The Future of National Security: American Leadership and Higher Education

General Montgomery Meigs

Take Aways

  • Idiosyncratic warfare employs systematic, highly visible attacks on national infrastructures and populations designed to undermine our strategic will.
  • Americans have a naïve sense of the linkages of economic issues to our national interest and seem to lack a basic awareness of the economic realities we face. Decades of the highest standard of living of any nation of our size in global importance have lulled the United States into a false sense of strategic reality.
  • A political discourse that is overly ideological and uses the proximate threat of violence as its theme fails to bring out the best in us. If used too long, it can create anomie and frustration with the entire political process.
  • Universities can help young people coming into the ranks of citizenry to better understand the sense of civic obligation on which good national decisions depend so fundamentally.

The United States faces serious strategic challenges stemming from the armed Islamic movement, high worldwide demand for limited energy supplies, and fundamental weaknesses in its economy. Retired General Montgomery Meigs served for more than 35 years in the U.S. Army, leaving immediately prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He was pressed back into service as director of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization and is currently on the faculty at Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies. Meigs describes how terrorists use improvised explosive devices to wage idiosyncratic warfare, which fosters a sense of futility and despair in their enemies. So that the United States can better face these daunting challenges, Meigs urges universities to contribute to developing a sense of civic virtue and obligation among their students. It is critical, he says, that Americans raise their level of political discourse and thereby make more informed and wiser decisions about the future of our nation.

The Ephebic Oath

About five years ago, I launched a second career in academia and most recently taught at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. It has been interesting to see how my military experience intersects with my teaching. At the entrance to the main building at the Maxwell School, there is a large sculpture with the Ephebic Oath carved on it. The essential message of that ancient Athenian oath is one of nobility and virtue, of transmitting the city greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.

The Athenians created a great civilization that still impacts us today. They suffered their tragedies as well—the worst being the Peloponnesian War. Despite their civic sense of community and the training they devoted to their new citizens, and despite Pericles’ strategic advice, they allowed themselves to be drawn into a war with the Spartans—a war of choice, one they did not need to fight. They could have avoided it. And after initial successes—actually getting a Spartan army to surrender, which had been unheard of—they launched a strategically foolhardy campaign on the colony of Syracuse, which turned out to be a disaster. Pericles had laid down a sound military strategy that offered the only way of winning, but in the confusion and vitriol after Pericles’ death, and after a bad bout with the plague, the Athenians launched an exercise in strategic egoism that turned out to be a disaster from which they never recovered. Not only were the Spartans starting out the campaign predominant on land, they were able—after the Athenian losses in Syracuse, and with Persian connivance—to build a navy and counter the Athenians’ superiority at sea.

I wonder what happened to the civil sentiment in Athens suggested by the Ephebic Oath when the fateful decision was made to engage in the war with Sparta. Unlike today, the citizens of the city had immediate access to the rulers who made that decision. Clearly, strategic rationale and political sensibility were lost. And the question remains, why? What does the tragedy of one of the oldest wars on record tell us about the role of university education and how we can help our young citizens grow so that our nation is secure and can prosper? Today we face a strategic challenge not dissimilar from that of Athens in terms of its severity. The United States is truly a powerful nation. No nation can match us in the area of conventional force. But we face a movement spanning the arc from Morocco to the Philippines that could erode our alliance system, destroy the world market as we know it, and fundamentally damage our understanding of who we are. That is precisely what happened to Athens.

Threats to U.S. National Security

In unprecedented ways, three developments threaten Americans and, in particular, our strategic will. First, idiosyncratic warfare applied by our enemy exploits Americans’ basic instincts. Though we can rise emotionally to war, Americans generally avoid conflict, or at least seek to finish it quickly. We have historically sought to deflect entangling alliances. Idiosyncratic warfare has, as its primal objective, breaking the will of the opponent by creating a general sense of strategic cognitive dissonance. It creates a problem, or set of problems, that cannot be solved by any reasonable course of action and, therefore, the human response is to withdraw.

Idiosyncratic warfare employs systematic, highly visible attacks on national infrastructure and populations designed to undermine our strategic will. Our enemies adopt any means of fostering chaos and bloodshed that engenders a sense of futility and despair, with the goal of convincing Iraqis, Americans, and our allies that the violence in Iraq is so bad that it cannot possibly be controlled. They are attempting to convince American voters and citizens that this is just too hard a problem to deal with and so we should withdraw from it.

