President Obama’s nomination of Jeh Johnson to be the next secretary of homeland security gives hope to international educators who practice the profession out of a belief that international education helps foster greater understanding among peoples and a more peaceful world.
After the trauma of 9/11 and the launching of the regrettably named “global war on terror,” the belief took hold that we were now in a situation of permanent war and peace was an aberration—a luxury we could no longer afford in a world in which we must be constantly on guard against terrorism. We were told that terrorists lurk everywhere and that the war on terror could never end. Peace began to be thought of as Quixotic at best, a dangerous delusion at worst, which would cede the battlefield to this eternal enemy.
The implications of this new mindset for international educators are profound. If peace is no longer relevant or even desired, then we don’t need international understanding; it is not only unnecessary, it is unhelpful. And if we don’t need international understanding, then we don’t need international education. We don’t need us.
In his second inaugural address last January, President Obama signaled his intention to confront this pernicious mindset:
We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war. Our brave men and women in uniform, tempered by the flames of battle, are unmatched in skill and courage. Our citizens, seared by the memory of those we have lost, know too well the price that is paid for liberty. The knowledge of their sacrifice will keep us forever vigilant against those who do us harm. But we are also heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war; who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends—and we must carry those lessons into this time as well.
The president followed that up in May with an address at National Defense University, devoted specifically to the question of how we transition out of the global war on terror as we had come to conceive it after 9/11 and back to security constructs more in keeping with traditional American approaches and values. Going back to the founding of the Republic, the president noted that “our commitment to constitutional principles has weathered every war, and every war has come to an end.” He said, “America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or it will define us.” And then came the charge that sets our agenda moving forward:
Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.
The New York Times accurately called this “the most important statement on counterterrorism policy since the 2001 attacks, a momentous turning point in post-9/11 America. For the first time, a president stated clearly and unequivocally that the state of perpetual warfare that began nearly 12 years ago is unsustainable for a democracy and must come to an end in the non-too-distant future.”
The words that the president spoke on these occasions did not come out of the air. Members of his administration had previewed these thoughts. In particular, the Defense Department’s general counsel said this in November 2012 in an address at the Oxford Union entitled, “The Conflict Against Al Qaeda and its Affiliates: How Will It End?”:
“War” must be regarded as a finite, extraordinary and unnatural state of affairs. War permits one man – if he is a “privileged belligerent,” consistent with the laws of war — to kill another. War violates the natural order of things, in which children bury their parents; in war parents bury their children. In its 12th year, we must not accept the current conflict, and all that it entails, as the “new normal.” Peace must be regarded as the norm toward which the human race continually strives.
That was Jeh Johnson, the person who, the Senate willing, will soon be confirmed to head the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The issue that he addressed on that day was not a focus of his confirmation hearing, although it was cited by much of the reporting about him, but it will be central to his stewardship of the department.
DHS arguably constitutes the strongest vested interest in the United States government on behalf of the concept of a permanent war on terror. DHS was created ten years ago in direct response to 9/11 and given precisely the mission of securing the homeland against the terrorist threat, and scarcely a day goes by when department spokespeople do not remind us of it. Every day, international educators confront the challenge of maintaining robust educational and scholarly exchange in the face of the “when it doubt, keep them out” mentality that has pervaded the management of our borders since 9/11.
At his confirmation hearing, Mr. Johnson listed as his highest priority filling the numerous “leadership vacancies” in the department, citing “a leadership vacuum within DHS of alarming proportions.” What he did not say—and may not even yet know—is that there has been a leadership vacuum in DHS even when those positions were filled. This conglomeration of 22 agencies, thrown together without a whole lot of thought by the Homeland Security Act in the heated aftermath of 9/11, is virtually designed to fail. No DHS secretary has yet successfully addressed this challenge. If Mr. Johnson is to successfully execute the vision of his president that “all wars must end,” he will have to align his agency with that vision by act of will, strength of leadership, and force of management, bringing it to an understanding that those who make peace are as important to the security of the homeland as those who wage war.
As the human race strives toward peace, international education will continue to play its crucial role in enabling that quest. We look forward to working with Mr. Johnson and his team as they seek to enlist DHS in this noble venture.