05/29/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Getting our Game Back: The First Hundred Days

If we kill people, we lose the war. The most significant achievement of the Obama Administration thus far is a consistent and systematic understanding that security as we know it has fundamentally changed. Today, legitimacy (having the moral authority to lead) is getting as much attention as containment (dominate, isolate, destroy) in our strategic plans. Communicating a new framework about how to keep Americans safe is no small challenge in a political environment that has suffocated normal and healthy dialogue about many issues. Number one among them is public conversation about the role of the military in American democracy. And secondarily, the role of the military in our national security. Legitimacy requires a sense of shared expectation and uniform rules. This has huge implications for everything from defense budget priorities to criticism of allies like Israel--because most of the time the use of force is anathema to legitimacy.

We must have this conversation ultimately....for it not only will determine the soul of the American military (our most beloved institution) it will determine the fate of our nation. We can't privatize our way out of asking hard questions about what the military should be doing. We can't be persuasive through hardware dominance. We look foolish and unconvincing when we say one thing and do another. We can't have it both ways.

Here's another way to put it. Today, we have finally recognized that we're moving away from a world where safety was linear and predictable and where weapons technology provided a fix --to a world that is much more random and chaotic and where skilled human beings are the answer. Intentional communication and strategies for participation are the art and science of violence prevention. The Marine Corps at Quantico just conducted a week-long wargame on conflict prevention. What should the military's role be in this new world? The military hates surprises. It prepares based on what it experiences. But only civilian elected leaders can turn their experience into a security strategy.

The metrics that the military uses to prioritize are shifting to recognize trans-national threats. For example, contagious ideology thrives where social and political vacuums exist. Modern doctrine views the safety of people across borders to be as important as the safety of people within borders. Counter insurgency is one operational example of these priorities--where only about 1/3 of the activities require traditional military tools like shooting guns (called "kinetic"). The Marines are the most progressive of the services--and their lens on prevention represents a major shift, but there is no guarantee it will be followed through with systemic change. And no matter how happy we are that the military is engaged in prevention, it should not be the lead agency on these activities. For us to be legitimate, civilians must fill that role.

Some illustrations from an Army friend: In the 1940s military planners scoped out threat scenarios based on questions like: Where is their navy fleet? Why is their Army missing from the Polish border? Is it doing an exercise? Better find it. Arms control treaties with their acronym soup and bizarre permutations of mutual suicide were the ultimate example of countable criteria. Today, additional criteria are less countable, but still measurable. Is there a court system that renders satisfied judgments? Are human rights activists being murdered? How many girls are in school? Was the last election fair? Who has clean drinking water?

To see if our elected representatives in Congress are listening to the advice of civilian and military professionals--watch what happens to the Obama-Gates defense budget. Even though it is 4% higher than Bush's budget--its intentions are clearly moving resources away from Cold War weapons platforms and toward policies that require a different strategy and far more civilian capacity. At long last. But Congress is already making moves to put some of the eliminated weapons programs back into the war supplemental. Unless we somehow develop a domestic constituency for modern security priorities that can rival the defense industry, these congressional antics will not change. (Hillary supporters--if you want to see her become the most successful Secretary of State in history--organize her political base into this state by state network) And federally funded state universities, would you please come up with some defense economy conversion research for your congressional delegations?

If our security priorities were aligned with legitimacy as a security strategy we would demand that the US Senate pass a treaty omnibus much like it passes the defense budget year after year...rushed through with urgency and lots of patriotic salutes. I'm not kidding. Law of the Sea, Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, International Criminal Court, Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). They've been debated incessantly. Pass them all in one fell swoop. We would be safer overnight.

When President Obama says that our ideals will make us stronger, he's rebuilding our moral authority. When he speaks about America having the obligation to lessen the nuclear threat through cooperative efforts--he's invoking a sense that the world has taken us up on our belief in the individual right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And we need to deliver some part of that. Strategies of persuasion are put forward, strategies of coercion kept in the back pocket. As it should be. Framing, re-framing, convening, constant communication, taking early risks--these are all things that Americans are good at. The sunk cost of the Bush years was largely paid with our political capital--relationships, cooperation based on self-interest, predictable patterns, transparency,respect for rule of law. I'm waiting to see if our new strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan will cause fewer civilian casualties. And I'm waiting to see whether or not we really, actually leave Iraq. I would do backflips for a truth commission with subpoena power on use of torture. I really like our President's constant recitation of a new vision for America in the world. This vision is so compelling that it makes occasional slip ups--like invoking "crippling sanctions for Iran" seem weird and out of place...President Bush knocked us off our game. President Obama is getting it back. I give the first hundred days a B plus.

p.s. I'm willing to allow grade inflation in exchange for a speech about basic civics and the role of the military in American democracy...perhaps in another 100 days?