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An Outmoded Concept Is Sapping America's Strength

by John Prados

Rethinking National Security


A Preliminary Note

America today stands at a crossroads. Beset by economic woes, driven to attempt reform that might enable the nation to regain a sense of honor and purpose, and seeking desperately to identify what actions are needed, Americans are searching for a way forward. But there is an elephant in the room that blocks the way: what we call “national security.” Few observers have paid much attention to national security. Citizens have long deferred to government and allowed it full sway in the defense of the land. But our present crisis is too great, and our resources too strained, to continue with business as usual. America’s myriad difficulties cannot be overcome without dealing with the issue of national security.

As presently conceived, national security is a trap. Left untouched, pursuit of it will continue to cripple our country. In the essay that follows I try to show how national security evolved, why in its present form it ensnares the nation, what would be the consequences of failure to correct the situation, and what a new approach might look like. I also argue that a solution to this problem is urgent: escaping the national security trap may be the critical issue of our era.

Obama’s Challenge

During his presidential campaign Barack Obama made many promises, some of them concerning foreign policy and defense. His ideas resonated with Americans. Candidate Obama promised to end the war in Iraq; close the notorious detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; stop torture and renditions; move away from the nuclear standoff that still exists with Russia; ratify the comprehensive test-ban treaty; end regulations that oppress gay Americans serving in the military; strengthen the International Atomic Energy Agency; and place U.S. diplomacy on a broader foundation. Mr. Obama foresaw a global fair deal in which the United States would multiply assistance to the Third World, forgive the debts of underdeveloped countries, and reduce foreign hostility by means of transparent policies and frank answers to critics of America. Candidate Obama believed in strengthening common security by investing in the common humanity of all peoples.

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