This April 24, 2015, photo shows the DNI's Liberty Crossing Intelligence Campus in McLean, Va.

This April 24, 2015, photo shows the DNI's Liberty Crossing Intelligence Campus in McLean, Va. AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Keep an Eye on Syria’s Idlib Province, Says Former Acting Spy Chief

President Obama’s primary intelligence briefer shares thoughts about U.S. national security, emerging trends, and hotspots.

After being away from Washington for a year, former acting Director of National Intelligence Michael P. Dempsey is now the national intelligence fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He talked about his reflections  with a staffer at CFR’s Center for Preventive Action. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

What’s your view about the state of U.S. national security after being away from Washington for a year?

Michael Dempsey: Being away from the day-to-day press of business in government has certainly given me more time to think about this issue. As a starting point, I’ve always considered there to be ten key pillars that underpin America’s security. I include on that list our neighborhood (with historically friendly neighbors and two big oceans to protect us), economic strength, technological supremacy, unrivaled military and intelligence capabilities, a friendly international order, powerful allies, soft power advantages (from America’s founding ideals to our unprecedented diplomatic and cultural reach), the nature of our rivals (our main competitors each face daunting structural challenges), a world class university and judicial system that helps drive and safeguard innovation, and abundant natural resources.

I think in analyzing each of these pillars, however, it’s fair to say that several are gradually being weakened. In particular, I’m especially concerned about America’s long-term fiscal health given the rapidly expanding national debt, the challenge that China poses to our long-term technological edge, the diffusion of sensitive and lethal technology to non-state actors, and the health of both the international order and our alliance network. So, while I believe that America’s security posture is still strong, I am concerned that the current trajectory we are on may portend significant problems down the road.

If you were still briefing the president, what would you focus on?

MD: That’s a terrific question and, since I know the people doing it today, I’m certain they are doing a great job! In broad terms, though, I think the challenge is to not get caught up in just the crisis of the day, which more often than not is centered in the Middle East, but to also look more broadly at emerging challenges and opportunities in every part of the world. 

America has global commitments and interests, so the president has to be kept informed about developments from Nicaragua to Nigeria, and from Indonesia to India. I’d also recommend focusing on key transnational trends such as population displacement, the spread of infectious diseases, the proliferation of advanced conventional and asymmetric weapons, and the health of the global economy, especially the growing risk to emerging-market economies.

Which hotspots or issues merit close attention over the next six months?  

MD: In Syria, I would pay close attention to the situation in Idlib Province. Idlib is home to thousands of the most extreme al-Qaeda and self-proclaimed Islamic State fighters left in the country, as well as more than two million civilians, and the regime has stepped up its airstrikes and troop deployments there in the past few weeks.  

I would also pay close attention to Iran’s response to renewed U.S. sanctions, the chaotic situation in Venezuela and the regional spillover, the trajectory of U.S-North Korea nuclear talks and the potential for stepped up tensions later this year, the steady deterioration of U.S.-Turkey relations and the broad implications, and security conditions in Nigeria in advance of February’s presidential election.

Is there any encouraging effort at conflict resolution issue that you would like to highlight?

MD: I am watching carefully to see if there might be a window of opportunity to jumpstart peace talks in Yemen once the situation around the critical port city of Hodeidah is resolved, even though it appears for now that both the military and diplomatic situations are frozen. In Afghanistan, I was encouraged by the face-to-face talks between U.S. officials and the Taliban in Doha in July. They are the first such talks in the past seven years, and, in my view, the only way out of a war that is now in its seventeenth year and with no military end in sight. I was also encouraged by Washington’s recent decision to provide $9 million in financial assistance to Colombia to help with the flood of Venezuelan refuges entering the country. Anything we can do to help countries of first asylum for people fleeing crises in places such as Venezuela and Syria is a step in the right direction.

Are there any especially worrisome trends in ongoing conflicts that you’d like to highlight? 

MD: Yes, I’m quite worried about the long-term reputational damage to the United States from our association with the type of incident that occurred recently in Yemen, where, as was reported, a busload of Yemeni children were killed by a Saudi-led coalition airstrike. America’s military 

support to the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen has long been blamed by critics for exacerbating the country’s humanitarian nightmare. So, while incidents like the one earlier this month are obviously tragic for the victims and their families, they also have profound negative long-term implications for both America’s image abroad and our ability to win hearts-and-minds in the global counterterrorism struggle. In my view, U.S. policymakers need to reexamine constantly each of the elements of our strategic counterterrorism campaign and to assess whether they are helping reduce the appeal of extremism, or are instead perpetuating the type of grievances that groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State exploit in their recruiting efforts. America’s association with the ongoing conflict in Yemen is worthy, in my view, of such a reevaluation.