What the 2016 Presidential Candidates Get Wrong About the Future of War

They fail, they lack, they misunderstand, they pander, they don’t get, and they just don’t know national security – not according to our Future of War roster of experts.

“The President shall be Commander in Chief…”

This clause that leads Article Two, Section II of the U.S. Constitution is without a doubt the most important of the executive powers granted to the president by the Founding Fathers. But as today’s crop of presidential candidates seek that job, do they really understand the issues that await them tomorrow when it comes to the future of war?

If history is any guide, the answer is no. When George Washington took the oath of office for the first time, he didn’t expect he’d soon be leading a force of some 13,000 troops into Western Pennsylvania to put down the Whiskey Rebellion (the first and last time the president served as a commander in chief in the field). Abraham Lincoln, at his inauguration, expected conflict was on the way, as seven Southern states already had seceded since his election. But no one expected the Civil War would last four more years and introduce industrialized warfare. More recently, George W. Bush entered office lamenting “nation building” and would leave it presiding over two massive nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In turn, Barack Obama pledged to responsibly end America’s involvements in these wars. He will leave office not only with forces still there, but also having commanded air and drone war campaigns in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia.

The Future of War project is a joint effort of New America and Arizona State, in partnership with Defense One, that brings together a diverse group of experts, whose backgrounds range from Navy SEALs and scientists to historians, journalists, and lawyers. As a lead up to the project’s “Future of War” conference on Mar. 10—which you can livestream here—we asked them:

What do the 2016 presidential candidates get most wrong about the #FutureofWar?”

Their answers covered areas that ranged from strategy to terrorism, but a theme that cut through was the need to be honest to the American people, and themselves, about what awaits. In an age of TV soundbites and Twitter trolling, let’s hope that whoever wins the upcoming election is the exception to the rule that presidential candidates just don’t get the Future of War.

They Pander to Simplicity

The two essential characteristics of war in the 21st century are complexity, and unpredictable, fundamental change across all dimensions of conflict. A political dialog which panders to a public retreating into simplistic, aggressive responses to such challenges is not just irresponsible, but dangerous. It may not matter when a minor state blinks at reality, but in the world’s reigning superpower, it is a travesty.   

Braden R. Allenby is Lincoln professor of engineering and ethics; president's professor of civil, environmental, and sustainable engineering, and of law at Arizona State University

They Don’t Know Normal

A "muscular" military policy is not about push-ups and sit-ups. It is about trillions, and like steroids those can give us a shape and ruin the body as a whole over time. Wisdom is knowing how to get off the 'roids and live as a normal. 

Robert Bateman is an award winning historian and fellow in the New America cybersecurity project. He spent twenty-five years as an officer in the US Army, including serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They Misunderstand and Mis-portray Terrorism

Too many of the candidates have painted ISIS and other terrorists as a quasi-existential threat, which has helped contribute to a climate of fear in the U.S. A large majority of Americans are today somewhat or quite worried by the prospect of a large-scale mass casualty terrorist attack in the near future. In fact, the chances of such an attack are quite small because over the past decade and half the U.S. government has dramatically hardened our defenses against such an attack, while at the same time imposing huge costs on the groups that threaten the U.S. As a result, the threat from jihadist terrorists has been largely managed and contained, though by the law of averages smaller scale terrorist attacks carried out by "lone wolves" such as the ones at Fort Hood, in Texas, and San Bernardino, Calif., occasionally will happen. The chances of any candidate saying this publicly, however, are close to nil, even though most (sane) terrorism experts agree that terrorism is a low-level persistent threat that no longer poses a national security threat anything remotely on the scale of what occurred on 9/11.

Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a vice president at New America and professor of practice at Arizona State University

They Lack Long-Term Strategy

Presidential candidates love to remind Americans that we have the strongest military in the world. Measured by sheer destructive power, that's surely true — the US can kill more people and blow up more stuff than any other country on earth. But they forget that destructive military power is useless without a coherent strategy that links the use of military force to the achievement of U.S. policy goals. We can drop bombs on ISIS — and the Taliban, al-Qaeda, al Shabaab, and all their associates — for the next 50 years, but unless we find ways to address the political tensions roiling the Middle East, Central Asia, and growing portions of Africa, new terror groups will continue to emerge from the ashes of the old. Meanwhile, bombs won't stop climate change, cyber attacks, or epidemic disease. If we're serious about U.S. national security, we need to get serious about developing a long-term strategy to protect U.S. interests in a world in which fewer and fewer threats can be effectively countered using military force.

Rosa Brooks is a senior fellow at New America and a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, Ms. Brooks served as Counselor to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and as Special Coordinator for Rule of Law and Humanitarian Policy in the Pentagon from 2009-2011.

