The current crisis makes it clear that the lessons of national security we learned very painfully through 9/11 and its aftermath were disregarded by the Obama Administration in approaching emerging biological threats. In 2015, after seven years of President Obama, a blue-ribbon bipartisan commission on biodefense warned, “the Nation lacks the leadership, coordination, collaboration and innovation necessary to respond” to a biological attack.
The commission recommended restoring funding for state and local public health emergency cooperative agreements to the levels the Bush Administration instituted in response to the 2001 anthrax attacks. But the warning and recommendation went unheeded. President Obama and Vice President Biden chose to follow a course dependent upon building international institutions, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), rather than building stronger federal coordination of epidemic prevention and preparedness. As more details emerge regarding the failures of the WHO’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic, the danger of subordinating our national security to global interdependence has become starkly apparent.
Post 9/11 Unity and Fraying
To better understand how far off course Obama and Biden led our national security policy, let us look back at where we were right after 9/11. In addition to dealing with immediate loss of lives and the aftershocks caused by the anthrax threat, Congress and the Bush Administration assessed what had allowed the attacks to occur and a consensus developed that our intelligence agencies and domestic law enforcement agencies needed the authority to work together in the interest of national security if we were to prevent the next attack.
Within a month, the notorious Patriot Act became law. What was controversial about the Patriot Act, and rightly so, was the degree to which the civil liberties of U.S. citizens were infringed. What was not controversial at the time, across the political spectrum, was the idea that U.S. national security was an appropriate, justifiable, and worthwhile goal. In the spirit of national unity that emerged in the wake of the attacks it was not only felt but also expressed, time and again in our politics and in our culture, that we have something special in this country that is worth protecting.
It wasn’t long before the edges were fraying on that national unity, fraying largely in dissent over preemptive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it is one thing to question the morality, necessity or wisdom of sacrificing American lives in foreign conflicts—always a difficult issue of balancing security interests. It is another thing altogether to question whether our nation is exceptional at all, whether there is or ever was anything about the United States that is inherently and objectively worth protecting.
While much of the thoughtful resistance to the Bush-era policies in the War on Terror was grounded in a belief that domestic spying and an interventionist military went against all that had made America great, the critics today of President Trump’s prosecution of the battle against the CCP virus question and even threaten the very basis of our Republic. The eight years of Obama-Biden policies have brought us to a place where many question whether preserving our American way of life is worthwhile.
Leftist Response to American Exceptionalism
The illogical view from the political Left that protecting American interests is not the appropriate objective of our national government came into full view soon after President Obama was inaugurated. In early 2009, he went on an “apology tour” of Europe and refused to express any recognition of American exceptionalism, saying “the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks in Greek exceptionalism.” The natural extension of this ambivalent view of American greatness translated into a foreign policy that put globalist interests ahead of our own national security.
It is a view that led President Obama to issue a National Security Strategy (NSS) in May 2010 that called for embracing a new multilateral order in which “our own interests are bound to the interests of those beyond our borders.” The same month, Vice President Biden in remarks at the U.S. Naval Academy, claimed that defeating threats such as pandemic disease and terrorism which “have no respect for borders” would require new international rules and “that other nations, along with us, enforce those rules of conduct.”
The implications of this approach were exemplified soon after by a State Department spokeswoman expressing the opinion that ISIS terrorists just needed jobs, and that the way to defeat terrorism would be to help foreign governments build their economies. This was no rogue spokesperson—the statement is one of a piece with remarks made by then-Senator Biden, who in 2007 said “Our counterterrorism authorities should not only thwart attacks; these authorities should also strengthen international coalitions, draw Muslim populations around the world closer to us, and deprive terrorists of a recruitment narrative.”
In the 2010 NSS, the Obama-Biden Administration acknowledged the threat of pandemics and infectious diseases, yet claimed that our ability to prepare for and respond to such threats was inherently dependent upon the rights, interests and willing cooperation of other nations’ governments. The effect was that protecting the lives and safety of Americans against biological threats took a backseat to global health initiatives. The Obama-Biden strategy was “that providing assistance to address the immediate problems of global health now will yield more capable and willing partners to work on biodefense-related issues later.” As stated in a 2012 report in International Affairs, the Obama Administration believed that “improving public health in developing nations can influence the intent of would-be bioterrorists.”
While the Obama Administration focused on improving public health in developing countries, China continued developing so-called “dual use” capabilities, allowing them to disguise bioweapons research beneath the veil of biodefense work. A 2015 report in the Journal of Defence Studies concluded that China had developed advanced methods of deploying and dispersing aerosolized biological weapons. That same year, China established its first biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. As defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, BSL-4 facilities “are applicable for work with dangerous and exotic agents that pose a high individual risk of life-threatening disease, which may be transmitted via the aerosol route and for which there is no available vaccine or therapy.”
Moving Forward in the Current Crisis
In the present crisis, no one can yet say with certainty that we have been intentionally attacked by a foreign adversary or that the virus originated in a Wuhan laboratory. Yet, it is apparent that the Chinese government, by definition the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), either negligently mishandled an outbreak of a naturally occurring virus, or the CCP intentionally developed and/or released the virus. What does this mean for our response going forward? It means that, much as we were after 9/11, we must be unified in putting the safety and security of American citizens first. It means that we should work in cooperation with our allies, each putting the security of its own citizens foremost, and work together to clearly define the nature of our mutual adversary. Most importantly, it means the United States must lead, even when leading means going against the conventional wisdom of the internationalist crowd.
In 2018, President Donald Trump adopted a National Biodefense Strategy to begin to reverse the dangerous Obama-Biden era policies. This aligned with his overall 2018 National Security Strategy, and central to both is a call for protecting “the American people, the homeland, and the American way of life.” His then-National Security Advisor John Bolton reorganized the NSC to combine various Directorates and better coordinate biodefense into our overall efforts on counterproliferation and national defense. Predictably, allies of former vice president and now presidential candidate Biden embarked on a campaign of disinformation earlier this year, falsely claiming that President Trump, by reorganizing and combining directorates, had “dissolved the office” responsible for pandemic response. As the former Senior Director of that office, Tim Morrison, wrote in the Washington Post, “if anything, the combined directorate [for counterproliferation and biodefense] was stronger because related experience could be commingled.”
The Trump Biodefense Strategy enabled the Administration quickly to identify the threat caused by the Chinese coronavirus and respond appropriately by shutting down travel from China, at a time when his liberal critics called such a move xenophobic. But by that time the proverbial bat was out of the barn at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The American Left, rather than working together in coordinated fashion with the administration to repel the attack, devolved into an unhelpful combination of politically-correct virtue signaling and finger pointing.
But the American people know that this is a great and moral nation worth protecting and preserving, and we deserve leaders who understand that as well. So, while our nation’s focus is now appropriately on reopening our economy as we learn to live with—and work to defeat—this virus, President Trump’s biodefense strategy puts us in a better position to discover the precise nature and intent of the attack, and to hold China appropriately accountable. He and his Administration deserve bipartisan support—from the country and from the Congress—to give him every available tool to ensure that response strengthens our national security.