For the past decade, I’ve thought that America’s wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere would cause us to fundamentally re-appraise our presence in the world and realign our priorities to reflect modern-day threats. Some hopeful signs of change exist, especially among military professionals who have first hand experience. They understand more than anybody the limits of force and the need for other strategies — like helping people build resilience.
The Need for Resilience
Resilience is a word that you’re going to hear a lot in the wake of Tuesday’s awful episode in Libya. Think of resilience as a broadly inclusive and “bottom up” ability to adapt, persevere and prosper in an uncertain world. It’s what leaders in the military are pursuing for both the United States and for Afghanistan. It’s the concept at the heart of much of Hillary Clinton’s leadership at the State Department. I’m pretty certain it was also the long term goal of our murdered Americans and their Libyan security colleagues in Benghazi.
The key to successful resilience is local community strength and being prepared. These are tricky qualities for a U.S. national security policy that remains stuck somewhere between the end of the Cold War in 1991 and the 2006 Youtube IPO.
The violent action in Libya on 9/11 and the inflamed masses that continue to congregate at U.S. Embassies across the region illuminates just how complex the world has become over the past 20 years.
It is important to distinguish between the contagious infuriated protests about an Islam-slandering video and the murder of our Ambassador and his colleagues. As of today, evidence points to the Benghazi consulate attack being the result of a group skilled in lethal coordination.
Use of Force Must Become Less Important
If you are paying attention to any campaign-related talking points about this incident, do yourself a favor and turn the volume down. The truth is, we are in an era where we need to figure out a better risk management strategy for our national security. This will involve thoughtful leadership and tradeoffs. The use of force will remain important, but must be moved to the margin.
Unfortunately, the political fight over budget sequestration is vintage 1985 on the Right. The Ryan/Romney position is to pit American domestic resilience against their vision of national security, i.e. a world where a combination of bullying and hardware equals safety. President Obama’s positions are more modern and more subtle, yet even this administration’s signature platform is the drone strike.
Neither of these positions is adequate in today’s world. You can’t meet the demandsof distributed power with distributed violence. It is not sustainable in the long run. In a world of individuals who have been led to believe they are our peers (by our own insistence), “do what I say” is an insult and “I’m going to kill you” is not an effective argument. Today, our credibility matters. It builds our social capital with the relationships that matter — the masses. Carefully stockpiling it is a wise move.
Retaliation over what happened might be a necessary response to armed militias who attacked our diplomatic corps. But we must have an eye to the future where the Libyans themselves control this matter. Persuading millions of demonstrating Arabs and Muslims about the benefits of open society is another challenge altogether.
Egyptian President Morsi called on U.S. officials to prosecute the producers of the slanderous video. People who have lived under dictatorships assume that the government controls such things. The Bill of Rights is unfamiliar to the millions of people we need on ourside in that part of the world. We would have to rent space from Canada if we were to prosecute everyone who posted an idiotic rant online.
Citizens Must Take Responsibility
Yet the fact remains: we should all begin thinking hard and fast about U.S. posture in the world and how to accelerate the resilience of ordinary people and civil society everywhere. Much of this won’t even happen through government action, so American citizens must take more responsibility than before. Here’s why.
With the ability to communicate comes power, and today power is distributed across the globe. The uncertain circumstances generated by distributed power present a paradox. Just as technology is neutral, equal access to communication can feed good or bad purposes. In a world of distributed power, new security concepts need to evolve for theUnited States to obtain well-rounded strength.
Today, our strength would improve if we help Libya, Egypt and other interested countries build criminal justice systems so that its government can itself control violent groups. Right now, our main relationship building policies remain in the military. These countries also need economies so their people have hope. If our actions demonstrate this commitment, it would give us a way to tip the balance in the population. And, at moments like this, we need the critical masses to give us the benefit of the doubt on things they may know about but haven’t experienced — like freedom of speech. To become a 21st century power, the United States must move:
- Away from coercion and toward credibility
- Away from exclusion and toward participation
- Away from borders and toward connections
- Away from secrecy and toward transparency
- Away from reaction and toward resilience
- Away from walls and toward networks
These modern security concepts illustrate a dramatic shift from the last century. The Cold War was an ideological battle characterized by a competitive military preparedness between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It sought security through war prevention with enough nuclear weapons to guarantee Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). Yet the guns vs. butter battles of yesterday have been recast.
Nearly every U.S. engagement since 1991 has involved volatile, ongoing crises that require political and social solutions. Our tools leftover from the Cold War have proved inadequate for these challenges. They can’t possibly demonstrate commitment to a bottom up, inclusive strategy. This week’s events should help us understand that, in today’s world, our safety is not only wrapped up in the basic life changes of others, it is also fundamentally embedded in their sense of dignity.
We helped create this sense of shared expectation. Now we need to figure out how to make it meaningful.
AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.