National Insecurity

American Leadership in an Age of Fear


By David Rothkopf

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In the wake of 9/11, America and its people have experienced a sense of vulnerability unprecedented in the nation’s recent history. Buffeted by challenges from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the financial crisis, from Washington dysfunction to the rise of China and the dawn of the era of cyber warfare, two very different presidents and their advisors have struggled to cope with a relentless array of new threats.

You may think you know the story. But in National Insecurity, David Rothkopf offers an entirely new perspective into the hidden struggles, the surprising triumphs, and the shocking failures of those charged with leading the United States through one of the most difficult periods in its history. Thanks to his extraordinary access, Rothkopf provides fresh insights drawing on more than one hundred exclusive interviews with the key players who shaped this era.

At its core, National Insecurity is the gripping story of a superpower in crisis, seeking to adapt to a rapidly changing world, sometimes showing inspiring resilience — but often undone by the human flaws of those at the top, the mismanagement of its own system, the temptation to concentrate too much power within the hands of too few in the White House itself, and an unwillingness to draw the right lessons from the recent past. Nonetheless, within that story are unmistakable clues to a way forward that can help restore American leadership.



Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning That Lies Ahead

Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making

Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power

Cuba: The Contours of Change (coauthor and coeditor with Susan Kaufman Purcell)

The Price of Peace: Emergency Economic Intervention and US Foreign Policy

The Big Emerging Markets (editor and principal author)

The Common Market (coauthor with Carol Zeman Rothkopf)

Copyright © 2014 by David J. Rothkopf.

Published in the United States by PublicAffairs™,

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PublicAffairs books are available at special discounts for bulk purchases in the U.S. by corporations, institutions, and other organizations. For more information, please contact the Special Markets Department at the Perseus Books Group, 2300 Chestnut Street, Suite 200, Philadelphia, PA 19103, call (800) 810-4145, ext. 5000, or e-mail

Book Design by Cynthia Young

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Rothkopf, David J. (David Jochanan), 1955–

National insecurity : American leadership in an age of fear / David Rothkopf. —

First edition.

pages cm

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-1-61039-341-6 (e-book)

1. United States—Foreign relations—History—21st century.

2. National security—United States—History—21st century. I. Title.

E744.R84 2014



First Edition

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

For Adrean, the most fearless person I know,

With love


Introduction: The Enemy in the Mirror

1. Iraq: Debacle Accomplished

2. A Very Different President

3. The Other George W. Bush

4. Elections Select Presidents, Crises Reveal Them

5. Hello, I Must Be Going

6. The Most Powerful Man in the World

7. Eyeball to Eyeball Again

8. The Place Where Good Intentions Go to Die

9. Leading from Behind

10. The Beginning of the End of the Age of Fear

11. A Challenge for the Next President




About the Author

"America is a great power possessed of tremendous military might and a wide-ranging economy, but all this is built on an unstable foundation which can be targeted with special attention to its obvious weak spots. If America is hit in one hundredth of those weak spots, God willing, it will stumble, wither away and relinquish world leadership."


"At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide."


Introduction: The Enemy in the Mirror

Carrie: I'm just making sure we don't get hit again.

Saul: Well, I'm glad somebody's looking out for the country, Carrie,

Carrie: I'm serious. I, I missed something once before. I won't, I can't, let that happen again.

Saul: It was ten years ago. Everybody missed something that day.


Midway through the second decade of the twenty-first century, America faces a world in turmoil. We are uncertain of our place in that world and of what role we are to play going forward.

For all of our native confidence and fundamental optimism, we have spent much of the past decade shaken and unsteady. Many of the events that created these circumstances have origins far outside America's borders. Some, though, are of our own making. Faced with not one but two major crises and their aftershocks, our leaders responded at times with actions that put us or our interests in greater jeopardy. If we are to fully recover, we have to ask what went wrong. We also must try to understand where we made gains, and why.

Doing so requires a closer look at our leaders. It requires the discipline to set aside politics and the reflexive reactions it breeds. It demands a willingness to see our presidents and their senior advisors in their totality, the good and the bad, to know that those who blunder one day can make major contributions the next. And because so much of what happens in the American system and the world happens within the closely knit, often opaque world immediately around the President of the United States, it requires a concerted effort to pull back the curtain and truly understand what is going on in that rarified environment.

Exploring this vantage point makes it possible to take a story that seems very familiar—that of the past decade, of Presidents Bush and Obama, of Iraq, Afghanistan, terror, financial crisis, and the rise of new powers—and to see it in an entirely new and often unexpected way. We can then come to see how the forces that have over the past few decades led us to concentrate more and more power within the White House may be as responsible for many of the challenges we have faced as any individual or distant event. In the same way, it becomes possible to understand that very often what goes on behind the scenes, from personality struggles to issues of character, from the choices presidents make as managers, as chief executives, to the processes by which they reach decisions as commanders-in-chief, can be as important to preserving and advancing America's interests as all the speeches and summit meetings, the high-profile actions of our leaders that we are more accustomed to seeing on the news or reading about on the Internet.

