Being fragile
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Thanks to The Hill for welcoming me into the family and giving me a chance to contribute regularly to their informed commentary. The folks here have asked me to write about the cyber threat, terrorism and a host of other national security topics. And I will. Soon.

But first, a thought about style or, more accurately, tone. If you have read me in the Washington Times (thanks also to the Times for my previous platform there) or have seen me on a talk show … AND I was doing what I thought I was trying to do … you should have seen me trying to bend the conversation to the middle. To be less rather than more judgmental. To suggest the complexities of our tasks. To point out that I knew that when I was in the Situation Room, the choices generally ranged from bad to very bad.

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On air and in print, I try to point out that our difficult conversations about foreign affairs or security or liberty or espionage or privacy aren't (or shouldn't be!) struggles between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. They are the serious discussions of a free people who want to balance things -- all of which they would like to have in full measure --but things that inevitably compel trade-offs, half-measures and compromises.

Today's rhetoric rarely reflects that. We are trending to sweeping political or policy or even moral judgments. The world's a rough and sad place because -- in the language and apparently the thoughts of some -- a lot of people in our government are weak, stupid and corrupt. You hear it: “Everything is a disaster. We're so stupid. I and I alone can fix things. I know more about this than the generals.”

Lest anyone fear that this is just Trump-bashing, let me sympathize a little with the candidate on his comments linking PTSD with a shortage of "strength." Clinically, of course, stigmatizing post-traumatic stress that way is horrible, but the candidate was trying to be supportive. It's just that the vocabulary and turf are so unfamiliar to him that it came out in that unfortunate way.

And let me remind readers of this: While the complexities of the Iraq war are often neatly (and wrongly) summarized as, "Bush lied; people died," President Bush said what he said because the intelligence community thought (also wrongly) that Saddam did have weapons of mass destruction.

We can all agree that Benghazi was a national tragedy, and I'm still perplexed that security didn't reflect the actual threat environment and I'm still angered that our government for too long obscured the real nature of events there.

But anyone who has actually lived through a “13 Hours” -- actually been in a fast-moving crisis with few options and little information -- will admit that no one in that moment has to be criminal or criminally negligent for things to go dark.

I'm convinced that the American withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 was the proximate cause of the speed with which al Qaeda in Iraq and later ISIS reconstituted.

And even as the Administration celebrated and congratulated itself on its decision, experts inside and outside government held their breath against this almost inevitable consequence. But that still doesn't make Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHow a biased filibuster hurts Democrats more than Republicans Stephen Sondheim, legendary Broadway songwriter, dies at 91 With extreme gerrymanders locking in, Biden needs to make democracy preservation job one MORE and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRepublicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Poll: Democracy is under attack, and more violence may be the future Popping the progressive bubble MORE the founders of ISIS.

Now, as our Presidential election comes around the last turn, the rhetoric is getting even more strident. There have been promises to investigate and jail political opponents once the Presidency is secured and threats to oppose (whatever that means) an election that one side decides is rigged (again, whatever that means).

Strange words for the Republic of Hamilton, Jay and Madison...but sadly of a type for a lot of recent political discourse.

I suspect The Hill asked me write about security and international affairs because my career has allowed me to do and see things not readily available to all of us. One of the things that I have seen is the genuine fragility of civil society, something that we (mistakenly) assume is a given.

No one who walked through the streets of mid-1990s Sarajevo would ever make that assumption. Moving down Tito Boulevard, you could see the tubes of Serb artillery in the hills lurking over the city. The old Olympic village (the city hosted the Winter Games less than a decade earlier) near the airport was part of the ethnic line of confrontation, and the grounds of the Olympic stadium and speed-skating rink were by then the largest cemetery in the Balkans.

What struck me then was not how different Sarajevans were from us, but how much they were not. This was a cultured, educated people living in a beautiful, tolerant and historic city who had allowed their hidden historical passions to get away from them.

No sane person would suggest such a dystopian future for America, but Sarajevo does teach us how thin the veneer of civility really is and how much it has to be guarded.

So we will have our discussions and we will have our criticisms, but I hope to always keep in mind a wonderful line from John Sayles' great film, “Lone Star”. There, Otis Payne, the owner of a roadhouse, philosophizes about the locals, "It's not like there's a line between the good people and the bad people. It is not like you're one or the other."

Good advice as we start our dialogue.

Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency.


 

The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill