The newly inaugurated 45th President got right to work: On his very first day in office, he convened a meeting of his national security team in the White House Situation Room, in the basement of the West Wing.
The President began, conscious that he was making history with every utterance: “I want to thank you all for joining me. I know that strange circumstances—some would say, the Hand of Providence—have led us to this day and this time.” Then he added, “And, speaking for myself and no doubt for all of us, I am honored and humbled, both, to be here.”
The President didn’t say all of what he was thinking, however. He knew full well that some of the people around the table had also sought the presidency the year before; in his Cabinet, the 45th President (or P 45, as he would come to be called) had truly assembled a “team of rivals”— just as had the 16th President, Abraham Lincoln.
Indeed, the 45th President figured that some of his new “teammates” still harbored presidential ambitions of their own—and perhaps, too, still maintained feelings that the wrong person was president, even now. But of course, while such ambitions and frustrations might be seething in the hearts of some of those gathered in the Sit Room, they would have to seethe below the surface: Today, the country was in peril. Today, they all had a job to do.
The National Security Adviser, a veteran of many past administrations, chimed in: “Mr. President, we, too, are honored to be here and humbled to be asked to join your national security team. I think we will all be saying a prayer to the Almighty in our own way. And in view of the gravity of this moment, I know I also speak for all of us around the table when I recall that back in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of our number said that we should draw inspiration from the shining example of the late Henry Stimson, who ably served presidents of both parties in top foreign-policy jobs, in both peace and war.”
The President smiled. “Yes, I have been reading about Henry Stimson—or, as he liked to be called, Col. Stimson. Because even though he was Secretary of State under President Hoover and then Secretary of War under President Roosevelt, he was proudest of his service as a field-grade officer in the US Army in combat in France during World War One. And to think, he was almost 50 years old when he volunteered for duty!”
But now it was time for the Secretary of State to get things going. “Thank you, Mr. President, for those words. And in the honest and open spirit of of Col. Stimson, I feel that I must give it to you straight: I’m afraid to say that your national security team is very divided on key issues of the Middle East. We all agree that the Obama policies were a failure and need to be changed, but beyond that, we have not yet been able to reach a consensus. It appears that the hawks want to re-assert US power in the Middle East, while the more isolationist libertarians”—
A voice from across the room called out, interrupting the nation’s top diplomat: “Don’t label us ‘isolationist’! Call us ‘Constitutionalists’! It’s the Constitution we wish to defend!”
Another voice called, “Or better yet, call us ‘Realists’! If you keep calling us names, we’ll have to start calling you ‘Neocons’!”
The President smiled to himself. Yes, this was a team of rivals, that was for sure.
The Secretary of State was caught off guard by the interruptions, but being the smooth operator that she was, she soon regained her composure, “As you can see, Mr. President, we are very divided.”
The President smiled as he said, “Well, I wanted a ‘Team of Rivals,’ and I guess that’s what I’ve got!”
The Secretary of State, America’s top diplomat, regained her momentum: “Mr. President, to get right to the point here, some members of your national security team think we need to send ground troops back to the Middle East, while others think that the best thing to do is for us to stay out of the fighting, avoid US casualties, and do more minding of our own business.”
The President stroked his chin thoughtfully: “Gee, neither of those seem like such good choices to me. I mean, the American people don’t want to be humiliated and driven out of the Middle East, and they also don’t want to see a lot of our boys and girls coming home in body bags. As we used to say back home, if you give a man two bad choices and make him pick, he’s guaranteed to make a bad choice. Either way, he’s a loser.”
The Secretary of State smiled a tight smile: “Mr. President, this is a very difficult decision for you.”
The President answered: “Thank you for your concern, Madame Secretary. But you know, I am not so sure that the only choices are either a) to send ground troops into combat, or b) to sit back and accept what happens in the region, even if that means defeat for US interests. If you all were to give me an options paper that had just those options a) and b) on it, I think I would scribble, ‘Give me an option c).’”
