Quick Thoughts on Life in the National Security Community

2015 National Security Strategy Word Cloud

On June 16, 2016 it came to light that 51 Diplomats from the Department of State had utilized their internal dissent channel to put forward a memo sharply critical of President Obama’s Syria policy [i].  This caused significant discussion within the national security community.  Some see Diplomats using an internal dissent channel to air dissent as normal.  Others see the leaking of dissent channel content to the media as bad form.  Still others see this as a way to further criticize President Obama’s Syria policy.  

As I read this story and the reactions to it I was stuck by the human cost of working in the national security community.  As such, I decided to do a series of tweets describing my experiences and evolution.  After completing my series of tweets I was fortunate to be joined by Tamara Coffman Wittes a senior fellow and the director of the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings as well as Loren DeJonge Schulman the Deputy Director of Studies and the Leon E. Panetta Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.  These two amazing ladies added their own tweets based upon their experiences in the national security community.  In an effort to ensure the future utility of our Twitter-based conversation I captured the content here.

My Original Tweet Series:

In the wake of the DoS dissent-channel memo on #Syria I feel duty-bound to share a few personal things tonight…  Standby for many tweets.

Based upon a request from a friend I provided this advice to new people entering the national security field. “Your victories won’t be clear.  You will get your heart broken.  You will make a difference.  Drive on.”

Allow me to contextualize a bit the broken heart portion of the previous tweet.

For your own reasons, duty, honor, country, a need to escape a small town, ego, whatever, here you are in the national security world.

You come in as a believer.  You want to make a difference.  For a period of time, likely when everything is shiny and new, you do.

Eventually something happens.  A decision is made, information ignored, money misspent, lives & / or reputations risked, maybe people die.

You fought as best you could and you lost.  You lost due to a variety of reasons beyond your control.

Your beliefs are shattered.  The system you believed so strongly in has failed you.

You cry.  A lot.  I know I did.  You are angry at yourself for being duped into believing in America and apple pie.

You quit or maybe you think about it at least.  You want to get away, far away.  You want perspective, maybe even absolution.

You go somewhere and you do something to pay the bills.  Time passes.

Later, somehow, you find yourself back in the mix.

This time, it is working on issues in a different way.  Maybe a way that gives you a little bit more control.

You move forward in the national security community with a semi-hardened heart, a slightly dampened belief, but you still move forward.

With this forward movement comes small victories here and there.  Over time these small victories accumulate and lead to bigger ones.

With time and experience you realize that you are better for having had your soul crushed all those years ago.

You now know the limitations of yourself & the system & you can play the game smarter, from different angles, & achieve more.

In the end you will come to accept that it isn’t a single failure that defines someone, but the totality of their effort over time.

My Dad says “A Man is every Man he ever was.”

Deep inside of you that Idealistic Young Person is still there, driving you towards making positive impacts in the national security sphere.

This time sitting next to that Idealistic Young Person is the Old Hat, guiding the way, helping turn big dreams into modest actions.

End of tweet series.  I hope this helped.

Tamara Coffman Wittes replies:

Phil, thank you. I LOVE this. Truly. If I may, I could offer one small addition:

Some respond to that heart-breaking disappointment by hardening their hearts. They practice cynicism and world-weariness.

This protects them fr pain but also gives them an excuse to treat every challenge as too hard, to put in minimal effort,

…& to say “that’s good enough for today.” If that ever happens to you, quit.

You can’t do any good in the job if you’ve chosen to believe that doing good is impossible.

thank you for such a thoughtful take!

Loren DeJonge Schulman replies:

A lovely tweet series on being a natsec professional.

and wonderful amendments. I have a minor addendum about when you start to believe your mission is impossible

too many natsec professionals I know are absolutely destroyed by exhaustion.

they creep into that ‘everything is too hard’.  And they hate themselves. And from that exhaustion and burnout,

they can’t get out of that cycle. Exhaustion and even depression no small evil for natsec.

it needs to be more ok to quit, to take a break, and tell your peers to do so. And come back as Old Hat!

none of us indispensable at work but we are at home, and work will be there in abundance when the drive returns.


[i]  Landler, M. (2016, June 16). Dozens of U.S. Diplomats, in Memo, Urge Strikes Against Syria’s Assad. Retrieved June 18, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/17/world/middleeast/syria-assad-obama-airstrikes-diplomats-memo.html?_r=0