After insurrection: The national security implications

After insurrection: The national security implications
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On Jan. 6, 2021, America experienced a day of reckoning. Today, the media and political pundits are focusing on the recent past that brought us to this moment. Tomorrow, historians will draw a broader arc of political, social, and economic trends that culminated in what many Americans are now describing as an “insurrection” incited by the president of the United States. As retired and former national security leaders, we believe our nation must also focus on the insurrection’s national security implications — how they must be addressed in the short and long term, and how we can avoid similar crises in the future. 

John BoltonJohn BoltonWhen will Biden declare America's 'One China, One Taiwan' policy? India's S-400 missile system problem Overnight Defense & National Security — GOP unhappy with Afghan vetting MORE described working in the Trump White House as making foreign policy “in a pinball machine.” The chaos he and other foreign affairs and defense officials have described is exactly what our foreign service and military professionals are trained to avoid.

We understood during our service that in the midst of chaos comes opportunity — for our enemies.


Speaker Pelosi understood that when she revealed her conversation with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in which she expressed her concern that in the remaining two weeks of this president’s term, chaos must be contained. The guardrails of our democracy, though battered, must be reinforced even if it means that unlawful or unwise military orders from this president must be disobeyed or challenged.

Last Wednesday’s domestic attack has left America more vulnerable to foreign attack.

Not only did it confirm the divide among Americans that our enemies have already exploited, it displayed for the world our president’s bankrupt moral authority. He is acting and speaking in ways that shake confidence and trust across our government and nation. We should not think that all we have to do is hold our breaths until inauguration day and normalcy will return. We need to protect our nation now.

The personnel reliability programs that ensured the stability of national security personnel during our service would have compelled the immediate removal of anyone who displayed the kind of behavior our president did. Because the nuclear trigger is literally in the president’s hand, it’s even more important that he should be treated the same way.

How we got here will be the subject of debate for many years to come.  What must concern us today is how we can restore our national security right now and for tomorrow.

First, everyone involved in the anarchy must be held accountable. Congress succeeded in defending democracy by continuing its confirmation of the election results following the violent assault on that process. We must now defend the rule of law by enforcing it against the insurrectionists and their inciters — including the president.

Second, we must close ranks so our enemies can’t exploit the gaps that currently exist. At a minimum, this means the federal government — the patriotic men and women of the civil service, foreign service, and the military — must serve as our next president’s scaffolding to rebuild the bulwarks of democracy this president attacked. Our federal government isn’t perfect, but it’s also not a “deep state.” Repairing it and restoring America’s respect for and confidence in it must be high on the next president’s agenda.

Third, we must restore America’s international reputation and partnerships. Over the past four years, our adversaries have not only exploited the divisions among Americans, they also leveraged the distance this president put between us and our foreign allies and partners. Those ranks must also be closed up.

This insurrection endangered our democracy, threatened our position in the world, and damaged our credibility as a nation. It will require considerable time and effort to restore America’s role as a beacon of democracy — if, in fact, that is even possible.

America’s national security “to do” list is long: It will likely take more than four years to repair the damage this president has done.


What the assault on democracy also told us is that even if all these repairs are made, they can easily be undone by a corrupt president. Our final observation is our most important one: character matters.

To avoid future events like the one we witnessed last week, we must avoid electing men and women whose politics are rooted in exploiting Americans’ grievances and differences for their own personal gain. Last week, we watched unprincipled politicians base their objections to Electoral College results on lies about state voting processes. We also witnessed displays of courage and character from politicians who defended those results despite their personal disappointment. Going forward, we must tune our collective social and political radars to embrace the latter and reject the former.

Now that we’ve seen in a president and his cronies what lack of character and moral courage can do to a nation, our most important national security priority must be to avoid ever again putting people like them at our nation’s helm.

The authors, retired foreign service and military officers, are Fellows of the American College of National Security Leaders.

Steven J. Lepper is a retired Air Force major general. He served from 2010 to 2014 as Deputy Judge Advocate General of the Air Force. He was also Deputy Legal Counsel to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the senior “crisis communicator” for the Department of the Air Force.

Stephen N. Xenakis, a psychiatrist and retired Army brigadier general, serves on the executive board of The Center for Ethics & the Rule of Law at the University of Pennsylvania and is the director of the COVID Resilience Program for Silver Hill Hospital. Follow him on Twitter @SteveXen.

Ambassador Charles Ray served as ambassador to Cambodia and Zimbabwe, as deputy chief of mission in Sierra Leone and was the first U.S. consul general in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, during his 30-year career in the U.S. Foreign Service. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he spent 20 years in the U.S. Army, retiring with the rank of Major. His army career included two tours in Vietnam and serving in Military Intelligence, Special Operations and Public Affairs. From 2006 to 2009 Ray served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for POW/Missing Personnel Affairs and director of the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office. Each summer he conducts a workshop on professional writing for Rangel Scholars at Howard University.