This book is an effort to tell that story, to give the reader a glimpse into what it was like in the innermost circles of American power at a moment of unprecedented challenges, a moment in which America felt more vulnerable and adrift than at any time in modern memory, and to draw concrete lessons from this period for rejuvenating US global leadership in a rapidly changing world.


The war that began for America on the morning of September 11, 2001, was the first in the country's history that began with an image. It was a scene that within hours of taking place was almost universally observed.

In the past, wars were triggered by actions that were reported in dispatches, recounted in newspapers, described in speeches—whether before the Congress, in local meeting halls, or on radio or television. They were presented in prose, couched in arguments that, even when infused with emotion, appealed to citizens through their intellects. Yes, populists and demagogues and newspaper publishers sought to tug at heartstrings and stir anger, but the path to these reactions always traveled through the mind before it reached human hearts.

The gallery of images presented on the morning of al-Qaeda's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was something else again. Jetliners piercing the glistening glass skin of towers that had been targeted precisely because they were longstanding symbols of American vibrancy and strength. Another plane smashing into the side of the headquarters of our military. Desperate souls, tiny silhouetted dolls, plunging helplessly, horrifyingly, to their deaths rather than face incineration in the jet-fuel-fed fires that melted the Trade Center from within. And then, ultimately, the indelible, unthinkable sight of the crumbling towers, seemingly consumed by great steel-grey clouds of dust and rubble.

As the crowds ran from the disaster, pursued by those almost demonic clouds snaking through the streets of lower Manhattan, what we saw on their faces we felt in our hearts. There was no need for words. Indeed, commentators were left speechless. We were shaken. We were made afraid. We could hardly believe our eyes.

This moment electrified us, firing neurons that often bypassed the reasoning lobes of our brains and pumped adrenaline to our hearts. This spoke without translation or dilution to our animal selves. September 11 challenged basic feelings that our parents, our society, had worked from our births to nurture in us—the feeling of security in our homes, order in our lives, a sense that this nation was safer than others, beyond the reach of such attacks. Even the palpable fears of the Cold War years—when some of us lay awake in our beds imagining the sound of Russian boots marching down our streets, or sat crouched beneath our school desks with our coats over our heads wondering if they would provide protection from thermonuclear attacks—seemed abstract and remote, diminished by this brutality that played as if on a loop on our televisions and in our minds, by the blackened scars the attacks left on the bedrock of Manhattan, the walls of the Pentagon, and in that field in Pennsylvania.

Few Americans saw images of Pearl Harbor before war was declared and, when they did, what they saw were grainy newsreels of a place far, far away. The torpedoing of the Lusitania was just a headline, as was the sinking of the Maine. There were no cameras at Fort Sumter, even though the Civil War was to become the first during which Americans far from battlefields got a sense of the losses through the photographs of men like Mathew Brady. News took so long to travel that the Battle of New Orleans was fought weeks after the peace treaty was signed that was supposed to have ended the War of 1812. Pamphleteers tried to stir anger in the wake of battles at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill. In those older instances, slogans and caricatures of our enemies were used to fuel the will to fight in ways that were entirely unnecessary after what Americans saw for themselves that very morning in September 2001.

We had been touched, and we trembled and we boiled. But little did we realize that those images and what they etched on our hearts would usher in an age more defined by emotion than any other in memory. We were entering an era in which emotions—from fear to an appetite for revenge—more than reason, would dictate our actions, invite our errors, and in the end transform how the world would view us and how we would view ourselves.

Consider the contrast that 1945 provides. Fewer than five years after America declared war on Germany and Japan, despite the bloodiest conflict in the history of mankind, despite the Holocaust, despite losses that touched every family in America, we not only signed armistices but we immediately began the process of helping our enemies to rebuild, of forgiving, and, over time, forgetting. Yet for more than a decade after 9/11, the war continued, having morphed to include the furtive arsenal of drones and special operations and cyber-attacks and unprecedented global surveillance—and the almost paranoid search for potential enemies among allies, friends, and even American citizens. This book describes how an age of fear transformed the process of making American foreign and national security policy. It examines, through the words of many who shaped those policies—including many that were enacted behind the scenes and outside the public eye—how our sense of vulnerability drove us and changed us. This is the story of how the best and some of the most obscure among our public servants strove to contain that insecurity, put it into perspective, and set America back on a course guided by our aspirations. And it is the story of others, many also well intentioned, who were too driven by that welter of emotions or who capitalized on them, to create policies that in the end only undermined our safety further or, in key circumstances, even undercut our standing as a nation.

