On February 12, President Obama’s Director of National Intelligence provided the annual threat assessment of the intelligence community to the Senate. With his testimony, Admiral Blair provided the Senate and the world a clear view of what keeps him up at night.


In contrast to previous years that highlighted terrorism as the single most significant challenge facing the United States, Blair began his testimony with concerns about the global economic crisis, calling it “the primary near-term security concern of the United States.” Even though he is not the president’s economic advisor, he reminds us that the economic turmoil of the early 20th century fueled global instability and war. In today’s context, the economic turmoil provides fuel for those in the anti-globalization movements and violent extremists. He also raised concerns that allies will lack the ability to deploy military forces and increase foreign assistance to unstable parts of the world. On a positive side, he does note that “declining revenues may put the squeeze on the adventurism of producers like Iran and Venezuela.” Given Venezuela’s turn-around on international investments, we are already seeing this. 

As in previous years, the intelligence community singled out violent extremism as a critical concern. However, the intelligence director seems more optimistic. “No major country is at immediate risk of collapse” (e.g. Pakistan). Further, he sees that al Qaeda is less capable than a year ago with declining approval ratings and stepped up pressure from governments around the world. He highlights Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Indonesia as making significant contributions to fighting terrorism. But he cautions to beware of extremists returning from training in South Asia to conduct attacks in Europe or the United States. He advises European countries to promote social integration of Muslims and give them a “stronger political and economic stake in their countries of residence.” Otherwise, the alienated can easily fall victim to al Qaeda propagandists and recruiters. 

His third concern is the “arc of instability” where poverty, alienation, and radicalism combine with terrorism. His emphasis on the developing world solidifies the turn in U.S. foreign policy that does not forecast threats or challenges from the developed world. Instead, ethnic, sectarian, and economic divisions shape the strategic landscape. Linkages between non-state actors and rogue states define threat. Gone are the days of geopolitical rivalries and large conventional militaries. China is not detailed until page 22 of the testimony and Russia does not appear until page 26. And Hamas and Hezbollah get as much attention as both. 

President Bush saw Iran as the single greatest country threat to the United States and this appears to be still true. If negotiations occur between the United States and Iran, Blair does highlight some redlines, which may limit how far the Obama administration can go. The intelligence community assesses that “convincing the Iranian leadership to forgo the eventual development of nuclear weapons will be difficult” since it is a key foreign policy goal. And the community does not have “sufficient intelligence reporting to judge confidently whether Tehran is willing to maintain indefinitely the halt” of its nuclear programs. He sees Iran likely to have a nuclear weapon as early as next year through 2015. 

Does this preclude a settlement? 

When it comes to thinking about Asia, Blair is the right person. He served as commander of all U.S. military forces in the Asia-Pacific region and worked very hard to normalize military-to-military relations with China. As in previous years, the intelligence community judges China to be motivated by maintaining economic prosperity and domestic stability. And, China has a long-standing ambition to be a great power in Asia and the world. But it has generated resentments in Latin America and Africa by undercutting fair trade deals and labor laws. Blair did highlight an emerging shift in military modernization from territorial defense (to include a Taiwan scenario) to a military that can support China’s global ambitions. Its recent naval deployment to the Gulf of Aden is a good sign of this. Yet, China still struggles with readiness issues. Last year, for example, China’s fleet of 50 submarines conducted only 12 patrols

In terms of Russia, the assessment offers little that is new or insightful. Russia will use its energy capabilities for leverage; Russia will object to expansion of NATO; and US missile defense programs serve as a stumbling block to resetting US-Russia relations

The Balkans pose the greatest threat to instability in Europe. The unresolved status of Serbs in Kosovo and the tenuous settlement in Bosnia will pose challenges for EU and NATO forces there. 

In his sweeping overview of Latin America, Blair highlights the challenges of economic stability and maintaining democracy, drug production and trafficking into the United States, and the challenges Colombia faces in ended its 50-year old insurgency. Not surprisingly, U.S. concerns about Venezuela’s president Chavez and Cuba’s Raul Castro continue. 

Intentional or not, Africa is addressed last in the testimony, which is consistent with previous years and US foreign policy in general. Like arc of instability countries and Latin America, African political and economic durability are being tested by the global economic downturn. Exacerbating this is continuing public health issues, transnational crime, poor governance, and intractable conflicts in Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, and Sudan. As in other parts of the world, there are simply not enough trained peacekeepers to operate in Africa. 

Outside of regional issues, Blair does reserve the last few pages of his testimony for transnational issues. Cyber attack tops the list of his concerns and he is working to better defend the technology infrastructure. Along these lines, President Obama recently appointed Melissa Hathaway to be the country’s cybersecurity advisor (a czar is coming soon). Climate change, pandemics, and environmental stress round out his global assessment. Relying on a UN study, climate change could bring rising sea levels, food shortages, and disease outbreaks. All pose a threat to traditional notions of the state and effectively make weak states weaker (see section on arc of instability).  

Overall, Blair’s 45-page testimony is sweeping and illustrates the continuity in how the United States thinks about security. With this assessment, the Obama administration will develop its national security strategy over the next year. While the tone may be different from the Bush administration, things are looking very similar. The importance of weak states, terrorists, tyrants, and technology have survived inauguration day.

Derek Reveron is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI. These views are his own.