The Secretary of Defense broke in: “Sir, what do you mean?”
And the 45th President answered, “Well, perhaps Uncle Sam could fight in the region—kill the terrorists, just as they deserve—and yet not put our boys and girls at such risk.”
The Defense Secretary was interested: “Mr. President, do you mean that we could use stand-off weapons, such as drones?”
“Yes,” the President said. “And drones have been very effective. Why in the past, they’ve been a game-changer. Indeed, if we’d had more drones 15 years ago, we might have been able to kill Bin Laden as he was escaping from Afghanistan into Pakistan. That would have been very helpful.”
The Defense Secretary answered, “Sir, we do have plans to continue using drone strikes. You can approve those plans today.”
“That’s very gratifying. Thank you, Mr. Secretary. But now, let’s go further: Tell me, please, What plans do the guys back at the Pentagon have for improving our drones?”
The face of the Pentagon chief flushed a bit: “Well, sir, I am not completely sure. DOD is a big place. I would like to get briefed more before I would presume to brief you.”
The President had more to say on the subject of technology: “You know, I have heard a phrase in the business world called ‘continuous improvement.’ That is, always, continuously, making things better. And that’s great for a private company, and I think the government ought to operate that way, too.” As the President looked around the room, he could see that he was getting some blank looks. “Let me give you a specific example: A couple of years back, I can remember when al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader, gave a speech in which he called for ‘jihad’ and all that. So here’s my question: What would we have needed, weapon-wise, to take al Baghdadi out right then and there?”
The President paused and looked around the long table in the Sit Room; he could see that he was getting still more blank looks. P 45 sighed to himself: He knew that he had gotten elected the year before to push for new thinking, including in the realm of national security. And now that he was in office, he could see that it would take some time to bring his entire team onto the path of new thinking. And that was okay; that was part of the job, and today was as good a day as any to start.
The President continued: “As al-Baghdadi was talking, I thought to myself—I remember, I was in a hotel room in Des Moines at the time—‘You know, maybe we should be able to hit him with a drone while he’s talking. You know, with cell phones and Big Data, we can find the proverbial needle in a haystack here in the US; maybe we should be able to do the same in the Middle East. I mean, if Facebook can find us to send a text-message about the sale at the store on the corner, then maybe we should be able to find a way to find and bump off a sworn enemy of the US, a man who has ordered the martyrdom and murder of countless Christians and others in the Mideast.”
The Secretary of State jumped in: “Mr. President, this issue of ‘targeted killings’ is extremely controversial. Extremely. Every case, it seems, generates a lawsuit, complete with the ACLU. And they aren’t our friends on these matters.”
“You’re right, Madame Secretary. Targeted killings are controversial, indeed. But I was elected as President of these United States in no small part because the American people were tired of our floundering around in the Middle East, so maybe we need to embrace new ideas as the key to winning. And if that stokes a robust debate here at home, well, so be it.”
The Secretary of Defense jumped back into the conversation: “And Mr. President, I might point out that al-Baghdadi was speaking in a mosque that day he was first widely seen. I am not sure that we would have wanted to send in a drone strike at that structure and perhaps kill other worshipers—maybe hundreds of others. The collateral damage could have been great.”
The President responded: “Good point, Mr. Secretary. That’s why I brought up the issue of ‘continuous improvement.’ That is, perhaps we need better drones—smaller drones that are more flexible, more maneuverable—and that can be purposed more easily.”
The Defense Secretary flushed some more. “Mr. President, do you mean drones that might be able to fly inside a building? And strike an individual?”
“Yes, exactly. Is that so hard to imagine? I mean, if people can fly drones on the White House grounds and fly little gyrocopters onto the Capitol, then we can see that the military applications of this sort of technology can’t be far behind. I’ve already told the Secret Service that I can feel another tragic event, like Pearl Harbor or 9-11, coming our way. And so I’ll deliver the same message to all of you. And when I read that the world’s largest drone manufacturer is in China, I get a little more nervous.”
