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Obama’s Pentagon: Knowledge of SELF

The Center for a New American Security, a national-security think tank, hosted the first big foreign-policy address of Barack Obama’s general-election campaign. Sort of. Though CNAS’s Kurt Campbell said Richard Danzig, a former Clinton Navy Secretary, was not speaking in his capacity as an Obama surrogate, his remarks inevitably conjured the image of a potential Obama Pentagon. (It’s commonly speculated that Danzig might be Obama’s Secretary of Defense.)

Danzig, in keeping with the Obama doctrine style, taking revisionist approaches to entrenched national-security debates, gave a provocative address for such a mild-mannered guy. He drew a symmetry between the strengths and weaknesses of terrorist groups and those of the national-security bureaucracy. Note for the right wingers out there: he didn’t for a second draw a moral equivalence, so get that out of your head please and thank you. He began by calling the fight from al-Qaeda a winnable battle, but the risk of biological or nuclear weapons making their way to terrorist groups an ineradicable risk that can only be mitigated.

How? By understanding certain assets of terrorist organizations that can also become liabilities. To chuckles from the audience, Danzig gave his characterization a Washington acronym: SELF. Terrorist assets include Secrecy (avoiding detection/infiltration), Elitism (cultivation of specialized knowledge), Lethality and Fraternity (the bond of the fanatic). Alas for them, each attribute calcifies into a weakness: Secrecy becomes Solipsism as terrorists fall prey to an intellectual echo chamber; Elitism becomes Eccentricity as terrorists confuse knowledge for omnipotence; Lethality becomes Limitation as terrorists reach over and over for either impossibly grandiose methods of destruction or the paltry ones immediately at hand; and Fraternity becomes Factionalism as terrorists fall prey to infighting and mutual suspicion. Understanding these tendencies, he said, informs a better counterterrorism strategy.

“These same strengths and weaknesses manifest themselves in a different context in our own system,” Danzig contended. “We gain some strengths from secrecy, from the educated characteristics of our [debate], from [the use of] lethal force, and from… fraternity. These are genuinely positive things. But they carry with them the seeds of the same vulnerabilities. We risk becoming too self-referential. We may go off on paths that are not well-advised or are eccentric; we reach for the capabilities on hand; and… [we're] affected by factional competition.” No one needed to say that he was thinking of the Iraq war or the Bush administration.

Danzig was more interested in provoking a debate than settling one, but he said the challenge ahead concerned whether the U.S. or its adversaries would adapt faster to the lessons that the SELF paradigm suggested. He praised institutional “red-team” analysis, whereby dedicated cells of analysts challenge long-held assumptions. “I think we can come up with other systems,” Danzig said.

But he chose to end with a warning. Danzig feared a “Pearl Harbor syndrome,” where the public believes that after an attack, the American system is durable enough to snap back to normal in time. He called that mindset a “risk,” implying that the day after a nuclear or biological attack, we wake up in a changed America.

What the policy implications of all this are remain unclear. But expect this framework, at least, to guide an Obama Pentagon.

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