They Lack Confidence in Their Own Military Judgment

Candidates tend to be too deferential to the uniformed military, at least rhetorically. Maybe they think that will play well, given that the armed forces consistently poll as the most trusted institution in America. But what it suggests is a lack of confidence in their own military judgment, which is not what the country needs in a commander in chief. A close second is making overly declarative promises about starting or ending conflicts or threats. Those promises come back to haunt most candidates with their first presidential intelligence brief.

Sharon Burke is senior fellow at New America and former U.S. assistant secretary of defense for operational energy.

They Fail to Understand How Drones Change Their Power

What neither the candidates nor the country has addressed is the fact that the use of drones and autonomous weapons increases a president’s executive power by decreasing the likelihood of U.S. casualties, allowing administrations to argue that they are not waging war and therefore do not need Congressional approval. We also have not grappled with the lack of accountability connected to using these systems. If an autonomous weapon programmed, maintained, and operated by hundreds of people erroneously kills civilians, assigning legal responsibility will be difficult. These destabilizing impacts of the future of war need to be part of the conversation surrounding the next president's philosophy of military intervention.

Laura A. Dickinson is a professor at George Washington University Law School and a Future of War fellow at New America.

Their Worldview Model is Unraveling

What the candidates get wrong is falling into the familiar trap of selling an illusion of strength or assertiveness as a counter to exaggerated crises and an antidote to incumbent disengagement that sacrificed American influence and interests. That view is only likely to make matters worse, because it skips past the more dispassionate explanation that we’re slow in updating the 20th century toolbox to address these 21st century challenges (not to mention that it doesn’t account for counter-indications like Libya, where assertiveness didn’t yield appreciably better results).  f the world order is unraveling, it’s less a failure to engage in the old order, and more a failure to update the model itself.

Jeff Eggers, a senior fellow at New America, has served in the special operations community as a Navy SEAL, as a strategic advisor to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and on the National Security Council.

They Get Cause and Effect Wrong

The language of most candidates shows a dangerous cause-effect-end state approach to modern conflict. “Here’s the problem, here’s what I’ll do about it, and here’s what’ll happen!” Two problems with that: first, we’re fighting networks that are fundamentally unpredictable; you cannot predict what the multi-order effects of your actions will be. Second, cause-effect-end state thinking is the mindset for a finite game, with a start, middle, and known finish; but we’re facing threats around the world that are playing an infinite game, where the sole purpose of the game is to continue playing. The majority of candidates in the field are fundamentally misaligned with the realities of how these fights are manifesting on the ground.

Christopher LFussell is a senior fellow with the International Security Program at New America. He has spent the past 15 years as an officer in the Navy SEALs.

They Wait Too Long To Name Security Advisors

Personal resumes and speeches are inadequate to address voter's profound crisis of confidence in national security leadership. The U.S. is falling short in the face of three challenges: countering a proliferating terrorist threat; containing great power territorial expansion by Russia and China; and winning the emerging cyber struggle for control of the digital world. To win the national security confidence competition, the candidates should pre-announce a former military leader (preferably a battle scarred, defense official) as a putative vice presidential running mate and announce immediately their nominees for defense secretary, their service secretaries, and national security advisor. The unprecedented nature of such announcements will communicate the seriousness with which the candidates approach national security and will gain a competitive advantage over opponents who hesitate to name their national security team.   

Mark Hagerott is a nonresident fellow at New America and chancellor for the North Dakota University System. A retired Navy captain and distinguished professor of cyber security at the U.S. Naval Academy, his experience ranges from nuclear engineering to security force assistance/advising to Afghan Army, Air Corps, and police programs.

They Talk the Wrong Talk

When questions of war and security arise, GOP consultants tell their candidates, "Talk tough!" and Democratic consultants advise, "Pivot to the economy." Both are wrong. Voters across ideologies lack an articulated theory of policies that will keep their families secure in an uncertain world (both parties also lack such a theory). History suggests that, given this lack of data and worldview scaffolding, voters fall back on perceptions of personal strength, steadiness, and flat-out sanity to judge candidates. Not so much "Whom would you rather have a beer with?" but "Whose presence makes you feel secure?"

Heather Hurlburt is director of the New Models of Policy Change project at New America. She has held senior positions in the White House and State Department and worked on Capitol Hill and for the International Crisis Group.

They Don’t Get The Costs of Endless War, Or How to Exit Them

Very few presidential candidates have actually gotten a real glimpse of this seemingly unending war. Even worse, some leaders think they have stared war in the face because they had a congressional delegation trip forward or received some coffins at Dover, or even thanked some trooper for their service...Never have so few been held accountable for such epic failure to win our nations wars. Worse, in the absence of a sound strategy, I find it fascinating that the prevailing winds point not to looking for winning ways but less damaging losing exit ramps. Is the future of war turning conflict into less of contest of wills and people and more into a plea bargaining agreement?

