America’s national security depends on our ability to turn today’s hyperpartisan division into tomorrow’s cooperation.
We have seen the enemy and it is us.
As the nation claws its way into Election Day like an exhausted but determined Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, we have all gone through more emotions than perhaps we knew we had. From despair to hope, anger to awe, we all probably feel like we have a little dirt under our fingernails by now. We are close to the end of the scene.
But the movie won’t end on Tuesday. We will remain a nation torn in two, facing off with vitriol and violence, terror and intimidation, with partisan-blinded political leaders foaming at their mouths at each other, urging us into the mud-slinging pits of American politics. And we were warned.
For years, elder American statesmen like former Defense Secretaries Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, and Chuck Hagel have said domestic partisan politics and a growing unwillingness by leaders to compromise is becoming the biggest threat to our own survival.
“This is the major national security issue,” said Panetta, a politician turned CIA director, on Thursday. “Because if this country can’t deal with major problems that we’re facing, then, you know — you can have the finest defense in the world, but if you’re falling apart it, doesn’t do you a hell of a lot of good.”
Will anyone lead us out of our hyperpartisan pit? Do Americans want to be led out of it? Should they?
Over the past week in Washington, D.C., some businesses have boarded up with plywood in anticipation of possible rioting on Tuesday night, should Donald Trump win re-election — or try to steal it. It’s the coda to this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests and spin-off riots, which are a coda to the last four years, which are a coda to four centuries of American history. Americans are at each other’s throats, and understandably in some cases. But without doubt, Americans have been frothed up by their own partisan leaders.
As a national security editor, it’s a disheartening moment. While U.S. troops were fighting off violent extremists in Kabul on Monday, U.S. voters are being encouraged to prepare for the same on Tuesday. It’s not hyperbole. It’s because of the president. This final weekend before Election Day we have seen visceral, hateful, and sharp-tongued rhetoric and accusations by America’s partisans — including inciting violence — led by the commander in chief himself. A “Trump train” vehicle caravan terrorized a Biden campaign bus on an American interstate highway in Texas this weekend,surrounding it and blocking its path. The Biden staffers inside called 911 and needed a police escort to get away from their terrorizers. The FBI is now investigating. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, acting chairman of the Senate intelligence committee who frequently posts Bible quotes urging godly behavior, said at a Trump rally, “We love what they did. But here's the thing they don't know: We do that in Florida every day.” Fox News firebrand Jeanine Pirro, “It’s ordinary Americans just taking this election into their own hands.”
What they did, in fact, is illegal. But Trump’s reaction is of a piece with earlier efforts to brand lawful political dissenters as enemies of the state — his enemies — deserving of intimidation and harassment. Trump weeks ago and in presidential debates called on his supporters to flood polling places as observers. One company was paid to hire and send special operations forces veterans into Minnesota. They said they wanted to prevent Antifa violence. A judge has since blocked them.
Trump didn’t invent American political speech or divisiveness. That’s in America’s DNA. But he is the Pied Piper of right-wing hate, today. He can’t get through one political speech without demonizing the other in more and more offensive ways, and other Republican leaders who support him have joined in gleefully. They call Democrats “socialists.” They say a vote for Democrats is a vote against nothing less than freedom. They call Joe Biden a pedophile.
“Joe Biden is a corrupt politician who is bought and paid for by China!” Trump tweeted late Sunday evening, between midnight campaign rallies in Florida. That’s about as deep as any foreign policy or national security discussion between the candidates has occurred in this election. Yet there is an actual difference between Trump and Biden on foreign policy and global security leadership that will change the course of America’s future. But how could it matter anywhere near as much to Americans who feel they are fighting for their lives right here at home?
To the national security community, the American presidential campaign of 2020 has been a horror show. The biggest story line is simple: hundreds of experts, veteran leaders, generals, admirals, ambassadors, diplomats, senators, wonks and warriors — yes, the Blob, the Swamp, the establishment that Trump has ignored and banned from important national security posts across government — have warned that the United States is squandering 75 years of global leadership in a international system it once shaped to its advantage. Now the country is ignoring the world, allowing adversaries to grow and flourish, sapping its own economic, military, and ideological strength. There is widespread condemnation of Trump, his personality, leadership, basic level of knowledge, skills, and inability to draw or keep qualified security leaders across the Defense Department, State Department, National Security Council and intelligence agencies. Even those who support a shakeup of policy toward things like allies’ defense spending and China’s trade practices cringe at how the Trump administration is going about it. And that’s being generous.
The biggest story in global security circles is China and how the United States and the West are reacting to Xi Jinping’s dangerous evolution into a land-grabbing, ethic-cleansing, rule-breaking dictator-for-life. It’s a story that should be on the tip of every American’s tongue, as much as Soviets were in the Cold War. Our lives, by design, have been intricately linked to China. From cheap MAGA hats to overpriced Nike shoes, the parts in iPhones, the money in the banks, America’s way of life depends on China so much that not even economic and cultural juggernauts like the NBA will stand up against Beijing for things as obviously good as human rights, Hong Kong’s precarious freedom, and the truth about the massacre and disappearance of the Uighurs.
China is changing for the worse, but how can Americans stand together against China when they are being told to hate and fight each other?
"I believe that genuinely the greatest threat to the national security of the United States right now can be found in the two square miles that encompass the White House and the Capitol Building,” Gates said on Thursday. “Because if we can't figure out how to get past the paralysis in Washington that is affecting us all over the world, there is no foreign threat in my view that is as dangerous to our future as that paralysis in Washington."
Gates has said this for at least 10 years now. Last week, he was on a video call organized by the OSS Society, a keeper of the historic flame for the intelligence and special operations community, saying it again with Panetta, the former CIA director; William McRaven, retired admiral who led Joint Special Operations Command and U.S. Special Operations Command; and David Petraeus, retired CIA director and commanding general of both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. All of them have issued similar warnings. McRaven openly opposed Trump, drawing the president’s ire.
“What we’ve seen is Washington at its worst these last 15 or 20 years,” Panetta said. He is the one politician among the group, having also served in Congress and as a White House chief of staff. Panetta has tried for years to argue that actual governing is good politics, but to no avail. He listed issue after issue on which Republicans and Democrats can’t come together to govern, sounding equally angered at leaders of both parties.
“In area after area, it’s become total dysfunction,” Panetta said, arguing that today’s political leaders are unwilling to take risks and negotiate policies for the American people. “If you’re not going to lead, crisis will lead.”
What’s the solution? Panetta said, “It’s going to take newer members” of Congress and a new president, people who are willing to work together.
Americans, we are our own top security threat, these leaders are telling us. Not China. Not terrorism. Not cyber attacks, or anti-satellite weapons, or hypersonic missiles. Not Russian information ops or little green men in Eastern Europe. Not robots or drones. Not climate change or water security. Not communism, or socialism, or extremism. The top security issue is not the need for a 500-ship Navy, or 386 squadrons, or more ICBMs, or strategic bombers.
The top security issue on the ballot this Election Day is ourselves. After we vote, America’s future will be shaped by our willingness to work together through our differences and govern effectively. As Panetta said, “This will be the issue that will answer the question of whether our democracy can survive.”
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