The Perils of Hyping Pandemic Response as a National Security Issue

There has got to be another way of saying an issue is critical other than saying it is a matter of utmost national security.

For some time, a number of commentators have warned that U.S. national security policy is off-kilter. Their argument: It places too much emphasis on fighting wars with ill-defined and possibly unattainable objectives, and pays too little attention to threats like climate change and infectious diseases. Appropriately enough, the COVID-19 pandemic has created an updraft for these arguments, including in powerful pieces recently penned by Oona Hathaway, Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes, Katrina vanden Heuvel, and others.

Read together, these works highlight the mismatch between the U.S. government’s spending on counterterrorism (an eye-popping average of $185 billion per year in the decade and a half following 9/11) and its relatively paltry expenditure on pandemic and emerging infectious disease programs ($2 billion per year on average in the past decade). Their line of analysis is also wise to observe that the coronavirus pandemic has proven vastly more lethal than the September 11 attacks–having killed 20 times as many people at this writing.

Against this backdrop, Oona Hathaway suggests that it’s time to “rethink what national security should mean” and that we should “broaden the lens of national security to think about all serious global threats to human life.”

Well, yes but also no. Pouring more resources into confronting threats shared by humanity as a whole—like infectious disease—is a welcome idea. But doing so chiefly by emphasizing the national security dimension of these challenges is a perilous strategy. In its effort to substitute new global challenges for the terrorism threat, it risks replicating the trend toward executive branch overreach born of 9/11, without shrinking the disproportionate role played by counterterrorism in our national security apparatus since that time.

The Worrying Implications of Redefining National Security

Why these worries?

Start with the fact that responding to mass outbreaks of infectious disease is already treated as a national security issue, and has been for decades. The Clinton administration published a National Intelligence Estimate on the “Global Disease Threat and its Implications for the United States” in 2000; successive administrations, including the present one, have addressed pandemic response in their national security strategies; and the National Security Council has created staff positions to manage the threat of infectious disease, which have been organized and reorganized in a variety of ways.

This raises the question: What, concretely, would redefining the national security system to place a yet higher priority on global threats mean? Proponents suggest it would trigger an increase in staff and resources focused on preparing both the nation and the world to address these risks, and perhaps also a push to address the domestic inequities that are prompting such uneven ability to cope with the pandemic.

But staffing and resource questions do not necessarily require a wholesale redefinition of national security, and – especially now that the entire country has experienced the extreme damage of a pandemic – it’s hard to see how rebranding vital issues like healthcare and other sources of structural inequality as matters of national security rather than social and economic justice will gain them higher-quality attention. Nor is it helpful to suggest that this kind of rebranding is required in order for something to be treated as a first-tier policy issue. If the pandemic has taught us anything it should be that investments in social and economic justice are as important as national security—not that in order to be important they have to fit under the latter label.

At the same time, the “redefine national security” narrative raises the question of what else policymakers will bring along in the name of redefinition, and whether they might be tempted to follow a familiar drive: expanding and exploiting the deep reservoirs of extraordinary authority provided the executive branch to deal with national security threats and emergencies.

These powers are already prodigious. They include statutes like the Defense Production Act, which permits the government to compel private businesses to prioritize its contracts, and the National Emergencies Act, which permits the executive branch to declare a national emergency and avail itself of a staggering array of special powers. Those are only the tip of the iceberg. National security is hard-wired into the American legal system as a basis for avoiding the checks and balances that normally rein in the executive branch. By invoking national security, an administration can open up a world of flexibility for itself–bypassing human rights restrictions on foreign assistance, suspending immigration, imposing (or lifting congressionally imposed) sanctions, and classifying information to shield it from public disclosure. Sometimes the president really needs this flexibility. Yet it is highly prone to overuse and one should think twice before giving him or her even more. Talk of the need for a war-time president to tackle the pandemic only adds to the concern.

Indeed, Congress has given away so much of its power in the name of enabling the executive branch to respond to national security threats, that a long overdue backlash has started to gain steam. Some members of Congress, correctly, have been focused on reasserting the legislative branch’s Article 1 prerogatives when it comes to war-making, national emergencies and similar issues. It would be a shame if the pandemic were to start a new drumbeat for strengthening the national security apparatus and thereby undermine this momentum to reestablish balance.

