Forging a National Security Agenda: An Open Letter to the Next President

January 12, 2016

On January 20, 2017, you may be the one chosen by the American people to place your left hand on the Bible, raise your right hand, and “solemnly swear to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” The Constitution sets out, clearly and unambiguously, the priorities on which you must focus: “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” — in that order.

Today, you are one of over a dozen people competing to become the 45th president of the United States. But, it is never too early to demonstrate a clear grasp of what leadership at this level requires. Likewise, it is high time for the public and the media to demand clarity of vision and a holistic perspective from the entire slate of candidates.

Between now and Inauguration Day, you’ll be on the receiving end of thousands of policy proposals, issue papers, and all manner of expert advice. Each will attempt to tell you what to think and what to do, reflecting a variety of parochial and often conflicting agendas. This open letter, in contrast, offers a framework for how to think and how to act. It reflects the conviction that now is the time to focus on character, values, and strategic coherence. It urges you to develop a clear intellectual roadmap and explain to the electorate how you would approach the solemn responsibility of providing for America’s security and prosperity.

The next president will take office at a unique inflection point: an intersection of history and destiny, with lives in the balance. Learn now to own your decisions without searching for excuses or scapegoats. Never falter. The price of the mistakes you will inevitably make will be measured in blood, treasure, and America’s credibility. There are no do-overs. The clock cannot be rewound, and the conditions you will inherit at home and abroad will be your inescapable starting point. Blaming your predecessor’s policy choices will not change this reality, nor will it produce much of value. Look ahead and realize that how you act once you assume office will define the future in terms of both options and outcomes. Be awed, but not intimidated, by this responsibility. Your legacy starts today.

The Constitution vests the president of the United States with the dual role of chief executive and commander in chief. Invest time in understanding the institutions that will serve you or they will hinder your progress through bureaucratic inertia. Most importantly, learn all you can about the military — its capabilities, its role in the national security architecture, and its values and ethos. Earn the trust of our service-members, not merely their obedience. Perhaps more so than the other organizations comprising the mechanisms through which you will govern, the military needs your respect and a finely honed grasp of what it can and cannot achieve.

Unleashing the dogs of war is truly an act of kings. Remember that it is Congress who declares war and commits the nation to a fight. Seek their advice and support, or they will stymie you at every step. Do not commit force unless you are fully committed to win. You owe it to those who would sacrifice life and limb — and their families — to ensure the cause is just, the mission achievable, and the resources sufficient to the task at hand. Make sure the American people fully understand the nature of the fight and the value of the objective in both magnitude and duration. Without candor on all fronts, political support will evaporate when you need it the most.

It is impossible to win unless you lay out clearly what is at stake. Sun Tzu’s admonition to “know the enemy and know yourself” is as resonant today as it was when it was first written millennia ago. Never trivialize or equivocate when it comes to declarations of hostile intent. Mein Kampf and the Communist Manifesto were both initially dismissed as delusional ravings. The ensuing cost was millions of lives, two continents in ruins, and repercussions still felt around the world.

Strategic endeavors are notoriously difficult to end advantageously. Always consider your desired end state before taking the first step. Likewise, realize that indecision and inconsistency are debilitating and dangerous. There are no “time outs.” Your vacillation will not freeze world events. In a competitive environment, any vacuum will be filled — often by malign actors — leaving every subsequent action fraught with even greater risk. Never assume others are naïve, misguided, or willing to subordinate their interests for yours.

Beware of hubris. Humility is indeed a virtue, particularly in a volatile, inherently unpredictable environment. The “global balance of power” is a literal construct — it is truly about equilibrium. The only questions are who will lead and how the balance will be restored. Global peace and prosperity are inextricably intertwined. Both are anchored in America’s strength and resolve.

As a global power with global commitments, standing by our allies is the gold standard of trust and credibility — a standard by which you will be judged. While you should think long and hard before taking on new responsibilities, existing obligations must be honored. Therefore, the military you command must be able to deter aggression, defend allies, and defeat opponents across the full range of operations, in all domains — and it must be perceived in this manner. Deterrence is in the eye of the beholder, and it is measured in the breach. Trust cannot be surged on demand — it takes a long time to build, but can be shattered in a moment of inattention.

National security strategy requires a constant adaptation of ends, ways, and means to shifting conditions, in an environment where chance, uncertainty, fog, and friction dominate. To add to the complexity, strategy is both multi-sided and multi-dimensional: The objectives, intentions, actions, and reactions of allies and opponents are often opaque and variable. Policy goals (ends) play a critical role, as do diplomatic, financial, technological, and military resources (means). Other factors — history, culture, ideology, ethos, personalities — influence behavior in subtle, but important ways.

Three elements underpin strategic leadership: grasp of strategic practice; a knack for innovation; and the ability to align domestic and international concerns. Strategic practice is the essence of the president’s job. Strategy guides action. Its focus is on how to use available means to achieve the desired ends with acceptable risk — avoiding single-issue fixation while balancing current requirements with future imperatives.

