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U.S. must adapt to an ever-changing world, former CIA director says

The U.S. needs to have a vision of foreign policy that it tries to follow no matter which political party is in power, the former head of the CIA said Thursday.

"The world cannot afford the globe's only superpower being radically inconsistent every electoral cycle," said retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden. "We've got to make up our mind: What is our appropriate role in dealing with the world?"

Hayden — who led the CIA from 2006 to 2009, and served as head of the National Security Agency under President George W. Bush — criticized President Obama's handling of some foreign policy issues, such as placing a time limit on troop surges to Afghanistan.

"[The president said] we're going to surge in Afghanistan 10, 12, 18 months," Hayden said. "To get the word 'surge' and time limit in the same sentence is a remarkable feat."

Addressing the annual Association of Old Crows symposium on electronic warfare in Washington, D.C., Hayden said the White House may seem to be slow to take action, but that is because of the complexity of decisions it faces. it's likely not due to indecision.

Instead, Hayden said he believes the administration is seriously struggling to decide what America's world role should be, how active a part the U.S. should play, how the military should be deployed, and whether it's better to pay attention to affairs within the U.S. instead of engaging internationally.

The world has been more dangerous in the past, Hayden said, pointing to the Cuban Missile Crisis and height of the Cold War as examples. But he argued that the world has never been so complex nor so interconnected before.

"We have actually seen it more dangerous, we really have," he said. "I have never seen it more complicated … Frankly, I've never seen it more immediate."

Hayden said that much of U.S. military and security policy is a holdover still holding over from the post-World War II era, when nation states held all the power and it still took time for messages to transverse the Atlantic Ocean.

Now, however, communication and transfer of information is near-immediate, and non-state actors are becoming increasingly empowered.

Hayden laid out four main "tectonic plates" he said are shifting the world culture and geopolitical structure:

  • The empowerment of non-state actors — including terrorist groups — to affect events on the world stage.
  • Things that once seemed permanent are changing, such as national borders and boundaries.
  • The rise of "brittle" nuclear-powered states such as Iran, North Korea and Pakistan.
  • The rise of China as a major world and economic power.

The U.S. must is going to have to adapt to an ever-changing world, Hayden said, and pointed to the Islamic State group as an example of that change. America is prepared to deal with nations and national governments, but less certain how to deal with movements of people and ideological groups that don't care about a country's boundaries, he said.

"Let me give you the punchline here: Iraq doesn't exist. Syria doesn't exist. And they ain't coming back. They're gone," Hayden said.

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