The Entrenchment of Counterterrorism

But what of the idea that elevating a new set of national security priorities will help us offset an over-cranked emphasis on counterterrorism?

It might, but experience provides reason to doubt. During our time in government, we saw little evidence of counterterrorism giving way simply because other items emerged as new priorities. The struggles of the Obama administration are a case in point. Despite a sincere desire on the part of many senior officials (the president not least among them), it proved exceedingly difficult to step back from both policies and operations that the administration inherited from the Bush administration, as well as from policies and practices that the Obama team itself set in motion. Guantanamo was one such legacy policy. With members of Congress using counterterrorism as a wedge issue, the administration was unable to close Guantanamo, leaving the flawed military commissions system intact. A downstream effect of that situation involved Obama administration lawyers vigorously defending the government’s prerogatives with respect to both the detentions and commissions in federal court, sometimes creating expansive precedents. When it sought through internal presidential guidance to constrain the lethal use of force against terrorists in locations away from “hot battlefields,” the constraints did not fully hold, and the footprint of U.S. operations across the Middle East and North Africa quietly expanded.

Nor could the Obama administration’s counterterrorism legacy be chalked up to a dearth of competing priorities. It had those in abundance–from countering climate change, to nuclear non-proliferation, to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to the Iran nuclear deal, and health care reform. While it was inevitably a struggle to pursue them all with equal energy, counter-terrorism was never the one that seemed to get short-shrift.

One can speculate as to why it was so difficult to place meaningful constraints on counterterrorism programs. The counterterrorism offices argued effectively on their own behalf. Congressional oversight offices protected their fiefdoms. Armed groups continued to propagate in ungoverned space around the world. The public remained apprehensive – a sentiment oftentimes fed by a media playing on such fears. And the president’s opponents constantly tried to paint him as weak and disinterested in protecting U.S. security, making it highly politically costly to take whatever risks more calibrated, measured action might have entailed.

Future Policy Choices

Of course times change and, as Dan Mahanty has noted, the constraints within which President Barack Obama operated will not all apply in the same way to future presidents. But some almost certainly will. Any president who tries to shrink the scope of U.S. counterterrorism operations will confront massive bureaucratic resistance, congressional daggers, and the near certainty that he or she will face legitimacy-threatening charges of negligence should there be an attack on the homeland.

This does not counsel against working to rein in U.S. counterterrorism policy. Far from it. The expectation that the United States will remain in an increasingly permanent state of war to manage uncertain risks posed by armed groups across a potentially boundless number of countries needs to be seriously challenged. Whatever the real or imagined benefits to U.S. security, these ought to be weighed against the dangerous dynamics such policies could be feeding on the ground, the human and financial costs of this endless war, and the damage to our own politics of running unending and often secret and unaccountable killing campaigns overseas.

But the way to take on this policy fight is not to hope that some other priority will displace the counterterrorism fixation. The way to address this problem is to develop arguments along exactly those lines, armed with deep regional and technical knowledge, and the ability to separate what is real from what is hype in discussing risks that overseas armed groups present to the American people. There’s little to suggest that raising the profile of an ostensibly competing national security issue—whether a pandemic or climate change or technological innovation or something else—is likely to knock counterterrorism off its pedestal. The same holds for other entrenched parts of the defense establishment.

The bottom line is that there must be a better way to say that we have our national priorities wrong—that the United States should pull back from overreaching and counterproductive foreign wars, and put more resources into making our nation and planet more habitable over the long term—than to argue for finding more space for pandemic response in the national security state. Overusing our national security muscles in order to deal with an emerging, multifaceted challenge has proven a costly habit, particularly in the post-9/11 era. It’s time to start unlearning it. 

About the Author(s)

Robert Malley

Robert Malley is President and CEO of the International Crisis Group. He served as White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf Regions and Senior Advisor to the President for the Counter-ISIL campaign in the Obama administration. You can follow him on Twitter (@Rob_Malley).

Stephen Pomper

Stephen Pomper is U.S. Program Director for International Crisis Group, Served in the Obama Administration as the National Security Council's Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights. Currently Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Reiss Center on Law and Security at NYU School of Law. You can follow him on Twitter (@StephenPomper).