In the modern world, dangers against Americans abound.
U.S. decision-makers are confronted with myriad complex issues, including the Islamic State group and “lone-wolf” terrorists, China, cyber attacks from unknown hackers, al-Qaida, cyber attacks from known hackers, Iran, domestic budget cuts, North Korea, climate change, drug cartels straddling its borders, and Russia’s continued ability to reduce the North American continent to a radioactive crisp.
The job of commander-in-chief has perhaps never been more difficult, and public disagreement among the president’s top advisers gives the appearance to those outside the White House Situation Room that top U.S. national security infrastructure doesn’t know where to start.
[READ: Meet the New Joint Chiefs of Staff]
July saw top officials from across the government asked publicly what they believed served as the greatest threat facing the U.S. Their responses gave insight into the most closely guarded meetings within the executive branch where the commander-in-chief and his top lieutenants cannot settle for anything less than accurately anticipating the future. It’s a job the U.S. has never quite perfected, and it is perhaps more difficult now than ever.
“You’re hearing a cacophony of views, because it’s almost unpredictable,” says Barry Pavel, a former senior national security adviser to presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, and longtime Pentagon policy official. He cites, for example, the “fantastical scenario” a decade ago that the Russian military would act belligerently and march on a foreign country. What may have been considered a fringe forecast turns out to have been pretty accurate.
“It does reflect that there’s no single overriding existential threat to the U.S. as there was during the Cold War,” says Samuel “Sandy” Berger, the national security adviser to President Bill Clinton until 2001. And during that time, the U.S. and the Soviet Union each knew roughly how many missiles the other had. “It was an easy framework to think about.”
So how to prepare for a far more complex world? It became a favored question of Sen. Joe Manchin last month. The West Virginia Democrat exploited a time of almost unprecedented turnover among the Joint Chiefs of Staff to grill the nation’s new top officers about what they fear most.
“My assessment today, senator, is that Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security,” came a snappy answer from Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, in his nomination hearing. His characteristic clarity surprised some, who figured the infantry commander who earned his combat chops in Iraq and Afghanistan might prioritize Islamic extremism or the cauldron of violence that now serves as much of the Middle East.
“In Russia, we have a nuclear power,” the general responded to Manchin’s request for further details. “We have one that not only has capability to violate sovereignty of our allies to do things that are inconsistent with our national interests, but they’re in the process of doing so.”