster, as the Nazis learned in World War II when their unbreakable codes turned out to be breakable. A Warren Doctrine would challenge the assumption, omnipresent in military circles, that equates advances in technology with greater effectiveness. If technology held the key to winning wars, we’d have declared victory in Afghanistan many moons ago.
Finally, there is the dangerous new concept of offensive cyber-warfare, introduced by the United States when it unleashed the Stuxnet virus on Iran’s nuclear program back in 2011. Now, as the Trump administration prepares to make American offensive cyber-operations far more likely, it appears to be the coming thing — like strategic bombing in the run-up to World War II or nukes in its aftermath. Yet before charging further down that cyber-path, we would do well to reflect on the consequences of the twentieth century’s arms races. They invariably turned out to be far more expensive than anticipated, often with horrific results. A Warren Doctrine should seek to avert the normalization of offensive cyber-warfare.
Let me mention a potential bonus here. Even modest success in addressing the Big Three may create openings to deal with some of those nagging legacy issues as well. Cooperation among great powers on climate change, for example, could create an environment more favorable to resolving regional disputes.
Of course, none of this promises to be easy. Naysayers will describe a Warren Doctrine of this sort as excessively ambitious and insufficiently bellicose. Yet as President Kennedy declared in 1962, when announcing that the United States would go to the moon within the decade, some goals are worthy precisely “because they are hard.” Back then, Americans thrilled to Kennedy’s promises.
Here’s my bet: This may well be another moment when Americans will respond positively to goals that are hard but also daring and of pressing importance. Make yourself the champion of those goals and you just might win yourself a promotion to the White House.
The road between now and November 2020 is a long one. I wish you well as you embark upon the journey.