Innovation is the ability to think anew and develop creative approaches to changing circumstances. Innovation stems from foresight — the aptitude to read current and emerging trends while anticipating their future direction. It requires courage and perseverance, as well as the readiness to “break some glass,” especially in entrenched and stultified bureaucracies.

Do not shy away from discarding assumptions that — while comfortable or comforting — fail to account for new strategic realities. Think holistically: capture both the whole and its component parts; grasp multi-dimensional, dynamic relationships as they are today and as they might evolve tomorrow; strive to relate seemingly disparate activities to one another; anticipate second- and third-order effects of both actions and inactions. The alternatives to strategic thinking are incoherence, confusion, and the disappointments that are sure to follow false expectations.

The president of the United States stands at the crucial intersection of forging grand, national, and international interests into executable objectives that yield desired outcomes once translated into feasible, acceptable, and suitable courses of action. It is not too early to work toward an understanding that lofty aspirations and good intentions must be anchored in fiscal and operational realities, or else be seen as empty gestures that create a dangerous gap between words and deeds.

Surround yourself with men and women of character. Seek a diversity of viewpoints, and think of diversity as encompassing far more than gender or ethnicity. Cherish those who speak truth to power, unbound by political correctness. These virtues are both rare and fragile. You are doomed to fail if you do not deliberately foster and protect the people who possess such attributes. Recognize the difference between facts and opinions. Ask your advisors how they know what they view as facts. Encourage people to identify pitfalls along the path and offer alternative solutions. But once you make a choice, the decision is yours to own, and the buck truly stops with you.

The challenges are daunting and threats abound at home and abroad. Forces of evil have been allowed to flourish. America’s credibility and stature are in dire need of renewal. Lead with commitment and consistency: Do not “pivot” and do not obfuscate. People of good will everywhere will follow if you chart a clear path and compellingly articulate the vital interests at stake.

The world is changing rapidly, and more dramatic upheavals are surely on the way. We have slayed the Communist dragon. In its stead, we face vipers’ nests of unpredictable, asymmetric perils. As the murderous attacks in Paris and San Bernardino clearly demonstrate, the global war against violent Islamists is far from over. Who will prevail and what kind of world will emerge in the aftermath remain open questions. The next president must make a serious effort to win this war in a manner that establishes a better peace and secures U.S. strategic interests. You should start today by understanding the nature of the threat and follow through with a compelling, fact-based narrative explaining the kind of war we are in, what “winning” actually looks like, and what is necessary for victory.

Concurrently, the likelihood of conventional interstate war with a peer competitor has grown. Global stability and security are threatened by a resurgent Russia, a rising China, a dangerous Iran, and an erratic North Korea. All either already possess or are close to acquiring nuclear, space, and cyberwarfare capabilities. Further proliferation of weapons of mass destruction represents a clear and present danger. The U.S. military can no longer rely on its technological edge or the advantages of its extant unchallenged global reach and global power. Every domain — land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace — is a contested environment. Emerging technologies make it easier for adversaries to deny access and target America’s core strengths, including the homeland itself. As a result, future conflicts will be more costly, violent, and difficult to control. The potential for strategic surprise is high, and our military’s residual capacity is at a historic low.

Beware of complacency and strategic myopia. History is replete with examples of disasters born of lack of foresight. Consider this: In the wake of its spectacular victory in 1967, Israel rested on its laurels, secure in the soon-to-be-proven fallacy that past success suffices to deter future attacks. Six years later, it was fighting for its survival, the victim of a devastating surprise orchestrated by a seemingly defeated — and grossly underestimated — foe.

The lessons of history are clear: Aggressors tend to assume risks that seem irrational and thus improbable to the intended victim. This leads to strategic surprise followed by a belated, often chaotic response, and the potential of a catastrophic failure. Do not trivialize adversaries’ stated intent merely because their aspirations appear far-fetched or their capabilities seem inferior. With the increasingly rapid diffusion of military technology, these facts can change overnight.

America is precariously close to the abyss. The national debt is staggering, approaching $19 trillion and growing by the minute. Mind the gap between ends and means! If you permit reality to outpace strategy and budgets, you will always be reactive and often unable to bring your power to bear in time to achieve your desired objectives. Worse, strategic incoherence undermines America’s credibility, stifles innovation, and diverts attention from true exigencies.

You will be taking the helm during a perfect storm fueled by the most toxic political atmosphere and racial tensions in recent memory — amid an extraordinary meltdown in respect for authority, law, and order. The social compact that makes the United States whole — as well as the rules-based global order — are both fraying at the seams. You must commit now to restore the moral compass that has guided America since its inception.

I leave you with Abraham Lincoln’s words: “It is for us the living … to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us … that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”


Dr. Lani Kass is the Corporate Strategic Advisor at CACI. She served as the Senior Policy Advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, directed the Air Force’s Cyber Task Force, served as Special Assistant to CSAF, and was the first woman Professor of Military Strategy at the National War College. During her 20 years at NWC, Dr. Kass educated several generations of the nation’s senior-most strategic leaders. She served the U.S. government with great distinction for 28 years and retired from Federal Service in September 2011.This article expresses the author’s personal views and does not reflect the positions of any organization, public or private.


Photo credit: Ted