Make no mistake about it, the networks of insurgents that employ improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Indonesia, Thailand, Pakistan, North Africa, England, Spain, Denmark, Germany, and elsewhere will not degrade quickly. Their efforts depend only indirectly on events in Iraq and Afghanistan; this strategic challenge will persist and will demand patience, forbearance, and strategic wisdom for a very long time.

But most Americans want to escape the serial bad news of the long war. We do not understand that Iraq and Afghanistan are only two of the many places where calculated Islamist violence manifests itself. If these two countries, or one of them, descend into chaos, they will become the host for a far more dangerous central core of the network system that seeks to obtain widespread political influence and power by undermining governments all across the Islamic crescent.

Second, the collapse of degrees of separation between peoples enabled by the Internet accelerates this effect. In Iraq, if an individual places an IED, he doesn’t get paid unless he brings back video footage of the event, which then is immediately sent to Al-Jazeera and other web sites on the Internet. A tremendously complicating factor I face in my work with the Department of Defense is that the McNamera-era program planning and budgeting system, with its seven-year rhythm, is totally out of sync with the realities of Moore’s Law, whereby new capabilities are punched out every nine to 18 months. The Department of Defense’s entire financing, programming, and support of new technology has been usurped by the realities of the Information Age.

The Internet also acts as a free forum for distributed education on how to make explosives out of readily available materials, such as fertilizer or the chemicals used in a beauty shop. Who would have thought a hair salon would be a factory for explosives? But it can be. With designs available to the relatively untrained and unsophisticated, the commonplace has become fodder for attacks. The tremendous educational power of the Internet provides, if you will, the seminar by which those techniques are passed on. This lethal reality poses one of the ironic challenges of the Internet age. Systems of communication and free information that bring peoples together have a lethal component that can destroy the trust that makes our global town marketplace work for the good of all.

Third, Americans have a naïve sense of the linkages of economic issues to our national interest and seem to lack a basic awareness of the economic realities we face. I like to peruse the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reports on the state of the economy. In the back of those reports, in the footnotes, you’ll find the calculations that are not in accordance with the rules by which CBO has been told to write the front of the report. The disconnect between the two is striking—and serves to obscure the truly massive debt our country is accumulating.

Sooner or later, those deficit bills will come due, and sooner or later when we get into a nasty strategic situation with a weak economy, we won’t have the reserves to deal with the problem. The American people generally don’t understand that we are running up our national credit card to the point where we may not be able to pay off the interest. Strategically, that is a very dangerous situation. Nor do Americans understand the impact of instability in the energy markets and what chaos there would do to the world marketplace and to our national interests. By “world marketplace” I mean that today you and I can take a trip in the Himalayas if we choose. We can buy a Japanese or a Korean car. Information, on which the academic enterprise depends, flows freely, as do students, around the world. All that could fall apart, and energy may be the trigger that precipitates the problems.

The oil shock of the 1970s offers a preview. In response, NATO nations began to take action to guarantee their oil supplies. The centripetal forces on what was then a fairly strong strategic alliance were interesting and scary to watch. An international scramble for energy today could further erode our alliance system and quality of life.

Again, most Americans do not understand that the profligate growth of our national debt is linked to our strategic national interests. That debt will hinder the use of financial measures to buffer the effects of an energy crisis. Nor do Americans generally understand the need to apportion funds for aid programs in the Third World. Yet their ambivalence could turn to antipathy in an economic crisis occasioned by a falling economy.

Civic Virtue

Decades of the highest standard of living of any nation of our size in global importance have lulled the United States into a false sense of strategic reality. Just six years after the attacks on New York and Washington, in a sense our Pearl Harbor in this era of idiosyncratic warfare, the American people are already weary of the campaign. The insurgents’ idiosyncratic technique is to some extent working. Yet we cannot change two millennia of culture and apply a standard that our country would not have met in the early days of the republic: The American Revolutionary War ended in 1783, and we didn’t have a constitution until 1789.

