Counterterrorism and the New American Exceptionalism
Conflicts Forum would like to thank Mike Vlahos for permission to circulate this paper which will be published shortly in the Review of Faith and International Affairs.
Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich is a self-declared seer of American exceptionalism. At the Palmetto Freedom Forum in September 2011 he laid down this oak hewn faith plank:
What makes American exceptionalism different is that we are the only people I know of in history who say: Power comes directly from God to each one of you. You are personally sovereign. So you are always a citizen; you are never a subject. Now the founding fathers wrote this because they said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” This is not a philosophy; it’s not an ideology; it’s not a theory. It’s a set of truths … about the nature of being human ….
Candidate Mitt Romney is also a partisan of exceptionalism. He has issued a rapturous catechism and stern warning of the threat to the American exceptionalist ideal:
God did not create this country to be a nation of followers. America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or someone else will. Without American leadership, without the clarity of American purpose and resolve, the world becomes a far more dangerous place, and liberty and prosperity would surely be among the first casualties.
For Gingrich, God not only chose America; he also chose each one of its citizens in a way singular among nations: “[Our] guiding ethos has always set America apart” That we are thus “apart” is divine token of our superiority. For Romney, God made it our destiny to lead the world, and our exceptionalism means the right to rule. Others must accept our world authority—or become enemies we punish. The definition and tenets of American exceptionalism have shifted over time. Speaking onboard the Arabella in 1630, bound for a New World, John Winthrop charged his people to make a new society wholly obedient to God’s will—and its infinite possibilities:
For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people areupon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.
Winthrop spoke to the spiritual enterprise of Puritans, but also perhaps to a yielding kernel of a new universal religious enterprise. His words may have been firmly rooted in a small sectarian community, but here were seeds for a big new religion—an American civil religion. American politicians have long appropriated rhetoric from “church” religion for the political purposes of equally sacred civil religion.
How this civil religion had grown by the 20th century was shown in electric neon in May 1941, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared America the world’s protector. He defined exceptionalism in redemptive terms:
Today the whole world is divided between human slavery and human freedom—between pagan brutality and the Christian ideal. We choose human freedom—which is the Christian ideal. No one of us can waver for a moment in his courage or his faith. We will not accept a Hitler-dominated world. And we will not accept a world, like the postwar world of the 1920s, in which the seeds of Hitlerism can again be planted and allowed to grow. We will accept only a world consecrated to freedom of speech and expression—freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—freedom from want—and freedom from terror. Is such a world impossible of attainment?
FDR’s declaration: “We will accept only a world consecrated to” American constructions of freedom and democracy represents an indissoluble element of exceptionalism. This is the expectation that the fulfillment of God’s plan, through American agency, represents a modern realization of the Millennium.
Civil-religious and exceptionalist rhetoric, like FDR’s, is today unthinkingly imbedded by a nation whose collective faith is so deeply felt as to be almost unselfconscious. Yet the core proposition of my argument is that, when it comes to security policy, American exceptionalism in practice has undergone a disturbing metamorphosis in the last decade. Put simply, the once-and-future belief that this country is uniquely “set apart” for the greater good of humanity has morphed into a self-referential and self-seeking national shibboleth, manifest most clearly in the nation’s approach to counterterrorism. This is a radical shift from an uplifting paradigm of redeeming/transforming communities of terrorist sympathy into communities of freedom-loving democrats—and toward a dark paradigm where purging terrorists means continually flaying “the sea in which they swim” as the poisonous source of threat to the pure American body.
The rhetoric of American exceptionalism is being used to legitimize and institutionalize American militarism, but ironically the substantive policy-direction in counterterrorism is in many ways a betrayal of the traditional faith-linked ethos of exceptionalism. In my view, this approach holds grave risks for America but also tragic consequences for the wider world, especially among Muslim societies. Blood-evidence of such tragedy to come is almost prefigured in our new style of “war”—the drone-robot strike from above. In this essay, I will trace the historical antecedents of our civil religion, examine how “terrorism” is increasingly being construed as a normative existential threat to American civil-religious identity, and argue that contemporary counterterrorism policy—and the steely mindset that legitimizes it—represents a radically new and troubling brand of “exceptionalism.”
