Truman National Security Project

Truman CNP Host Experts Panel on New National Security Secretary Appointments

By Truman Project Staff | 1.30.13
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On January 29th, the Center for National Policy and the Truman National Security Project hosted a team of national security policy expects for a conversation about several new secretary appointments by President Obama. Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Doug Wilson, Senior Security Correspondent for the Washington Post Kern DeYoung, and Dr. Charles Stevenson all gave insight into some of the mechanics behind the appointments and where future policy might go. Overall, the panel had a generally positive attitude toward the proposed team.

With only marginal tinkering in the leadership of the CIA, State and Defense Departments, the panel concluded that major adjustment will occur in the grand strategy of US national security policy. In the introduction, Doug Wilson concludes that these appointments reflect a general cultural shift in the attitude towards defining US policy. Whereas in the past the US’ steps towards engaging hostile forces were left open to debate, it appears that the Obama administration is considering how to be more transparent in how it conducts foreign policy. In addition, the US appears to be concerned about how it can reduce hostile action when dealing with states such as Iran.

The key to engaging more with the international community is to deal with persons such as deceased diplomat Chris Stevens rather than conflicted rulers such as Mohammed Morsi. Karen DeYoung agreed – She said that President Obama chose individuals to reflect the new policy. John Kerry has studied foreign politics since his loss in the 2004 election, and Chuck Hagel is a strong proponent of efficient military standards. Both persons support President Obama’s policy fully, and she suggested that they will serve as amplifiers to the administration’s actions. Dr. Charles Stevenson declined to give analysis to the future, but drew from historical examples on what defines a good use of national security policy. Dr. Stevenson said that men will produce the best results when they maintain a close relationship with the President, with Congress, between themselves, and within their respective departments. The current challenges of maintaining attention, prioritizing the few key issues, and austerity budget cuts will especially place a stain on all of these relationships. However, the common identity (Vietnam era adults) and goals they share will aid them in the next four years.

These new views should trickle down to changes in the national security policy. Mr. Wilson and Ms. DeYoung view President Obama’s Nobel Prize and 2nd Inaugural speeches follow the same articulation that war may be necessary in instances to attain peace. With full knowledge of the global battlefield the US engages in, the traditional definitions of war cannot be used to explain the current conflicts. Strikes in Mali and North Africa are meant to dispatch Al-Qaeda rather than disrupt the countries’ stability. If any of the new members were to emulate a previous secretary, Mr. Wilson offered Secretary Panetta as a model. As a leader, stakeholder and manager in times of spending cuts, he still maintained a strong military and invested in the future. The future team should follow in his footsetps.

Dr. Stevenson noted that two of the secretaries were Vietnam Veterans, and their exit strategies in the Middle East are defined by their appointments. Dr. Stevenson’s argument was similar to The Disengagers opinion piece in Foreign Policy written this past month. Overall, Ms. DeYoung emphasized that their successes were defined by how they handled “the blips,” or the occasional sudden eruptions of conflict in Mali, Yemen, or Benghazi.

When asked about Iran, former Secretary Wilson said he believes the international relations philosophy remains to be Realism. Iran’s actions, in terms of nuclear policy, will be the immediate challenge of this administration and will remain at the forefront. The top priority is preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. “All options are on table,” meaning that all peaceful routes will be addressed before any military option is considered. At this time, there remains little evidence that Iran is able to properly host the facilities necessary to enrich nuclear grade uranium.

One audience member voiced concern that Secretary Hagel does not fit the mold of the other two secretaries, and asked what he really brought to the job. She felt concern that the President’s national security policy is not really working, citing Iraq, Afghanistan, Mali and Syria. All of the panelists disagreed, and argued that Secretary nominee Hagel is vital to the administration’s operations. Dr. Stevenson stated that Hagel “was in the wings,” and he was the most logical choice for a fold to Democrat Kerry’s appointment while still supportive of the administration’s foreign policy. Their complementary views will be vital to the brave new world.

With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq winding down, and the general Middle Eastern efforts to lack boots on the ground, the panelists said they expect Asia to rise in prominence and achieve national discussion. To achieve “The American Century,” it will be necessary for the US to invest time and resources into maintaining a presence in Asia. Unfortunately, this will be contrary to China’s goals of expelling Western influence and solidifying their regional power. Since the US might reject any military presence (despite increased troops in Australia), the obvious route is to expand trade and economic interests. This means that the Secretaries need to continue to engage Indonesia and Taiwan, and be the diplomatic force in the South China Sea to resolve the Chinese-Japanese conflict.  This is not a Zero-Sum game, as Mr. Wilson stated, but a cooperative effort.

Syria has become a contentious issue, as thousands die and Bashar’s regime crumbles. According to senior military leaders, Syria has remained largely unaddressed due to the internal political complexity and inability to assist in any net positive manner. Without a clear win situation, an exit strategy, or legal justification for intervention, it’s difficult to intervene without casus belli. There’s no international mandate, no NATO agreement, and no possible Security Council entrance. The panel mentions that red line in the sand is the use of chemical weapons (previous red lines include no airborne strikes against civilians and no unwarranted strikes against schools and hospitals).  The disconnect is understandable; The US government is unable to support anti-Bashar activities until there’s a clear organization, and the organization cannot occur at this time without organization. This issue will be the hardest to address for the new team, but the panel recognized that the secretaries are still well armed to handle them for the same reasons as outlined earlier in the conversation.