A Day That Will Live in Infamy

09/10/2011 07:24 pm ET | Updated Nov 10, 2011

Several years passed before our government realized that the end of the Cold War had unleashed a set of new realities, realities containing both new dangers and opportunities. The U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century was empanelled in October, 1998, to assess these and to recommend reforms in our national security structures to deal with them.

Though later described as a "terrorism commission", our mandate was much broader, and in the course of pursuing that mandate we realized the depth and immediacy of the terrorism threat and warned against it in these words: terrorists "will acquire weapons of mass destruction... and some will use them. Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers." (September 15, 1999)

Tragically, few in government or the media paid attention when our final report was issued on January 31, 2001, and the results, a decade ago, are well known. As a result, our way of life has been dramatically altered.

National commissions come and go, most with little attention. Attention should have been paid in our case if for no other reason than that we undertook the most comprehensive review of U.S. national security since 1947, the eventful year in which we created the national security state.

Ten years later only one of our commission's fifty unanimous recommendations, the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, has been adopted. The other 49, still current, still significant, remain unattended by both the second Bush and the Obama administrations.

The new realities we identified and addressed included failed and failing states, the rise of non-state actors, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the rise of economic competition that would erode our ability to finance our own protection.

We saw education, scientific research, innovation, and productivity as national security issues. ("Second only to a weapon of mass destruction detonating in an American city, we can think of nothing more dangerous than a failure to manage properly science, technology, and education for the common good...") If our economy lags, the financial and technological resources to mount a defense of our nation are diminished.

We also saw our executive and legislative branches bogged down in Cold War bureaucracies, including dozens of unnecessary Congressional committees and subcommittees, that were irrelevant to 21st century realities.

Perhaps most significantly, our commission saw opportunities to reduce threats by pro-active policies. Traditionally, the United States has waited for external threats to arise, as in two world wars, and then mobilized its resources to overpower them -- at great cost. But shortened warning and response times now reduce that luxury. In this century, we reported, we must be smart enough to see over the horizon, identify latent threats, and use our considerable economic and political resources and new alliances to contain and possibly eliminate these threats before they become viral.

There is a cost to passivity, inaction, and inattention. Post 9/11, we have been expensively engaged in two long wars that, in addition to loss of young Americans, have seriously contributed to our current financial woes. Our civil liberties have been eroded. Our standing in the world, so soaring in the days following 9/11, has suffered considerably.

The mark of a mature society rests in lesson learned. The key to our security in this century remains in anticipation and pro-action. Even more than a decade ago, reduction of threats should replace containment of communism and war on terrorism as our central organizing principle. Combining "soft", economic and political, power with "hard", military, power, we can quarantine, diminish, and shrink latent threats -- from terrorism to pandemics -- before they escape our ability to combat them.

In a word, security in the 21st century will rest more in intelligence, in the common as well as the security sense of the word, more than raw power. The nature of conflict and warfare is changing. As our current two and a half wars confirm, traditional nation-state warfare is being overwhelmed by unconventional, irregular conflicts.

Lesson learned from the last decade include these: anticipate tides and trends, such as the "Arab spring", before they occur; understand the mind of the antagonist; invest in a productive economy as the base of national security; broaden our understanding of the meaning of security to include non-military concerns; restructure our traditional military forces, including smaller combat units, for a more basic kind of conflict; and network our security resources, for both military and non-military hazards, through new security alliances.

Had we adopted a more strategic appreciation of the new realities of the 21st century, had we taken al Qaeda more seriously and acted more anticipatorily, 9/11 could have been prevented. And when fourteen Americans with considerable experience spend two and a half years studying these new realities and issuing both warnings and prescriptions, perhaps attention should be paid.

The authors were co-chairs of the U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century and are former United States Senators from their respective States of Colorado and New Hampshire.