Unexceptional Civil Religion
American exceptionalism should be understood as the core passion of American civil religion. American exceptionalism envisions a nation rooted in a savage yet pure wilderness—“God’s American Israel”—where the act of taming its own world is in itself an act of purification, and oftempering and strengthening those who might one day redeem a corrupted and oppressed humanity.
A people that speaks to itself in these terms is fully a “religious” community. Over 40 years ago, Robert Bellah explained how the American project appropriated sacred symbols and rituals from old church-centric realities as it created a new faith of religious nationalism. Using the word “civil” in regard to Americanism may make our religion seem “modern” and “rational”—the opposite of “medieval” or “antique” or “superstitious”—but its use cannot obscure the continuity that binds the American religion with its great predecessors in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and “pagan” imperialism.
Modernity’s nation-state appears to us as a supremely rational construct of how things should be, succeeding more primitive paradigms. Yet the nation-state is not necessarily more “rational” than what it replaced. The French Revolution in 1789 at once overthrew feudalism and superstition and raised a new consciousness: the Nation. Now people and state were bound as one. Modernity’s ideology offered a consciousness of belonging that included everyone, where the state served as impresario for the celebration of collective togetherness.
As citizens, this shared consciousness defines our sense of the civic “sacred.” Old Romans called this religio, and for good reason: Religion is about how we bind ourselves together. Religion is not necessarily only about supernatural beliefs or even church institutions. Religion is a framework of identity made sacred in the presence of the collective divine, made real in congregation.
In a civil religion defined by the nation, identity is vested not in life-rules and lifestyle (as it might be for Christians or Muslims) but by utter allegiance to the civic sacred. Americanism therefore resembles more closely the mature Romanitas of the Greco-Roman imperial era.
In crucial respects, then, America is worth comparing to Rome: in its limits on civil universalism; in its sense of exceptional destiny; in its use of sacred symbols; and—central to understanding today’s counterterrorism—the very idea of sacred militarism.
In the imperial era, Rome made it quite clear who was Roman: Converts adopted Roman ways, engaged in Roman politics, and sacrificed to the God Augustus. Anyone could becomeRoman, but centuries passed before Gauls and Greeks became equal Senators.
Americanism seeks to unite the world under a vision of freedom and democracy. Yet this universalism does not seek an “American” world per se. The only true Americans remain those who come here and become citizens. Yet, like Rome, the United States acknowledges little “Eaglets”—other places that burn a bit of incense at the altar of the sacred words, democracy and freedom. Despite efforts to spreadfreedom and democracy abroad, there remains in our ethos an unbridgeable distinction between Americans-in-America and other worthy democrats among humanity.
Romans embraced their destiny. If gods had chosen Rome to rule the world—to bring order to a disordered oikoumene, to gather together the arts and sciences of Hellenism, to underwrite the good life for civilization—then the path of Romanitas was clear.
America chose the same path, yet we ask worriedly: Are we Rome? Are we worthy of the divine charge we claim by anointment? Amid these doubts, the surest response is to again acclaim “Eternal Victory.” American exceptionalism demands victory. An American Virgil might have penned “Of arms and the man I sing.” In our Capitoline, above a grand stairway, is a great fresco in starburst hues describing the passage West of pioneers. Every single man is armed. Mars finds his place in the American ethos, and our national story is a connect-the-dots string of battle victories (at least through 1945).
In Rome, each victory—with divine blessing—was sacredly celebrated. Romans called such events “triumphs,” and celebrations were the core rite of the Roman Senate and the Roman people. In America, we celebrate through cable television channels devoted to recalling military history and all-military movie “marathons” on Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, and America’s other hallowed saints’ days. This is a cultural phenomenon unequalled in other countries. Romanitas had its staged-sacred triumphs; America broadcasts its liturgy of victory 24/7.
If the “sacred” is about summoning the presence of the divine, then American civil religion mirrors ancient Rome. Whether confessed or not, Americans daily reinforce civil identity by communing with their ancestors. Like pilgrimages to Mt. Vernon, the home of Pater Patriae, General and President Washington.
