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National Security Insanity

President Trump speaking on national security last month in Washington, D.C. (Evan Vucci / AP)

Tedious. Tiresome. Those are the only words for such bureaucratic drivel. Look, normally I’d never recommend reading any president’s National Security Strategy (NSS). The documents tend to contain, by their nature, rather uninspiring prose. The public, unclassified versions are as much PR reports as actual military strategy and rarely contain anything too explosive. Until this one. Until Donald Trump.

Of course, it’s not what’s in the document that’s so troubling, but what isn’t. With the stroke of a red pen, or (more likely) the casual use of the delete key, the Trump administration quietly “disappeared” the existence of climate change from the United States’ pivotal national security document. So, where’s the outrage? Probably buried beneath the media’s furious parsing of the distinctions between the terms “shithouse” and “shithole” in yet another riveting Trumpian turn of phrase.

Under President Barack Obama, U.S. military and civilian policymakers added climate change to the 2016 NSS. While most Republican lawmakers argued against its inclusion on the grounds that “the national security focus should be squarely on combating terrorism rather than the climate,” the White House found surprising allies in the intelligence and defense communities. The National Intelligence Council rejected Republican obstructionism and released a report arguing that climate change “will impact military installations, hurt emergency response efforts and increase refugee crises and conflict over land around the world as water supplies decrease.” As for all those “hippies” at the Pentagon, well, they believe in climate change too. They also defined it as a “national security threat.”

Turns out America’s prevailing politics of ignorance have “trumped” all the best available scientific evidence and military advice. Should we really be surprised? After all, this president is “tremendously” smart and knows much more than all the generals. Just ask him. You’d almost have to laugh at the tragicomic deletions in the NSS, if only this wasn’t all so deadly serious. Self-assured ignorance used to stop being cool in the 10th grade. Now it’s the prevailing tone at the very pinnacle of the U.S. national security structure.

National security climate denial has both strategic and ethical drawbacks.

Let’s start with the practical. For starters, ignoring climate change means willfully forgetting that global warming significantly contributed to the drought and rising food prices that helped fuel the instability of the Arab Spring. And as U.S. military forces tool around West Africa—purportedly to stave off local Islamist militias—the NSS ignores the role of desertification in contributing to African misery and the empowerment of extremist groups. If the last few years have proved anything, it is that refugee flows—which often stem directly from changes in climate—stress fragile societal systems and inspire “terror” groups.

Even a George W. Bush-era Pentagon report in 2003 recognized that climate change could spark “a desperate need for natural resources” that would trigger conflicts. The Trump NSS, on the other hand, refers to climate policies only once—as provoking “an anti-growth energy agenda” harmful to U.S. economic interests. You almost have to stand in awe of the audacity. According to the National Security Strategy of the United States—the most powerful and ostensibly influential country in the world—the only threat of climate change is that such a “hoax” might harm U.S. energy interests. Heck, it sounds like a mid-level bureaucrat at Exxon could’ve written that, circa 1975. The section heading reads: “Embrace Energy Dominance.” That’s the actual title.

What’s truly infuriating is that the supposed “adults in the room,” men like national security adviser H.R. McMaster (who reportedly oversaw the strategy’s preparation) and Secretary of Defense James Mattis know better. Love ’em or hate ’em, these are no fools. My guess is, intellectually they both know climate change is real and is a national security threat. Mattis is even on the record saying as much. Nonetheless, it seems these two were either steamrolled by their boss or simply sold out. It’s hard to say which is worse.

Make no mistake. This climate change deletion, just like a similar maneuver at the EPA, constitutes a veritable war on the American intellect. The sequencing is straight out of the authoritarian playbook: control language, control the debate, control truth.

As for the morality of it all, national security climate denial is like any other delusion. Eventually, the music stops, and you’ve got to face the consequences. Only, fear not. The first wave of victims is unlikely to be wealthy Americans. No, the global poor—some of whom we’ve spent the last couple decades introducing to U.S.-imposed “democracy”—will foot the bill. They always do. When the oceans rise, deserts spread and storms surge, don’t expect the same U.S. military commitment we dedicated to fighting “terror.” For the USA, “terror” is rather narrowly defined. Muslim suicide bombers count. Starvation or drowning do not.

So much for America as the “shining city on a hill,” and “global beacon of freedom.” The truth is that U.S. deployments were never really about the people of Africa or South and Southwest Asia. Despite the rhetoric, the well-being of Arabs, Pashtuns and Muslims was never atop the agenda. If it was, then climate change and its contributions to famine, disease and refugee flows would have a prominent place—perhaps atop—the U.S. National Security Strategy.

Instead, the Trump administration pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords, ceding world leadership to the Chinese and (once Syria signed on) making the U.S. a unitary global pariah. Which makes sense in a way. American hyper-interventionism revolves around ensuring hegemony, opening trade routes and distracting the American people with a distant, opaque enemy: “terror.” A brilliant choice since such an abstraction will never truly disappear.

Feed the American people war and reality TV in equal doses, and they might not notice the further erosion of their civil liberties or the crumbling planet around them. It’s not about human rights or improving the worldwide quality of life.

And when the climate doesn’t cooperate with American delusions, have no fear: The first floating bodies likely will be Bengali—brown, Muslim “refuse”—the “unpeople” of our increasingly Orwellian world.

Our apathy enables it.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Maj. Danny Sjursen
Maj. Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan...
Maj. Danny Sjursen

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