Ioannis Koskinas is a senior fellow at New America and CEO of the Hoplite Group. He retired from the U.S. Air Force after a twenty-year career in special operations.

They Don’t Get Imperfection

The candidates don't appear to realize that they will be forced to improvise to mostly unexpected challenges with "the Army they have." You may have a certain approach to known threats (Russia, China, terrorism), but the next president will probably have to deal with some other threat, or one of these acting in an unanticipated way. The immediate future of war, from the Oval Office, will be about making the best decisions possible with imperfect information on the use of imperfect instruments, often constrained by imperfect allies.

Doug Ollivant is a senior fellow at New America. A retired U.S. Army officer, he served as a director on the National Security Council, counterinsurgency advisor in Afghanistan and leader of the team that wrote the 2006-7 Baghdad “surge” plan.

They Don’t Get to Declare War Anymore

Formal declarations of war have become relics of the past. Use of force authorizations seem almost optional. So what comes next? Presidential candidates have been taking this now very uncertain war powers process far too much for granted. They should be engaged in a big debate over how Americans can make the future of war-making conform to some kind of evolving system of checks-and-balances.

Matthew Pinsker is an ASU Future of War fellow and director of Dickinson’s House Divided project

They Lead An Electorate That Doesn’t Know Peace

We now have a generation coming of age that has never known the country not at war. I don't know what that means, but the more I think about it, the more I think we should consider civil-military relations as one of the questions facing us as we consider the future of American war.

Thomas Ricks is senior advisor on national security at New America’s International Security Program and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writer.

They Don’t Understand The Meaning of Power

Power doesn’t necessarily mean buying more bombs and bullets or threatening to destroy another nation. Power is relational and highly dependent upon what one values. So getting rid of one part of a relationship through “regime change,” assassination, or war crimes, won’t make the U.S. more powerful. Power is getting your adversary to do what you want without having to fight him, and the next president should do well to remember that.

Heather Roff is a research scientist at the ASU Global Security Initiative and fellow in the New America Cybersecurity project.

They Haven’t Learned That Foreign Wars Aren’t About Domestic Audiences

The majority of presidential candidates today have failed to learn one of the core lessons of the post-9/11 wars: you cannot succeed in foreign conflicts if your guiding strategic vision is designed primarily to address and impress a domestic constituency.

Daniel Rothenberg is a law professor at Arizona State University and co-director of the Future of War project at ASU/New America.

They Aren’t Dealing With China

None of the candidates has dealt with China’s militarization of several artificial islands created over the past year in the South China Sea. The candidates cannot afford to ignore this hot spot. The American effort to challenge militarily China’s new locations is already seen by Asian commentators as highly destabilizing to the balance that has been achieved thorough America’s enhanced naval presence—a presence created for balance against China, not to engage in warfare.

Sheldon Simon is professor in the School of Politics & Global Studies at Arizona State University.

They Don’t Understand The Technology Of Today, and Thus The Wars of Tomorrow

Whoever becomes the next commander in chief will lead the military in a period in which massive disruptive changes will play out for the services. Cyber conflict, robotics, AI, 3D printing, human performance modification and so on will advance at exponential rates across the next four or eight years of their presidency. They will command in a period where the forces at play would seem like science fiction to their predecessors. They will create new possibilities for that president to deploy force, but also new questions of what they consider right and wrong at the most fundamental levels. Their decisions over this crucial period of change will be decisive in shaping the U.S. military of the 21st century, but also whether it wins or loses the wars of tomorrow.

Peter W. Singer is strategist at New America and author of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War.

They Aren’t Taking Resilience Seriously

What most candidates get wrong is assuming that the future of war is about the military and not about the American people at large. National resilience, including a determination to uphold the Constitution and protect our civil liberties, will be as essential to the national defense as new weapons systems. As Juliette Kayyem argues in her forthcoming book Security Mom, citizens must take greater responsibility for their own security, thereby strengthening our collective national preparedness and resolve.

Anne Marie Slaughter is president of New America. She previously served as director of policy planning at the State Department and dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.

They Fail to Understand Their Words Matter, Abroad

One common failing of presidential campaigns is to massively underestimate how closely the rest of the world follows the process and tracks in detail the candidates' smallest words and deeds. Since the objective of a presidential campaign is first and foremost to get elected, this might not be judged a 'mistake'. But future wars will be won by coalitions. And so once in power, the new commander in chief's ability to productively leverage U.S. military power will depend on his or her ability to work with allies. Those who fritter that away on the path to the White House will suffer accordingly once in the Oval Office.

Ian Wallace is a senior fellow in the International Security Program, and also co-director of New America’s Cybersecurity Initiative. He was previously a senior official at the British Ministry of Defence.