Like the Romans, we adore our temple city. Like Romans, our “deities” are us: Ancestral Americans. We consecrate monuments to our leaders—Washington, Jefferson, and the martyred Lincoln. Our heroes are deities who personify the body of the nation. Their sacred image—imago—sustains the authority of the state, and in public rituals the venerated symbols of our identity are triumphantly paraded, memorialized, and valorized.
In ordinary Roman cohort-forts at the margins of the empire, there was always a building called the Principia. Within was the sacellum: The shrine of the Standards. Why a shrine? Because the standards of the cohort were sacred to the 500-800 officers and men garrisoned there. The shrine also contained a statue of the emperor, whose image captured the unity of people, army, and state. Today, in any American military installation in our web of 700 overseas bases, alongside cherished regalia, is the imago of America’s President.
However, having invested so heavily in a militarized vision of the sacred, Roman civil religion morphed over centuries into a narrow state-leader-military enterprise, divorced from the very citizens who long ago had embodied Romanitas. America has undergone a similar transformation. Our martial society—a nation in arms—has also become a militaristic state-leader-military enterprise. A legionnaire class now fights America’s sacred wars: Professionals who in sacrifice act as guardians of exceptionalism.
Yet America’s Roman-like exceptionalism is peculiarly susceptible, and highly receptive, to terrorist threat. When a people’s very identity is bound to its civil religion—a religion that demands fulfillment of a divine destiny, realized through a hundred victorious battles—terrorism poses an “existential” challenge.
Terrorism Contra Exceptionalism
How can terrorist acts singularly threaten a chosen people of resplendent and undiminished warrior spirit? America’s very language of terrorism provides clues. In our imagination, terrorism is simply “evil.” Yet what makes terrorism so evil? Is it the killing of civilians? (That happens all the time in war.) Is it killing done in the name of politics or religion? (Political ideology is at the very heart of war.) What about those who are labeled “terrorist” but whose resistance is actually nonviolent, or those who gain authority through democratic election? What about those persecuted by state regimes because of their political views or religious beliefs, those for whom justice through non-violence has not even the dream of hope? And how shall we regard those who historically took up arms against injustice rather than endure its yoke, like Boston rebels celebrating their Tea Party?
For increasing numbers of Americans—particularly those who have deeply imbibed the recent militant distortions of a traditional ethos of American exceptionalism—“terrorism” is not primarily about what people do, or whether history celebrates or condemns them. Terrorism is identified as existential threat. For many Americans today, “terrorism” is about much more than any rational calculation of threats; it is about civil-religious identity.
Americanism may still reign as modernity’s strongest civil religion, yet it is the religion of a people otherwise united by the weakest of tribal bonds. Benedict Anderson might have called America the ultimate “imagined community.” A nation that is also an idea must at all costs defend that idea, lest faith and thus identity fail us. American exceptionalism is that idea, and terrorism is our religion’s very antithesis. In American civil-religious thought, terrorism is the Devil himself.
If a challenged state regime uses anti-terrorism as national theater to shore up political strength, characterizing the threat as primitive and savage to orchestrate popular passion, then success may strengthen political authority. But Americans need no orchestration by a cunning state. Even small acts of violence against the American idea—including those most driven by injustice—we instantly transform into mortal threats, justifying the most extravagant sanctions and the most unremitting punishment. Our visceral collective hatred toward Osama Bin Laden is culturally noteworthy as an expression once reserved, in medieval times, for demons from Hell.
Heretic, Apostate, Stranger
The militant version of Americanism denominates three kinds of terrorist. The first is the terrorist “against the body,” or the heretic. The distinguishing mark of the heretic is that he claims to be a righteous voice, a speaker of Truth, unafraid. Society may condemn and punish the heretic, yet if he recants there is hope for purification and return to the body politic. After punishment the heretic might be rehabilitated, or—if he has improved the American idea—even enshrined.
The second kind of terrorist is the apostate. In stark contrast to the heretic, the apostate has renounced the American idea wholesale and seeks its overthrow. Hence the apostate is Evil’s minion, serving a dark faith that seeks America’s corruption. The apostate has “left the body.”
