By Clark Ervin
Welcome to the third annual Aspen Security Forum. We are delighted this week to welcome professionals in the field of homeland security and counterterrorism, as well as curious and informed citizens who want to interact with key decision makers and thought leaders and engage them in spirited dialogue.
The Aspen Security Forum brings together each summer in Aspen Meadows high-level present and former government officials from every relevant government agency – the White House; the Departments of Homeland Security, Defense, State, Justice, and Treasury, the intelligence community, Capitol Hill, and state and local officials – key scholars and pundits from academe and think tanks; nationally noted print and broadcast journalists; leaders in industry and finance; and concerned citizens to discuss and debate the key issues of the day not just in “homeland security” and counterterrorism, but also, more broadly, in “national security” and foreign policy.
While the conversations range over the vast landscape of security issues, each year focuses on a particular theme or themes. With the end of the war in Iraq; the beginning of the end of the war in Afghanistan; and the apparent strategic defeat of Al Qaeda as we came to know it after 9/11, this year’s forum will focus on whether terrorism can now safely be returned to the status of a second order concern for policymakers. The killing of Osama bin Laden and that of his would-be rival for global influence, Anwar al- Awlaki, and the decimation of the ranks of lieutenants and foot soldiers by a stunningly effective drone campaign, suggest that Al Qaeda is all but a spent force.
With the notable exception of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group’s Yemeni affiliate, which seems determined to probe our defenses until a vulnerability is found and exploited, it seems as though the old paradigm of our principal security threats emanating from nation-states, rather than shadowy networks or lone wolves, is dominant again. Policymakers are keeping a wary eye on China’s meteoric rise as an economic power, and pondering the implications of this for America’s continued global military pre-eminence. The prospect of war with Iran over its nuclear ambitions looms large this summer, as does the question of what to make of the muddle that the Arab Spring has become. Will this movement ultimately lead to a region of democratic, peaceful, and prosperous states that will play a positive role in the international system, or will it simply result in the substitution of one form of tyranny for another, and a tyranny that is fundamentally hostile to American interests? Is the era of “wars of mass invasion” and “nation building” over, to be replaced by the surgical insertion, when troubles arise, of teams of Special Operations forces and intelligence operatives, backed up by cutting-edge technology? Indeed, given the budget crisis gripping Washington today, national war weariness, and near xenophobia, do we have any choice? And, finally, doesn’t today’s toxic partisan environment, and the heat of a pivotal presidential campaign, make addressing the nation’s security threats even more challenging than it would be in less chaotic times?
These and other issues will be explored in depth over the course of the forum with some of the nation’s, and the world’s, key leaders and thinkers in the field of security. Instead of dry lectures and stale PowerPoint presentations, participants will engage in deep and probing conversations, expertly moderated by the leading names in American journalism. Instead of the “hit and run” nature of most such forums in Washington, attendees will spend quality time with policymakers and thought leaders, getting to know them up close and personally and how they think.
Instead of the sterility and formality of Washington and other urban centers, this week’s dialogue takes place in an enchanted pastoral setting that by its very nature promotes contemplation and conciliation. Out of this unique dialogue will come, we hope, answers that will help to shape the future in ways that will protect the nation and preserve our way of life in this turbulent, still new century.