from Strength Through Peace and Center for Preventive Action

The World in 2019: A Conversation with CFR's National Intelligence Fellow

A man looks out from an underground cave in Idlib, Syria, on September 3, 2018. Ashawi/Reuters

After more than thirty years of federal government service, CFR's Michael P. Dempsey shares his reflections on the state of U.S. national security, global conflicts, and the U.S. intelligence community.

January 2, 2019

A man looks out from an underground cave in Idlib, Syria, on September 3, 2018. Ashawi/Reuters
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The Center for Preventive Action sat down with Michael P. Dempsey, former acting director of national intelligence and non-resident fellow at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, to discuss his reflections on the state of global conflicts and the U.S. intelligence community. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.   

Given your recent retirement after nearly thirty-three years of federal government service, our readers would like to know your view of the current international security landscape.

Michael Dempsey: Well, I’d like to be optimistic as we enter 2019 given America’s great strengths and capabilities, but I believe there is considerable cause for concern. I am particularly worried that the lack of a consensus in Washington about America’s role in the world is unsettling allies and emboldening our enemies. Just consider the dramatic swings in U.S. foreign policy over the past several years, and ask yourself how America’s foreign policy must look from abroad.

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U.S. Foreign Policy

National Security

Intelligence

Syrian Civil War

Afghanistan War

For example, just a decade on from the George W. Bush administration’s enthusiastic effort to spread democracy and freedom around the world, the Donald J. Trump administration’s embrace of Russia’s Putin, North Korea’s Kim, and Turkey’s Erdogan, coupled with its thus far tepid response to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, undoubtedly has left foreign leaders wondering about America’s commitment to global democracy and human rights promotion.

Similar questions are likely being asked, given the recent public statements emanating from Washington, about the level of America’s support for the international organizations and alliance structure that it helped establish after World War II, and on specific issues such as America’s commitment to the Middle East (following the announced troop withdrawal from Syria) and global free trade (following the pullout from the Trans-Pacific Partnership).

While it is certainly true that in America’s history there has always been a healthy debate over the country’s role internationally, I worry that the policy shifts are now occurring with such rapidity and on such fundamental issues that America’s policy incoherence is confusing allies and enemies alike, and risks undermining our ability to lead if faced with a global crisis.

This is also particularly worrisome, in my view, because it is occurring at a time of considerable political and economic turmoil in Western Europe, when the global economy is slowing, and when China’s Xi and Russia’s Putin have consolidated their political positions and appear increasingly willing to assert their economic and military clout.   

What specific geopolitical issues are you most worried about in 2019?

MD: I will highlight two. First, in Syria, I think the chances are high that the conflict will take another ominous turn this year. Some of the most worrisome possibilities include a potential regime offensive in Idlib Province with all its humanitarian consequences, a Turkish offensive east of the Euphrates against the Kurds, and a larger-scale cross-border exchange of fire between Iran and Israel. Other threats include: the heightened risk to humanitarian workers in eastern Syria in the event of a U.S. military drawdown; the inability of the Bashar al-Assad regime to rebuild the country’s devastated infrastructure absent Western financial support, and the likelihood that extremists will capitalize on this to reconstitute their foothold; and the significant threat that a reconstituted self-proclaimed Islamic State in eastern Syria will eventually pose to both America’s and Iraq’s security. 

More on:

U.S. Foreign Policy

National Security

Intelligence

Syrian Civil War

Afghanistan War

A second global challenge to watch next year is in Ukraine, where there are already ominous signs that Moscow may be preparing to ratchet up its pressure on Kyiv. I would keep an especially close eye out for Russian political (and cyber) meddling in advance of Ukraine’s presidential election in March, and for increased Russian military support to its separatist allies in eastern Ukraine shortly thereafter.

Are there any issues you are particularly optimistic about? 

MD: Yes. While there is still considerable work to do, the ongoing peace talks in both Afghanistan and Yemen offer at least some hope that these two grinding conflicts might finally be on the path toward diplomatic progress and a reduction in violence.

What is your view of the state of the U.S. intelligence community? 

MD: Not surprisingly, that’s a question I’ve thought a lot about in recent months. On the one hand, I am completely confident in the quality of the current leadership, in the community’s magnificent workforce and its commitment to protect America, and in the outlook for the community’s budget situation going forward.  

On the other hand, I think the community is at a crossroads on two levels. First, there is the issue of the rapidly evolving nature of the threats America faces. The intelligence community is obviously focused like a laser on America’s traditional peer military competitors (China and Russia), and on other key threats (such as Iran and North Korea), but also has a requirement to remain focused on super-empowered non-state actors such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

At the same time, however, the intelligence community will also have to quickly come to grips with all of the national security implications flowing from unprecedented advances in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence; drone, hypersonic, and autonomous weapons development; quantum computing; and synthetic biology. 

Effectively countering these new challenges and providing the most insightful intelligence analysis to policymakers on them may require a significant shift in the skills of the intelligence officers we hire, and in the way they are trained. And since these technologies already pose a clear-and-present danger, the intelligence community will have to adapt in short order.   

Meanwhile, the intelligence community is also at a crossroads, in my view, in terms of its more prominent role in recent years in America’s political discourse. I don’t want to dwell on this, but suffice to say that any effort to politicize the intelligence community is an unhealthy development, and something that political leaders and intelligence officers alike should resist at all costs. As with the U.S. military, the maintenance of an apolitical and objective intelligence community is foundational to effective national security decision-making—today, tomorrow, and always.   

Any practical lessons learned that you want to leave us with? 

MD: Yes, a few. It is easy to disparage the “policy process” as the last bastion of government bureaucrats, but my experience is that a rigorous national security planning process helps reduce the likelihood of making poorly considered and executed decisions, and lessens the chance that we will assume unintended risks in our foreign engagements. So, while there is always a place for policymakers’ gut instinct, it is a structured decision-making approach and expertise that are the coins of the realm in national security matters.  

Along these lines, it is critical, in my view, for senior policymakers to weigh carefully the second- and third-order effects of their decisions, a lesson we have hopefully learned from our recent military engagements in Iraq and Libya. Any future military confrontation with Iran, for example, would almost certainly produce a series of unintended consequences and have ripple effects well beyond the Middle East.  

And finally, the best leaders I have worked with in the national security space have been surprisingly humble in the face of deeply complex challenges, as well as in their personal interaction with their staffs. They have taken to heart the importance of institutional development over self-interest, and embraced the wisdom of William Butler Yeats that: “Talent perceives differences. Genius perceives unity.” 
 

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