The third type of terrorist is the stranger, alien to the sacred body (literally “not of the body”) yet nonetheless still able to manifest itself from within — as the Evil One who may even now be among us. If he is among us then he is seeking out apostates to recruit; even if America is strong without, it might still be brought down from within. The stranger operates deviously: The Other, in his alien guise, cannot proselytize; instead he must suborn alienated proto-apostates to serve his dark purpose.
Such nightmare thoughts of subversion collapse any distinction between external acts of terrorism threatening, say, an American ally, and the rooting fear of subversion within (where even nonviolence, ifdarkly eloquent, instills existential fear). The belief that the American idea will remake the world and yet at the same time is so fragile that a few individuals can put it at risk dictates that nonviolent groups can be branded as “terrorist,” because of the subversive power they wield.
Ancient Romans, too, were seized with the fear of an idea that could bring down Romanitas. The greatest “terrorist” campaign of antiquity was delivered sub-rosa—Christianity’s one-by-one conversion of Romans. Each conversion represented a blow to Romanitas, to its authority, legitimacy, and its role as interlocutor of sacred identity. “We have the alternative, and true, path to the sacred,” said Christians, modestly, without violence. The Roman state responded with extreme prejudice. Yet proscription through martyrdom failed. Moreover, this “counterterrorism” campaign—rooting out the threat—only reinforced the very centuries-long martyrdom that brought down the Roman state.
Christians threatened all that the Roman civil religion held to be correct and true (pietas). According to Robert Louis Wilken, when Romans branded the Christian vision as superstition it was not a matter of simple bias or the result of ignorance; it expresses a distinct religious sensibility. When Tacitus wrote that Christianity was the “enemy of mankind,” he did not mean that he did not like Christians and found them a nuisance … but that theywere an affront to his social and religious world.
Normative existential threat can be shown through a simple story. A Roman aristocrat is fingered as a closet Christian. He is asked (politely of course, given his station) to do the right thing, to crumble laurel leaves over the embered brazier before the God Augustus’ bust. Equally polite, he replies, No. Brought to trial, this patrician accepts the reality of death with such dignity and equanimity that the audience, gathered to affirm the majesty of Romanitas, starts whispering, “He is more like the mythic Romans of old than our own, debased elite. He is a true Roman.” So the Church subverted and took over the Roman state.
Reinventing Exceptionalism: From Redemption to Counterinsurgency to Counterterrorism
“Terrorism” inhabits America’s civil-religious consciousness just as it did for Tacitus, representing “the enemy of mankind:” as an affront to light and truth. Terrorism, in the American experience, issues a divine test: Is America still beloved of the Almighty, and still his agent to redeem humankind? If not, then what shall be America’s path? Or is God showing us another way, where both the models of open sanctuary and redeemer nation are left behind for a third path. Are the failure of the 9/11 War and the rise of counterterrorism signs that America is moving toward a fortress of virtue, a Helm’s Deep of Humanity? We should understand three underlying dynamics.
First, Americanism is a faith as demanding as any world religion, and yet our society is too close to its belief system to be able to see how it operates as religion and thus take into account how it shapes our thinking and decision-making. We publicly invoke American exceptionalism normatively, in the same manner as medieval enunciations of Papal infallibility.
Second, Americanism fulfills its divine mission through war. It is our instrument of destiny. America demands eternal victory as much asRome once did; defeat is unthinkable. Our shameful defeat in Vietnam forced an existential identity choice. Another loss would compromise the American identity, so we invoked the wizardry of “military transformation” to recreate ourselves as Gods of War, whose chosen campus was just battle. Banners like “Shock and Awe!” highlighted the nation’s extreme confidence in the divine invincibility of American arms. By 2001 we were sure that America could no longer be defeated by force of arms. Victory in battle, rather than victory in war, became the triumphant yardstick of American exceptionalism.
Third, paradoxically, terrorism became more threatening after 9/11 precisely because it could not be defeated in battle. By exposing the impotence of our chosen instrument of divine will, terrorism has undermined exceptionalism by stripping away our collective belief and commitment. Terrorism tells us we cannot fulfill the divine mission, that The City itself is vulnerable to strike, that we have lost the anointment of eternal victory. In the face of terrorist acts, our extravagantly advertised invincibility in battle did not buy us anything. In Iraq and Afghanistan, victory in battle—as opposed to victory in war—was almost valueless. At first, in Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom (just as it was written before in Desert Storm) American Olympians swept all before them. Yet in the coming years of fruitless, Iliadic battle, even our Gods of War were in flush strength, ineffective; in wholesale killing, counterproductive. Thus terrorism led our citizens to lose faith. Here is how it played out.
