There’s an African Proverb that reads, “If there is no enemy within, the enemy outside can do us no harm.” If we apply the above to the United States, you could interpret it to mean a dysfunctional government lead by an incompetent president, a competent president thwarted by a dysfunctional Congress/secret cabal of deep state operatives, or, as is my opinion, a dysfunctional government duly elected by an even more dysfunctional electorate.
The above proverb best sums up what I took away from my conversation with Dr. Lindsay Cohn, Associate Professor at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island (recording below). Dr. Cohn’s field of study is on civil-military relations and the personnel side of the military and, while she graciously indulged my desire for gross speculation in questions entirely unrelated to her field, the message I got about the challenges our military will face in the 21st century is that they will come as much from our polarized political dialogue as they do from any foreign adversary.
One of the bedrock principles of the United States is the concept of a civilian lead military – the idea that military power is a tool to execute the will of the people, and not to suppress it. In line with this ideal, a recent meeting of the US military’s senior enlisted leaders found the organization to be successfully weathering the storm of today’s hyper-partisan environment.
Despite this, and the fact the military, overall, is in good health, the polarization of American politics and the dysfunction it’s created in US government presents a long-term threat to our military effectiveness if left unchecked. A clear example can be found in the high number of unfilled civilian positions at the Department of Defense, which not only serve to help execute the initiatives of the president and civilian policy makers, but also provide a way for military leadership to avoid having to navigate the more politicized aspects of decision making.
What’s more, the frequency at which DoD officials and, at times, uniformed officers have their motives questioned when providing dissenting opinions is an unhealthy trend. Most recently, after testifying before Congress regarding questions on President Trump’s conversations with President Zelensky of Ukraine, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman – a 20 year veteran of the armed forces – found his patriotism openly questioned by right wing media pundits.
This is part of a larger trend where career military and intelligence officials who question the current administration are discounted as “Obama holdovers” with partisan grudges or accused of treason outright. While there’s no data on the subject, I think it’s fair to ask how we can expect more civilians to step into needed positions in the nation’s security apparatus when they could find themselves on the wrong end of a partisan knife fight while simply doing their job?
It would be easy to blame the President or Congress for the contentious climate we have today, but the reality is, it comes down to us as voters to decide what the tone is in Washington. A quick glance of any Facebook feed will show videos of AOC “owning” bank executives and cabinet officials in congressional hearings (something I didn’t realize Congress was established to do) or memes maligning a 16-year-old Swedish girl who doesn’t happen to share someone’s view on climate change.
The dialogue in Washington is merely a greater extension of the dialogue we’re having with our fellow citizens – one that’s fearful, angry, and devoid of values. This environment not only weakens government by way of de-incentivizing people who might serve in it, but also makes it easier for foreign adversaries such as Russia to further stoke dysfunction via information warfare, as we saw in 2016.
To be truly patriotic is to understand your liberty also comes with the responsibility to remain an informed citizen. If we continue to take our cues from a political system that’s devolved into a Bravo style made for TV drama, the enemy outside is the least of our worries.