Effectively dealing with the threats outlined above will demand character and courage on the part of both our leaders and our citizens, who need to become better educated about the critical role they must fill in our democracy and develop a strong sense of what Lee Hamilton and others have called “civic virtue.” Are American citizens aware of the players and competing forces on the world scene? Most of our students don’t understand that the Lockean sense of stake in society was developed out of the aftermath of the English Civil War when Locke was trying to figure out the basic essence and political value of a human being. The focus then was on males and property holders; fortunately over the years we’ve expanded that somewhat. The critical question is, “What is the irreducible essence of a person that must not be abrogated by capricious government?” Americans must understand that it is their responsibility to be informed and thoughtful, and to vote their stake in society wisely—not in accordance with the latest news fl ash on television. Clearly, Americans do not understand the relationship and balance between what Joseph Nye has called hard military power and soft cultural and diplomatic power. An imbalance in either direction biases our ability to pursue a rational strategy to enhance our national security.

At this challenging time in our history, we need a citizenry that can meet the decision dilemmas of the day. What role does higher education play in this process? After all, colleges and universities have the best opportunity to help our young people gain the skills of discourse, expression, analysis, and insight that will serve us all well. As custodians of academic excellence, colleges and universities also foster personal development. They can help young people coming into the ranks of citizenry to better understand the sense of civic obligation on which good national decisions depend so fundamentally. A political discourse that is overly ideological and uses the proximate threat of violence as its theme fails to bring out the best in us. If used too long, it can create anomie and frustration with the entire political process.

I believe that universities can send out into the world graduates who are capable of demanding a higher level of political discourse. At its core, higher education fosters intellectual curiosity and the drive and discipline for a purposeful and stimulating life of the mind. Yet, many institutions— which are dependent on taxpayer money and favored tax status—take little direct responsibility for instilling civic virtue.

Oftentimes, pressure stemming from politically motivated rhetoric is put on the military. It’s aggressive, negative, and not artfully developed, which means it isn’t artfully executed.

Oftentimes, pressure stemming from politically motivated rhetoric is put on the military. It’s aggressive, negative, and not artfully developed, which means it isn’t artfully executed. Indeed, many of the problems our military faces today are a result of failed political leadership. Colleges and universities could enhance their contributions to society by focusing on developing leadership among both the professionals in the academy and students. The prevailing sink-or-swim ethic for nontenured faculty, for example, could be transformed into a supportive and more productive environment through mentoring programs by faculty leaders trained to do so. Further, every department could offer a course focused on ethics and the history of leadership in that discipline. Students could cross disciplines to take at least one course in law, ethics, history of law, philosophy, leadership (as an art and science), the function of Congress, how budgets are done, and so on.

Higher education could make immediate, concrete contributions to our national security by requiring internships in the field. The Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization that I direct is desperately looking for new technologies to do very hard things, such as find 28-guage wire in a nasty, cluttered desert environment. We could surely use some brainpower helping us with that. We have the money to pay them, and would support students in pursuit of whatever their postdoctoral publication requirements are.

Finally, to foster leadership qualities and civic virtue, universities could sponsor seminars and forums that bring to the campus people from the political and business realms who have worked through severe challenges and persevered within the rule of law and custom. Interacting in small groups with such people would be a tremendous learning opportunity for students.

Conclusion

In a society so dependent on the contribution of its citizenry to national decision making, can we not ask our most influential institutions of personal development to spend time, energy, and money on the practice of transmitting the city better and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us? Is the development of a sense of civic virtue and civic obligation a personal matter to be left to the individual alone, or to the value systems of extracurricular activities? Is a sense of politics, history, law, and ethics—which apply across the disciplines—to be gained only indirectly and perhaps only by happenstance in a four- or five-year program at our institutions of higher learning? How do we know who we are as a people without a relatively widespread understanding of these disciplines?

As a nation, we face great strategic challenges not recognized and appreciated by our people and many of our leaders; nor have these challenges been framed and expressed in a useful way in our political discourse. Instead, that political discourse is characterized by a level of emotion and personal attack that is unbalanced and unwise. And while it is unquestionably higher education’s responsibility to engender intellectual curiosity, discipline, and excellence in expansive knowledge, the most important function many of our institutions of higher learning do not express in their missions is a need to engender in their charges a sense of civic virtue, an obligation for leaving the city better than we found it.


Gen. Montgomery Meigs retired from the Army in 2003 aft er more than 35 years of service. He has served on the faculty of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, and is currently a visiting professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies. Gen. Meigs can be reached at mcmeigs@gmail.com.