The attacks of September 11, 2001 scarred and transfiguredAmerican exceptionalism. They rammed home, through biblical metaphor (the crashing walls of Jericho), a vision that stung our heart: The Fall of the City (America itself). Incapable of voicing the scriptural implications of 9/11—that we might not be able to fulfill God’s plan for America—we plunged headlong as a nation into apocalyptic war. The metaphorical power of 9/11 demanded transcendental response—namely, the charge from God to finish what lay incomplete since 1919 and 1945 and even 1991—the final redemption of humankind, the liberal democratic end to history.
This exceptionalist ideal of global redemption was reflected in the president’s battle plan, which promised that we would “transform the greater Middle East,” that “the road to Jerusalem lay through Baghdad,” that we would over time “integrate the non-integrated Gap” into the “Functioning Core,” and that the dominoes falling this time would be the dictators.
Yet within five years this vision was wreckage. The United States stared at defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan. After March 2006, piece-by-piece, the entire enterprise was scrapped, replaced by an interim fallback called counterinsurgency.
Counterinsurgency (COIN) briefly dazzled a frightened Washington establishment like The Rainmaker. COIN was the fetish stone, the secret recipe, the magic formula. If America could no longer transform the world, it would at least hoist to the pole stable, working, parliamentary, pro-American regimes in Kabul and Baghdad. But COIN gave us less than four years of war-fighting credibility before being wholly emptied of hope. In fact our war-fighting credibility was exposed asmarketing oversold. COIN had no impact on events in Iraq, while in Afghanistan its failure became a fig leaf no courtier general—whether Stanley McChrystal or David Petreus—could hold in place.
In the wake of counterinsurgency’s collapse, America had yet another fallback, a strategic escape-hatch: persistent, unmanned, global strikes—the jewel-in the-crown of a strategy called counterterrorism. Counterterrorism tells us it is not Fortress America; it is not hopeless isolationism. Counterterrorism says it upholds the global stature of America, but it does so through elaborate geographical fiction. Counterterrorism presents us with a magical vehicle: The magnificent, unblinking, always obedient robot-hoplites that range the world freely. They kill without regard to national borders or international law. In reality, counterterrorism is as much a transformation of doctrine as if it were a return to 1930s-style isolationism. In the 1930s—in the fleeting moment of the neutrality acts—America was burdened and afraid. The world system was falling apart, and US society was inwardly focused just to survive. For a moment the nation became a walled city on a hill, a fearful entrenchment wholly at odds with actual American power (we were then one-third of the world economy).
Similarly, global counterterrorism represents an alternative, if recessional packaging of American exceptionalism. Yet unlike isolationism, it is not framed as a strategic breather, a momentary hunkering-down. It is a new vision of America’s relationship to the world, distinct both from John Winthrop’s vision of a sanctuary serving as an example to outsiders and from FDR’s vision of active global engagement. No longer is the world to be redeemed; instead much of humanity is now considered irredeemable, or at best an enduring threat to Americanism. America may still be God’s chosen nation, but it can no longer pretend that battle-altruism—“We come in peace,” “We are here to help”—can save lost societies. Instead only those “nations that want to live in peace and liberty” are worthy. The new canon describes those peoples we once sought to redeem as breeding grounds of terrorism. Why might this new narrative represent new “scripture”? Because it marks such a complete break from the prior evolution of Americanism.
This new take on American exceptionalism seeks to keep a savage and primitive world at bay. That this same world was long ago the focus of U.S. altruism—the redeemer—is of zero importance now, as America seeks perfect security. American exceptionalism is now based almost wholly on punishment rather than redemption.
