After every shocking security event, it is always possible to reconstruct the warnings and indicators available beforehand to make what happened look obvious and inevitable. Once reconstructed this way with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, the question naturally arises: how could security forces be so dumb as to not anticipate the threat and head it off before it materialized? Sooner or later, as Richard Betts in his classic “Surprise Attack” documented, a conspiracy is offered: perhaps the security forces intended to fail, because some fraction of them were working for the wrong side.
Sure enough, such questions are being raised now about the failure of the Capitol Police to adequately prepare, and the slowness with which backup rode to the rescue in the form of the National Guard. Perhaps the Pentagon’s laggardly response was deliberate, or at least imposed on them by the president who was conducting a planned coup?
A comprehensive after-action review (AAR) will surely turn up many mistakes of planning, judgment, and execution that should be turned into lessons learned for the next time. But it is unlikely to turn up any evidence to support the notion that the Pentagon’s response was slowed down in a deliberate effort to aid the insurrectionists.
The reason is simple. Any comprehensive AAR of the events will address the fact that everyone seemed primed for a development that did not occur but very well might have: a large counter-MAGA protest that would erupt in violence.
The MAGA-mob leaders, to the extent they existed, were probably expecting and perhaps hoping for those counter-protesters to show up. The inciters, particularly President Trump, seemed to expect that. According to some reports, Trump was pushing for the National Guard to be ready to deploy in response to that eventuality. The most talked-about scenario before Jan. 6 involved something like that, which would “justify” Trump invoking the Insurrection Act to put down his political enemies and, as his former national security adviser Michael Flynn put it, “declare martial law.”
And then … what? The “scenario” everyone feared sort of peters out at that point, but probably the thinking was that once the country is operating under martial law, the inauguration could be delayed somehow and anything could happen.
Certainly, military leaders had good reason to worry about the middle part of this scenario — being mobilized to put down counter-Trump protestors. That is what happened in June and similar steps featured prominently in the war-games that former Obama officials and other national security experts conducted and then heavily publicized.
This goes a long way in explaining the relative slowness in activation of the Guard. Slowness on the part of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and others in advance to predeploy them near the planned demonstration and slowness as the demonstration morphed into something very different from what was deemed Nightmare Scenario No. 1. It seems likely that critical law enforcement resources were aimed elsewhere in the city — perhaps separating the Mall from the Black Lives Matter Plaza, which would be a likely vector along which MAGA and anti-MAGA mobs might confront each other — to head off this scenario and so were not optimally placed to prevent the scenario that happened.
We can all be thankful what was feared did not happen even as we lament what did happen. And in this respect, we are not entirely out of the woods yet since the same groups that called for violence on Jan. 6 are calling for it again in the coming weeks. Some of the biggest military stumbles in U.S. history have this same functional origin: after committing one sort of mistake, the organization over-corrects and thus is primed to make the opposite mistake.
If American security institutions often over-correct in the short-run, they do have a good record of getting it right in the long run. Initial showings are not always impressive, but when the military has learned and adapted quickly, it has succeeded. When the adaptation has been slow, success has come dear or been altogether elusive.
We will now see how well our security institutions adapt to the novel threat they face from domestic insurrectionists who claim they believe they can catalyze a revolution that will overturn the constitutional order. As the world watched on Jan. 6, our security institutions, including those under the control of the Department of Defense, stumbled out of the gate, took some precious hours to adapt, but then belatedly made the necessary adjustments. They will be tested again in the coming weeks and the price of our freedom may depend on whether our security institutions adapt faster and better than does the threat itself.
Peter Feaver is professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he runs the Program in American Grand Strategy.
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