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  • by Graham Allison and Juliette Kayyem

A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter passes the Statue of Liberty as it patrols New York Harbor, Monday, Oct. 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Introduction

What are the major national security threats facing the United States? When, where and how should the U.S. use military force? How are national security and homeland security connected? What can the U.S. president do to prepare for a potential disaster?

Graham Allison and Juliette Kayyem offer their perspectives.

Graham Allison is director of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He served in the Department of Defense under Presidents Reagan and Clinton.

Since 2001 the United States has waged major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The total cost of these wars has been approximately $2 trillion, all of which has been added to our national debt. According to widely published reports, the U.S. has in recent years launched drone strikes against targets in five additional nations, and special operations forces have carried out attacks in ten countries.

We are a wealthy nation and we can pay for a military of almost any size we want. What we cannot do is continue to spend trillions for wars that we refuse to pay for with our own tax dollars today. As former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen said in 2011, “the most significant threat to our national security is our debt.”

The most significant threat to our national security is our debt.
– Admiral Michael Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

When deciding whether to send American troops to kill and to die on behalf of the rest of us, the next president should follow this guiding principle: only when vital American national interests are at stake.

According to Webster’s, “vital” means “necessary to the existence, continuance, or well-being of . . . indispensable, essential.” This means that if a conflict is merely extremely important (but not vital) to the United States’ national interests, it should be resolved by other means. It means that if the vital national interests of America’s allies are threatened, then the U.S. should find ways to support those allies without sending our troops into harm’s way (as we did, for example, in Libya last year).

Having a professional military means that the United States can go to war while the vast majority of citizens are not directly affected. Therefore it falls upon the president, more than any other individual, to make sure the nation goes to war only if and when absolutely necessary.

Juliette Kayyem is national security and foreign policy columnist for the Boston Globe and lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She served in the Department of Homeland Security under President Obama.

In the wake of 9/11, our immediate national response was “Never Again.” It was a statement of resolve and determination in the face of a threat unlike any the U.S. had faced since the War of 1812. And that resolve made a difference—uncovering and preventing additional al-Qaeda attacks, and leading to the creation two years later of the Department of Homeland Security.

Then in 2005 came Hurricane Katrina—and with it the stark realization that American cities could also suffer devastating “attacks” from extreme weather, crumbling infrastructure and ineffective emergency preparedness and response. Since then, federal, state and local departments and agencies have increasingly worked together to prevent, prepare for and respond to disasters and attacks—regardless of their sources.

The resilience of the American people is the greatest potential resource available to the next president.

The next time there’s a major power outage affecting a broad swath of American society, it may not be immediately clear whether the cause was a cyber attack by a hostile nation or simple human error magnified by weaknesses in the power grid. What will matter most at that moment, and in the days that follow, is the resilience of the American people and their government.

Resilience, the ability to “keep calm and carry on,” requires not only that different government agencies work together and coordinate their efforts as a matter of common practice. It also requires the active engagement of an informed citizenry. There is no greater potential resource available to the next president for successfully confronting whatever crises may strike the nation in the next four years. It will be his responsibility to inform and engage Americans — in ways small and large — to prepare for the challenges ahead.

Related content:

  • WATCH video of these lectures — plus a Q & A with Allison and Kayyem — here.

Tags: #advice2012, Election 2012, Middle East, Security

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