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Seminar: United States National Security Priorities and Options


The national security priorities and options for the new US administration, as well as the implications for Euroatlantic cooperation, were the subject of a seminar held at the Center for the Study of Democracy on 18 February 2008, with the participation of Ambassador Michael Geier, Germany’s Ambassador to Bulgaria, Ambassador Robert Gelbard and Mr. Brian Jenkins.

Ambassador Robert Gelbard has served as Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, as United States Ambassador to Bolivia and Indonesia, and as envoy to the Balklans in the Clinton administration. He has also recently served as Senior Foreign Policy Advisor to the Obama Presidential Campaign. Mr. Brian Jenkins is an expert on terrorism and transportation security currently serving as Director of the Mineta Transportation Institute's Transportation Security Center as well as Senior Advisor to the President of the RAND Corporation. He has also served as a member of the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, and as an advisor to the National Commission on Terrorism, and the US Departments of State, Defense and Energy.

The main changes which can be expected in foreign policy priorities as a result of the new US administration taking over were outlined in detail. It was noted that there will be a change in tone and substance with respect to countering terrorism. Namely, Guantanamo will be closed within a year, and the Bush administration’s War on Terror as such is now over as terrorist threats will be dealt with in a different manner. Whenever possible, efforts will be made to cooperate with other governments as well as improve the world’s perception of the United States.

It was emphasized that the new US administration will have to counter the above challenges in an environment of deep fianancial and economic crisis – a crisis so severe that it requires that an unprecedented sense of bipartisanship be developed. It was underscored that there is also a general consensus within the new US administration that the US will need to work together with European countries, NATO and European Union institutions to solve problems around the world. One such issue requiring extensive cooperative efforts on both sides of the Atlantic is the situation in Afghanistan. With respect to the latter, it was noted that the future of NATO itself depends on the degree to which it will manage to recraft the Afghanistan issue and build it into a success. Problematic in this respect are the need for coherence in the rules of engagement of various national units on the ground, as well as the need for more balanced burden-sharing. Another pressing issue on which Europe will need to work with the US is finding a solution to the Guantanamo conundrum. Moreover, the US will need to address critical national security issues in other regions in the world, such as China, the Koreas, and Indonesia, and redevelop its traditionally close relationships with its Latin American neighbours which have nevertheless to a great extent been neglected in recent years.

The expectation that the first year of the current administration’s term of office will be crucial in many respects was also the subject of debate. Not only has President Obama inherited three wars, but it is an instructive historical observation that while in their first year in office, eight out of the previous nine US presidents have had to deal with a major foreign policy crisis or terrorist attack on American interests throughout the world. The terrorist threat has in many respects been amplified in reaction to the way the US has so far conducted the so-called ‘War on Terror’. At the same time, issues such as Guantanamo or the use of torture in interrogations have alienated allies and have also eroded many traditional American values. The observation was made that the strength of a state is measured not only in terms of raw military power but, especially in the long term, also by its values.

Analysis was offered as to what has gone wrong in Iraq. In addition to the very idea that the war was necessary being flawed to begin with, given that there was no link between Al Qaeda and the pre-war Iraqi political leadership, and given that the existence of WMD’s in the country was questionable at best, it was pointed out that the conduct of the war was in many respects hampered by lack of preparation and by putting it in the context of the War on Terror. In many respects this was a result of the lack of sufficient institutional memory within the US military, which, despite having dealt with a smilar insurgency situation in Vietnam had purposely made efforts to suppress any discussion or analysis of the Vietnam War due to all the trauma involved for the nation and the army itself. Nevertheless, analysis of some successful techniques employed in Vietnam could have benefited the US in the conduct of war significantly. For instance, a doctrine of not negotiating with what have been termed “terrorists”, developed in the very narrow circumstances of hostage crises, when applied to the situation in Iraq prevented the US military from negotiating with insurgents, contrary to its own tradition of similar negotiating going back not only to Vietnam but even to the frontier days of engaging in military conflicts with certain indigenous Indian tribes.

What is certainly clear is that in future the US will only fight wars which have clearly defined objectives and vital national security implications, and are easy to win decisively and in short periods of time. As for the situation in Iraq, the expectation is that US combat forces will pull out of the country between 2010 and 2012 depending on how soon the security situation improves, though there will under no circumstances be a “second surge”.

Other issues that were discussed were the expectation that Africa is going to be a priority in US developmental aid policy, as well as US commitment to international cooperative efforts through the United Nations, which, despite weaknesses, is indispensable to achieving any lasting improvements in the global security environment. Concern was raised regarding the security threat which organised crime groups could pose, particularly if and when they collaborate with terrorist organisations. It was nevertheless pointed out that despite isolated cases involving links between producers of narcotics and terrorist organisations in places like South America and Afghanistan, there is at present no evidence of systematic and deliberate linkages or collusion between organized crime groups, corrupt public officials, and terrorist groups – a scenario which would indeed be especially worrisome with respect to the illegal sale and acquisition of nuclear material and is not to be ruled out in future – so that this sort of alliance between disparate groups is currently more of an anticipation than reality.

Other participants in the discussion included Ambassador Michael Geier, Germany’s Ambassador to Bulgaria, who reaffirmed his country’s willingness to work with the new US administration; Dr. Ognian Shentov, CSD Chairman; Ms. Ivanka Ivanova, Director of the Law Programme at the Open Society Institute; and Mr. Pavel Anastasov, Security and Defense Expert at Bulgaria’s Ministry of Defense.

The participants in the high table discussion
From left to right: Mr. Brian Jenkins, Senior Advisor to the President of the RAND Corporation; Ambassador Robert Gelbard, and Dr. Ognian Shentov, CSD Chairman
From left to roght: Ambassador Michael Geier, Germany’s Ambassador to Bulgaria; Mr. Brian Jenkins, Senior Advisor to the President of the RAND Corporation; Ambassador Robert Gelbard, and Dr. Ognian Shentov, CSD Chairman

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