The President continued: “I saw on the news awhile back that only around 25 percent of our air sorties against ISIS end up with us firing a rocket or dropping a bomb on an enemy target; the rest of the time, we simply keep our ordnance and fly home.”
The Secretary of Defense spoke up: “Yes, sir! At DOD, we’ve been excruciatingly careful about not hitting bad targets. We don’t want to blow up the proverbial ‘wedding party.’”
P 45 continued: “And I think that’s great. I don’t want to hit innocent civilians, even if I sometimes wonder how innocent they really are.” Then the President caught himself: “Nobody quote me on that. Nobody tweet that, please!”
Then the President continued. “But maybe if we had smaller weapons, more nuanced, more individual, it would be easier for us to find suitable targets. I mean, suppose we were just targeting an individual, not a group, and could be pretty confident that if we pulled the trigger, as it were, we could hit only that individual. And I read somewhere awhile back that they have machines now that can read retinas from 40 feet away. That means that the technology of target acquisition is getting pretty robust—and that’s good news for, say, a nano-drone that might be flying over an area. That drone might not find a high-value target, but if a low-value target is good enough, then the remote retina-scanner ought to make a big difference in the target-acquisition.”
The President didn’t think he was saying anything profound or radical, but he could see from the expressions of the others around the room that he was breaking new ground with some of them. If so, better now than never, he thought to himself. He continued:
“And so here’s my point: In addition to taking sound defensive measures, I would like us to take a good, long look at offensive measures. That is, what might it take for us to regain the lead in this sort of drone technology? Get the lead back from China? And again, I don’t just mean defensive capability, I mean offensive capability. I want us thinking outside of the nine dots, not only on defense, but also on offense. I think we need to give ISIS and all the other bad guys more to worry about than they have now. Remember, they’ve had us off balance a lot in the last decade-and-a-half; maybe it’s time for us to put them off balance. Say, isn’t there a more military way to express that concept?”
“We call it ‘optempo,’ sir, for ‘tempo of operations.’” That was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff answering.
“Yes,” the President said. “Thank you, General. I like that. Maybe we should up the optempo we use on those bad guys.”
The Secretary of State interjected. “Mr. President, there are serious Geneva Convention issues that need to be considered. That is, important matters for the lawyers and the international jurists to analyze. And all this, of course, is over a hypothetical technology—that is, a micro-drone—that doesn’t even exist yet in weaponizable form.”
“You’re absolutely right, Madam Secretary. These are serious issues. And I don’t minimize the seriousness: We need to look at all these issues in the full 360, considering every angle. But as a help to our deliberations, let me tell you something else that’s serious. Going to the funeral of a young man who was killed in action is serious. I’ve been to a lot of funerals and memorial services during this Great War on Terror over the last 15 or 16 years, and I will tell you that every one of those ceremonies was serious—and sad. As Commander-in-Chief, I am prepared to send our warriors into harm’s way, and yes, I am prepared to go to some funerals afterward. But before that happens, God forbid, I want to know that I have done all I can—that we have all done all we can—to provide our warriors with the best possible weaponry, and that includes the best possible technology.”
The President was also thinking about, but did not mention, the upcoming 2018 midterm elections. He was enough of a patriot to feel that it wasn’t right to mention partisan political considerations in front of his national security team. And yet at the same time, he was enough of a politician to know that if the Republicans took a drubbing in the ’18 midterms, then it would be hard for him to fulfill his pledge of reinvigorating the Great War on Terror.
The President continued: “Now that’s all I have to say about the role of technology—for now. In our next meeting, let’s take up where we stand.”
The President paused for effect, fixing everyone in the room with a slow and steady gaze. Then he continued:
“And of course, as important as technology is, there are other questions, too. So next, let’s take up the next matter on our agenda—what to do about Iran.”