For too long, Americans have been intimidated by TV “experts” who tell them why being “tough” is the only way to defeat terrorism. Gina M. Bennett begs to differ in a splendid little book, entitled National Security Mom: Why “Going Soft” Will Make America Strong.
With Professor Richard Kohn’s forward, I agree that “this is a book every citizen should read, and every government official ponder….” If only.
The deceptively simple premise of the book is that “everything I ever needed to know about securing our nation I learned as a child and practiced in parenting my own children.” The companion educational poster for the book is quite accessible even to elementary children.
Yet this is not mere lipstick from a pit-bull “hockey mom.” To the contrary, Gina Bennett doubles as a multi-tasking mother of five children and a distinguished government analyst of terrorism. As far back as 1993, Bennett was presciently warning of a growing threat from Osama Bin Laden.
More recently, she was the principal author of the 2006 National Intelligence Estimate “Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the U.S.” The boldness of that report is matched by the delightful wisdom found in this slender volume.
I also am happy to note that Gina Bennett is a University of Virginia graduate, and we share the same mentor, in R.K. Ramazani, who helped instill in both of us a devotion to the principles of the University’s founder, Thomas Jefferson. Mr. Jefferson and the Professor will both be impressed.
So too is Oprah. Gina was recently featured as a model “superwoman” on the Oprah Winfrey show, a much deserved accolade.
Bennett writes first to fellow parents, offering hope, encouragement, and courage to believe that the key to national security is within them. She finds much national security wisdom in the guidance good parents give to their children, such as:
“clean up your own mess,” (e.g. Iraq)
“tell the truth,” (no, really!)
“actions speak louder than words,” (think Abu Ghuyraib, Guantanmo, torture, renditions, etc.)
“don’t give in to a bully,” (To defeat him, ignore him)
“choose your friends wisely,” (you’ll be judged by their actions… “Think for yourself.”)
“learn from your mistakes,” (e.g., surrendering our own values)
“think before you speak.” (or don’t speak at all…. )
Bennett encourages us “to think about our nation’s security in very different terms from the way it is typically depicted,” by de-mystifying the issues in a jargon-free manner.
For starters, her definition of “national security” encompasses physical strength as well as economic health, energy independence, and our national identity. The latter is embodied in our democratic principles and core values. Our nation’s security then, is…
“not dependent upon the lack of terrorist attacks. Our security rests with the endurance of our values and principles of democracy and our commitment to them. Our strength is not the projection of power or the absence of challenge. It is the character our nation demonstrates when challenged that makes America strong and secure.” (2)
To Bennett, Americans since 9/11 have been nibbling too much self-destructive chocolate cake. Out of fear, we’ve surrendered too many democratic rights: “Democracy can be eroded completely if we convince ourselves that taking little slices of it is okay.” In so doing, we might just as well turn the keys to our country over to the terrorists.
To make our nation more secure, Bennett stresses the need for taking “time-outs” to study the background context for terrorist actions, to recognize underlying grievance, and to face unpleasant truths that our own policies, or those of our friends, may catalyze the violence directed against us.
Bennett repeatedly counters, or “pre-empts,” the concern that a “soft” approach to terror will somehow aid or excuse the terrorists. With the book theme, consider the role of parents:
“As parents we do not think of ourselves as being “soft” on discipline simply because we try to see our child’s point of view. If we’re going to communicate effectively with our children and persuade them of something other than what they already believe, we have to understand why they believe what they believe, even if we think they are completely wrong to believe it.” (42)
The same method works for analysis of terrorism.
“[W]hen security experts discuss the need to identify root causes for extremist behavior, they’re not being apologists for terrorists. They are trying to find out how “it” — the extremist ideology or behavior — got started, so they can come up with a more permanent way of preventing “it” from happening again…. (32)
Understanding the suffering of people is not being “soft” on terrorism, even if those people’s grievances are being championed by terrorist groups. Understanding is a critical step towards figuring out how to diminish the influence of terrorists.” (34)
And if such empathy enables wiser policy choices, then we’ve enhanced, not diminished, our security.
Given a nonviolent, viable alternative, people usually choose to reject violence. When they do, they deal the deadliest blow to the terrorists.
So is this a “feminine” perspective? It doesn’t have to be, in my (“dad”) view. Yet Bennett is speaking to women in arguing that they don’t have to sound like (most) men to have credible standing on national security.
“It is very common in national security, foreign policy, and counterterrorism for women to try to out-tough-talk men to avoid being considered soft. Anything other than belligerent speech is considered soft, which is automatically perceived to be weak.”
Recall candidate Hillary Clinton’s bluster about “obliterating” Iran. Think Anne Coulter.
By contrast, Bennett confidently approaches “national security from a different point of view.” If that is soft, “then I am as proud to be “soft” as I am of my 20 years working in the ‘harder side’ in intelligence. Balancing the two is critical.”
And she’s “hard” in sticking to her definition of strength, the one she wishes to pass on to her children, to fellow moms – and even dads.:
“I believe that to resolve problems, we have to understand them first. I prefer to accept that American policies have had bad results in some places rather than sticking my head in the sand. I do not believe a war of attrition can defeat terrorism. I believe it demonstrates more character to allow people whose beliefs you reject have their say; it takes more integrity to admit you’ve made mistakes; and it takes far more courage to refuse to change in the face of a threat. I’m a mother and that is the strength I know.”
Curiously, nowhere in the book do the words Israel, Hamas, or Gaza appear, at least not explicitly. Bennett does have much to suggest about lessons derivable from Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, and India. In the 2006 NIE “Trends in Global Terrorism” report, (Bennett as lead author), “The Iraq conflict has become the “cause celebre” for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement..” And in her book, she writes, “Bin Laden himself could not have been more convincing than many of the images produced in Iraq.” (79)
Regarding Gaza today, the thinking mom taking Bennett’s family principles to heart will be empowered to consider that our presumed ally’s present “hard” approach to Gaza is incomplete at best, and counterproductive folly at worst. Far from draining the terrorist’s swamp, the images, the realities of the awful carnage, risk creating more despair and anguish, more breeding grounds for those to take up extreme violence, and causes greater anger towards America.
Willfully ignoring such dangers afoot is the easy, comfortable life of the ostrich. Recognizing such realities, as an independent analyst and a mom, requires courage.
Obviously, I like this book; it truly deserves wide consideration, from the White House to the day-care center. Even though it’s a quick read, I subsequently prepared ten single spaced pages of memorable passages. Here’s just three more:
The baby wipe cleans far more things in my house than it was ever intended to, but it sure does not do the laundry. A single set of policy options cannot magically clean up the world. (78)
Parenting a teenager can feel like navigating a difficult foreign relations crisis. You often feel you need a translator and a team of trained negotiators. Ignoring the communication challenge does not make it go away. Similarly, turning a blind eye to another population’s hostility toward America does not lessen the anger. It only guarantees the people will not listen to anything we have to say. (43)
We know the secret to keeping the world going is never surrendering to “I can’t do it” or “I hate you.” Moms hope when everyone else has given up. (153)
If Leon Panetta should decide to defer to an “inside professional” to lead the CIA, wouldn’t it be great to have a “national security mom” at the helm?