Beyond that, it is also a look at how the character of our leaders is translated into action. The United States government is the largest and most complex organization on the face of the earth. But at its heart it is people. When it works well—as it often has in the past—it enables presidents to sort through the recommendations of professional policymakers, make informed choices, and ensure their effective implementation. When it does not—and in the past decade it sometimes did not—it is because those in power did not take advantage of its inherent strengths and neglected to learn the lessons of the past. This book is also an effort to understand where the National Security Council process worked and where it did not, and why.

On September 11, 2001, in the hours immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a dreadful silence fell over Washington, DC. Many officials and business people had returned to their homes, gathering up their children from school, unsure of what would happen next. (I left my children in their school near Georgetown, thinking they would be safer there. By the time they were picked up they were almost alone save for a few teachers. They have yet to fully forgive me for this.) The White House complex was pulsing with activity, the nerve center of a national security apparatus that had just been so shocked that, even as it was responding to the day's events, it was beginning a process of reassessment and reinvention that is not yet complete at the time of this writing more than a dozen years later.

At lunchtime that day, I sat at an outdoor table with three colleagues from the small advisory firm at which I worked. We were at Café Milano in Georgetown, a place that itself would later be targeted in a terrorist plot that was foiled by the US anti-terror operations that were born on that crystal clear September morning. As I recall, we too were almost alone. We had been watching reports of the attacks all morning, speculating about their origins and their impact, calling around DC for real-time insights, checking in with our own families.

With me were Anthony Lake, former US national security advisor; John Gannon, former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency; and Susan Rice, a former State Department official who would later herself become US national security advisor. Earlier, as we stood in our offices watching on television as the second plane struck the World Trade Center, Tony Lake had turned to John and said simply, "al-Qaeda." They had both been tracking the organization for years, and both were certain no other terrorist organization could have managed such an attack.

The eerie stillness of the city made every distant noise ominous. Flights had been stopped nationwide, so when the occasional rush of a jet engine was heard it was hard not to wonder if another attack was on the way. It was rumored several aircraft were unaccounted for. There were a lot of rumors that day.

Not much, in fact, was clear. Our lunch conversation, like millions of others that day, tried to sort out what had just happened and what might come next. If it was an attack, as it seemed it was, President Bush would have little choice but to move to a war footing. Just where that war would be fought and against whom was an open question, but it seemed very likely that the Middle East would be in the crosshairs of any retaliation. What was not contemplated was the degree to which those attacks would trigger changes that would transform America and the world.

A dozen years later, with Osama bin Laden lying at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, we have learned that it would not be a matter of strike and counterstrike, identification of a threat and its elimination. Losing 3,000 people and watching an iconic symbol of the United States crumble into dust had instilled Americans with an unfamiliar but palpable sense of looming risks, feelings that would in turn lead the country's leaders to take actions that even more than the attacks themselves would weaken us and produce bouts of national introspection and self-doubt that would alter our worldview and our sense of our nation's role in the world. Our strength and our distance from the rest of the world had given us a sense of security that had now been shattered, making it difficult for us to absorb the blow, respond in an appropriately tough but measured way, and simply go on about our business, as governments and peoples more accustomed to such attacks, from Israel to Colombia, typically did.

Not inconsequentially, the actions we would take while decapitating the old al-Qaeda that had launched the 9/11 attacks would indirectly result in new, greater, more diverse terrorist threats. Although at the time of America's invasion of Iraq in 2003 there were essentially no elements of bin Laden's organization in that country, at the time of the writing of this book there are thought to be perhaps more than had belonged to all of al-Qaeda in 2001, and they were threatening the very existence of the country, killing thousands, and controlling large swaths of territory. There are estimated to be as many as 10,000 more extremists in neighboring Syria, according to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, with at least 7,000 of them having shipped in from Europe. (Estimates by Israeli intelligence and our allies on the Arabian Peninsula suggest the number may be two or three times that.) In fact, a Rand Corporation report published in June 2014 asserted that the number of Salafi-jihadist groups had grown from just 28 in 2007 to 49 in 2013, that the number of Salafi-jihadists, which was between 18,000 and 42,000 in 2007, had grown to between 44,000 and 105,000, and that the number of attacks attributed to these groups had increased more than ninefold in the same period, from 100 to 950. Northern Mali is the largest al-Qaeda controlled territory on earth. In fact, al-Qaeda in North Africa and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have grown to be threats on a par with what we once found in Afghanistan and on the rugged mountains of neighboring Pakistan.

