A new jihadist group able to recruit thousands of foreign fighters controlling territory larger than the UK; Russia invading its neighbor, flying bombers off the coast of California and sending subs into Swedish territorial waters; Snowden taking millions of classified files to China and then Russia; China using its navy to intimidate its smaller neighbors; American journalists beheaded on TV; Syria using chemical weapons against civilians; An Ebola outbreak the likes of which has never been seen before; Iran unstoppable in its race to go nuclear.
If you read of all these in a Brad Thor thriller you’d probably say the writer was overdoing it. Unfortunately, this isn’t pulp fiction.
America is now in a threat environment that makes some people of a certain age get nostalgic and look back wistfully at the Cold War years when the only real threat was the spread of Communism.
On paper, there really should be no problem. We should be strong enough to deal with any threat whether new (ISIS) or old (the Kremlin). As the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens points out in his forthcoming book, America’s economy beats all others, standing at 26% of the global economy (Japan is 9%, for example). That’s one nation providing a quarter of the global economy! And our defense budget accounts for more than 40% of the global whole. (China’s is 3% by comparison). By any definition that makes us not just a superpower but a “hyperpower.”
Then why is the world seemingly falling apart? Why do actors as diverse as Vladimir Putin and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi feel so emboldened? Perhaps it has to do with the quality of America’s national security bench.
President Obama famously called Mr. Baghdadi and his group ISIS/The Islamic State a JV team. When asked in an interview about ISIS versus al Qaeda, the Commander-in-Chief gave the flip response “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” (Those were his exact words in the original New Yorker piece despite the President’s attempt to deny them in a later interview on NBC.)
Given the fact that ISIS is now more dangerous in all key metrics – money, weapons, territory, use of media – the JV label is clearly out of place. Given the range of threats we now face and the rapidity of their growth, the JV label would appear to be a much more accurate description of our national security bench.
When cabinet members like John Kerry insist that Global Warming is as much a threat to America as ISIS or Ebola, it is hard to know how to react. ISIS has destroyed the territorial integrity of two nations in the Middle East. It has literally slaughtered thousands of people and caused the religious cleansing of most of the historic Christian community in both Syria and Iraq.
Ebola has likewise killed thousands, and in a way – the body dissolves internally and literally bleeds apart – that would befit a schlock horror movie. Yet “climate change” is just as bad? (And this isn’t just a one-off gaff of our Secretary of State. The view has infected our military. I was asked last year to run a three-day exercise for senior uniformed strategists from the Pentagon. On the first day I split them into four teams, asked them to identify the greatest threat to America and gave then two days to work out a strategic response. Two of the teams – half of the colonels involved – agreed with Secretary Kerry: Climate Change is THE threat to America. Worse than Global Jihad, a revanchist China, a nuclear North Korea, an almost nuclear Iran, etc. etc.)
What about about the rest of the bench? What about the Coach, the National Security Advisor? Susan Rice is best known for her commitment to the now evidently untrue claim that the attacks against the US compound in Benghazi were the result of a YouTube video and not a premeditated attack by local jihadists. Now the press reports that she is the hub of the micromanagement of the campaign against ISIS, a woman so “manic and obsessed with the tiniest of details” that the military is losing faith in the mission. So strategically lacking is the White House plan that apparently Defense Secretary Hagel recently wrote to Rice that the plan is in “danger of unraveling.” If that is the coach, what about her actual players?
Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken has no record of military service nor has he seemingly obtained any experience or education related to military strategy or national security. Blinken graduated from Harvard University and then went to Columbia Law School for his JD (interestingly enough none of the first half-a-dozen bios on the internet for Mr. Blinken even tell you what his BA was in. Perhaps English or Art History?)
Shortly thereafter, he went straight into Democratic politics, fundraising for the presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis. In 2008, he worked on Joe Biden’s failed campaign for President, but was then appointed by President Obama to be his Deputy National Security Advisor in January of 2013. VP Biden has previously referred to Blinken as his “go-to guy” on Iraq – known for helping to facilitate the US withdrawal from Baghdad – a plan who many in retrospect view as a disaster due to the administration’s failure to secure a Status-of-Forces Agreement.
Then there is her other deputy, Ben Rhodes. His qualifications to be advising America’s National Security Adviser, the President’s top strategic counsellor? Again, zero military or national security experience. Just a BA in English and Political Science and a Masters in Fine Arts. Yes, really, a Masters in Fine Arts. Given the fact that the scuttlebutt has it that Mr. Rhodes is the source of last week’s “chickensh*t” description of Israeli PM Benjanim Netanyahu, a decorated veteran, this is all the more egregious.
What if we go higher? The Vice-President has limited formal influence but he surely has the ear of the Commander-in-Chief, and VP Joe Biden is also a member of Obama’s National Security Council. One quote I think may be enough here. The famously bipartisan Bob Gates, former DCI and Secretary of Defense who served under both George W. Bush and President Obama, said of Biden: he was flat-out wrong on “nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” (Add to that the fact that Biden has spoken publicly on many occasions that he was opposed to the raid that neutralized Osama Bin Laden while in hiding at his compound in Pakistan, and perhaps we should be thankful he is not in control).
Even if we leave the formal structure of White House National Security decisionmaking, the story is no better. Valerie Jarrett is one of President Obama’s most senior advisors, perhaps the most powerful one. So much so that many have alleged that Jarrett is unofficially a key member of the Iran nuclear negotiating team. Jarrett, who gained most of her experience through the Chicago political system, has no known working knowledge or education dealing with foreign policy, international affairs, or military strategy; but she does speak Persian, which is the official language in Iran.
The question stands: who is really in the JV League? Vladimir Putin, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the Politbureau in Beijing, or the “National Security” team in the White House? Can someone please bring back the grown-ups.
Sebastian Gorka PhD is the Major General Matthew C. Horner Distinguished Chair of Military Theory at Marine Corps University and National Security Editor for the Breitbart News Network. Follow him on Twitter at @SebGorka.