On Sunday night, after the President’s speech announcing the death of Bin Laden, I went down to the White House. (DC is a small town and it only took a minute). I found the rowdy, chanting crowd off-putting. They were mostly young, however, and likely in junior high in September, 2001.
I doubted that many people in attendance had watched the Pentagon burn, heard the (false) reports of bombs going off in town or seen the evacuated crowds run madly up Connecticut Avenue. They didn’t see the Hum-vees posted in front of the National Zoo, or hear the eerie silence in the streets of our capital city on September 12, 2001.
Gateway drug for the war on terror
They weren’t working on Capitol Hill when the House voted 420-1 to Authorize the Use of Military Force. This vote, the AUMF, has been like a gateway drug for the “Global War on Terror” and has proved a regrettable path in the first decade of the new century. America’s greatest strength –our credibility and power to persuade — was diminished. Our first foot through the door of the new century was wearing combat boots. We let Bin Laden–a criminal, murdering mastermind–knock us off our game.
Quick recap: the re-calibration of US strength and power that should have happened at the end of the Cold War never really materialized. When the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, we needed to take a step back, assess the potential for a dramatic strategy change and move ahead. Instead, our leaders developed an ad-hoc method of response to new crises and conflicts. We did not re-evaluate the limits of force.
The military as 911
Meanwhile, we confronted threat situations that required human solutions like governance and jobs. Repeatedly, we threw hardware and our uniformed services at the problem. From Somalia in 1993 to New Orleans in 2005, the military became our nation’s International 911. Despite the mismatch, they performed admirably and with courage.
The US military is now full of social entrepreneurs and creative problem solvers. But the problem remains: we can’t keep engaging the world in uniform and at the end of a gun. It is often ineffective, always expensive and mostly counterproductive. Have a conversation with a veteran, he or she will likely agree with my assesment.
Bin Laden’s death creates an opportunity for a do-over.
A new future
I hope the students at the White House sobered up quickly on Monday. Because today’s young people will be required to navigate a future world that has few easy solutions. Our next challenge will be to have a national discussion that helps Americans create a modern presence in the world–one that will improve our security and our prosperity. Here are some ideas:
1. Afghanistan–let’s shift the conversation from “get the troops out now” to “what will our commitment look like long-term?” Afghanistan has no military solution. The military itself says so. Helping Afghanistan will require decades of economic development.
We need to commit to this approach for our own self-interest.
2. Nearly a million Americans have now served in either Iraq or Afghanistan. We must bring them into a conversation about what works to solve problems in today’s world. See this free book online for civil-military dialogue models.
Get your ROTC and Peace Studies programs together on campus to discuss what Bin Laden’s death means for our nation going forward.
3. Connect with your local elected leaders. Members of Congress will need a supportive, district based constituency to help guide them through our national transition from old, obsolete notions of power to a modern understanding of strength. Create a rapid response team of retired foreign service officers, veterans, professors, students, business people, religious leaders and humanitarians.
Don’t forget to include techies, as systems engineers, they will bring an intuitive understanding to the changes happening around us.
4. Shift the Bin Laden conversation to the democratic revolutions ongoing in the Middle East. How these popular movements turn out will have a large impact on US security–and we will benefit if the people of the region are able to create representative governments.
The best way for the United States to influence change in that region is for us to improve and evolve our own practice of democracy. That’s what we are known for, and that’s what we’re good at.
5. “Reframe” security by redefining the criteria. We’ll always have a strong military, but aircraft carriers and expensive jets aren’t as important anymore. Today, we need to make investments in our domestic strength in order to attract the kind of confidence and persuasive ability that will leverage change. That means education, health and critical infrastructure–the tools of the age of knowledge.
Many people wedded to the old way of doing things will resist this idea–that’s why bringing a veteran–or someone else who has served abroad–will be helpful. More and more fellow Americans have on the ground experience outside our borders in the modern world.
Many nations are our friends and want to see us succeed. Now that our obsession is over, let’s listen to them and move forward together.
by Mo Kaiwen