Should it be surprising that American leaders and citizens so readily abandoned its traditional notion of exceptionalism after just ten years of disappointment and frustration? Perhaps this last great national project was doomed by its transparent selfishness; it was cast as a government-only enterprise that sidelined the American people as passive actors, asked only to “go shopping.” Perhaps it could not survive the shock of passionate Muslim resistance against our benevolent tutelage (and against the tyrants we supplicated for 30 years). This war severed the pure-of-heart liberator narrative of America, the stainless knight.
In light of this disappointment, maybe it is easy now for Americans to shrug and say, “Whosoever moves against us, kill them.” Eighty-three percent of Americans support the Obama administration’s use of drones—with enthusiasm—including 77 percent of Democrats. This suggests that Americans do not question the collateral killing of family members, even in weddings and funerals, or the global disregard of sovereignty, or the execution of American citizens without due process.
On The Daily Show a liberal New York audience broke into cheers when Jon Stewart rebutted Rep. Steve King’s (R, Iowa) 2008 assertion that if Obama were elected, “radical Islamists and their supporters would be dancing in the streets,” with, “talk about hitting the nail on the head, if you were to replace the word ‘dancing’ with ‘dodging unmanned drone missiles raining hell from the sky.” Liberal New Yorkers were actually cheer-leading the current US counterterrorism campaign. They were not applauding how archly Stewart eviscerated various GOP flacks. Rather, they were giving “props” to their president’s “chops”—as manly a killer as his predecessor.
Can so deeply-rooted a civil religion simply discard its core affirmation of faith, substituting an expedient doctrine, and still keep both integrity and coherence? Yes. Republican presidential candidates are the best illustration of how it can be done. Instead of uniting the world through American divine agency, a new ringing rhetoric calls for the dividing of humanity.
Newt Gingrich quotes FDR’s wartime speech. But Roosevelt was calling for urgent destruction of the Demiurge and the world’s rescue, in the name of all people. By contrast, America’s new mission, tub-thumped by GOP candidates, affirms our otherness—America is “set apart from other nations.” Mitt Romney avows that we will not permit a world without American domination.
America’s new affirmation of faith has abandoned universal deliverance in exchange for a state of permanent struggle against an entireswathe of humankind. Here the agency of counterterrorism is at once signal,vessel, and icon. It affirms the new exceptionalism’s commitment to defending a limited compass of good humans against a polluted sea spawning bad humans. Hence it asserts an altered framework of the sacred for the American civil religion. No longer animated toward a millennial vision of redemption, the new national credo speaks more forcefully for preservation of those virtuous bastions, even refuges, of another loan word for Americanism: “Civilization.”
 Gingrich, Opening Statement on American Exceptionalism.
 Romney, Remarks on Foreign Policy at The Citadel.
 Gingrich, A Nation Like No Other, 6.
 Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity.”
 Roosevelt, Radio Address, 27 May 1941.
 Zedong, On Guerilla Warfare, 93.
 Stiles, “The United States Elevated.”
 See Bellah, “Religion in America.”
 When I last visited US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) Headquarters, the most popular—andever-addictive—video game played by elite “First Cohort” legionnaires was far and away “Halo.” Visit “Halo Nation” to discover the mythic roots of this dreamscape of eternal combat: http://halo.wikia.com/wiki/Main_Page.
 Isaacson, “Empire.”
 Michael McCormick, Eternal Victory.
 “Carnuntum.” In this short, animated reconstruction, we go inside the buildings of a standard frontier cohort fort, this one near Bad Deutsch Altenberg, and we get to actually see the sacellum. See http://www.carnuntum.co.at/park/ihr-besuch-in-carnuntum for the archaeology and excavation.
 Clausewitz, On War, 89.
 Schlesinger, “Political Mobs.”
 See Vlahos, Fighting Identity: Sacred War and World Change.
 See Anderson, Imagined Communities.
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 See Wilken, Christians; Brown, Late Antiquity.
 Vlahos, “Defeating the Gods of War.”
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 Wasserman, World’s Illusion. The title of Wasserman’s magisterial interwar novel, wrestling with the individual’s commitment to humanity, as American exceptionalism has struggled with this nation’s oath and charge to Humankind, begins with a deeply ironical first chapter: “Crammon, the Stainless Knight.”
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Michael Vlahos is a professor of strategy at the US Naval War College, and an adjunct professor of national security at the Johns Hopkins University Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.