None of us that day in Georgetown could possibly have imagined the degree to which the al-Qaeda attacks would achieve their goals of shaking America to its very foundations. Indeed, it hardly seems possible that bin Laden himself could have imagined that the superpower against which he had struck would so consume itself with a desire for revenge and to restore a sense of security that it would spend trillions of dollars it could ill afford, deplete to the point of near inoperability its armed forces, violate the most fundamental principles for which it had long stood, alienate its allies, and ultimately turn inward. Nor could bin Laden have dared hope that the United States and indeed the international system would eventually largely abandon Middle Eastern battlefields, leaving them to descend into a void that Islamic extremists battled to fill. (Although that is the strategy he implied in the quote that appears among those that begin this book.) Further, none of us, nor our attackers, could have imagined the greater costs associated with ill-conceived reactions to the perceived new threat to a degree that made it impossible for us to truly identify, debate, or respond to the greater next-generation threats to American leadership and prosperity.

In 2005, I wrote a book called Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power. It was a history of the modern US national security establishment since its creation in the wake of the Second World War. As the title indicated, it was published at a time when President Bush's initial reactions to the events of 9/11 had produced the most massive deployment of American force since the system I was writing about had been created. It was a period in which terms like "shock and awe" and concepts like "us versus them" and brazen unilateralism were not only common but were so widely embraced by the American people that, even with setbacks on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, even with scandals in Abu Ghraib and doubts about Guantanamo and the Patriot Act, Bush won a renewed mandate from American voters.

Running the World traced the evolution of a system developed in the wake of a world war that left America as the only major power in the world that was unscathed—the clear victor and principal architect of the new international order. The book followed that post-WWII growth from the remarkable flowering of creativity and institution-building that led to the creation of the UN and the Bretton Woods institutions globally, and to the birth of the Department of Defense, the CIA, and the National Security Council in the United States, through the first term of the administration of President George W. Bush. Throughout that period—through the Cold War and its immediate aftermath and on to the first years after the 9/11 attacks—America may have been threatened from time to time and stumbled not infrequently, but the country's strength and resolve were such that there was a belief at home and abroad that this was a nation in a commanding position, with leaders who regularly demonstrated a willingness, for better or worse, to wield that power.

The men and women at the top from the days of Truman through those of Bush ran the world if not literally then figuratively, dominating their respective eras. American presidents, paramount symbols of that strength, were typically called "the most powerful man in the world."

But in the decade since that book was finished, from the second term of the Bush administration and the Obama years, something has changed. Suffering self-inflicted wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan as a result of unilateralism and violation of international laws, reckless military spending, and fecklessness and political division at home, our perceived power waned, and the wellsprings of real power sputtered. Backlash against those policies produced an era in which America pulled away from her leadership role more strongly than at any time since the aftermath of World War I. The financial crisis, the rise of new powers, and geopolitical shifts for which we were unprepared compounded the problems.

During that same period, the past decade, there have also been changes in the way the national security apparatus of the United States was used. At times, leaders appeared to heed the lessons of the decades since its establishment that I wrote about in Running the World—notably that the president's national security team in the White House focused on their role of helping the president to make decisions by bringing together the best views from all the relevant agencies of the US government and then helping to ensure the decisions the president made were implemented by those same agencies. When this happened, the system worked well. But at times, especially recently, the president's White House advisors and an ever more bloated national security staff played a role that history should have warned them would cause problems—they supplanted the agencies they were supposed to lead, attempted to do their jobs for them, micromanaged decisions, and as a result did not have time to do the strategic planning and coordination work that only they could do. This, too, undercut American leadership.


  • "An inside look at how foreign policy was made under the two presidents since 9/11...the real star of the book, the übershaper of everything, is this 'age of fear' that so warped our institutions and policy priorities. Will it ever go away or will bin Laden be forever the gift that keeps on giving?" —Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times

    "An important book." –Fareed Zakaria, CNN (Fareed Zakaria GPS Book of the Week selection)

    “Many books have been written about America's response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; few are as insightful, as compelling or as useful as National Insecurity.” –Washington Post

    "Rothkopf, the preeminent historian and analyst of the crucially important and usually misunderstood National Security Council (NSC), argues that, 'It is not strategy to simply undo the mistakes of the recent past.'" —Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic

On Sale
Apr 26, 2016
Page Count
512 pages

David Rothkopf

About the Author

David J. Rothkopf  is a professor of international relations, political scientist and journalist. He is the founder and CEO of The Rothkopf Group, a visiting professor at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of The Great Questions of Tomorrow, National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear​, and most recently, Traitor: A History of American Betrayal from Benedict Arnold to Donald Trump. He is also the podcast host of Deep State Radio. 

Learn more about this author