Happy Christmas to all my favorite national security nerds! Sadly, it’s been yet another “year from you-know-where” with troubles and tragedies seemingly gripping us at every corner. Even Santa’s “ho-ho-ho” is getting a little shaky. But that’s why we have to step back at this time of year, take a deep breath, and find some ways to help each other smile, and maybe even chuckle out loud a bit during this special season.
The elves reminded me how much you enjoyed the past leaks from my top secret holiday shopping list for all of those naughty and nice members of your community. I know everyone really loves getting the coolest new toys and latest hot gizmos from Santa, but with all the supply chain headaches this year, I’ve had to focus on items that are already in our warehouse here at the North Pole. Like most of you, I’m still working on a few of my last-minute gifts, but here goes:
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. Since you’ve made clear that China is your top priority, Santa has just what you need: a copy of Milton Bradley’s 1965 classic board game “Hit the Beach!” Airplanes, warships, and troops assaulting small defended islands in the Pacific — what could be more useful? And all that analog gameplay will help you immensely when the U.S. military’s hi-tech command and control system crashes or gets spoofed by a future adversary. (Just make sure that your staff updates the rules so that they don’t accidentally replay a World War II attack against Japan!)
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. One year ago, The Economist loudly proclaimed “Jake Sullivan to the rescue,” and dubbed you “the Democrats’ foreign-policy golden boy.” Yet just a couple of weeks ago, the New York Times wrote a feature story about your status as a fallen star under a headline that included the word schadenfreude. Santa has just the fix: A case of professional-grade silver polish, guaranteed to remove that pesky first-year tarnish and restore your always-the-brightest-person-in-the-room luster! You’ll also find some Eye Concealer for Men in your stocking, to help cover up those growing bags under your eyes. Hang in there!
Secretary of State Antony Blinken. I know, I know…who? Most of you have barely heard of Tony Blinken, much less that he is leading U.S. diplomacy all around the world. But that might be because he doesn’t have any help, since the State Department is still waiting for the Senate to confirm more than 70 ambassadors — including those for such obscure backwaters like China, France, India, and Japan. So Santa will be giving Senators Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and Marco Rubio a package of the most competitive three-person board games, to encourage them to release all their ambassadorial holds and focus on beating each other rather than paralyzing the nation’s diplomacy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin. What’s the right gift for a man who perpetually stays at the top of Santa’s naughty list? Since you snag most of your own gifts (often by force), Santa is hoping to soothe your anger, and convince you to stay within your own borders, with a deluxe Staycation Spa Day gift box.
General Secretary Xi Jinping. On the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, Santa knows you’re having a pretty awesome year. But 2022 may not be as good for you, since the abysmal Chinese men’s hockey team is about to embarrass itself on the world stage. Despite spending millions, hiring international coaches, and luring players of Chinese descent from around the world, its pitiful international ranking remains stuck at 32nd — and the team just narrowly escaped being disqualified from the Beijing Winter Olympics despite the usual automatic bid for the host country. And now you’re facing almost-certain humiliation, since the team is stuck in a group with top-ranked Canada, the United States, and Germany. So, Santa has quietly arranged for you to add a secret new member to your squad. He’s a versatile and experienced guy who can both coach and play, and can still deliver one of the meanest checks on the ice: former Princeton hockey player and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley. But you must keep this top secret — he’s already gotten in trouble for even talking with you guys!
Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville. Okay, that Army-Navy game didn’t turn out quite like you had planned. But Santa’s been watching what you’ve been up to in the real world, and is really excited about your new idea of an Arctic brigade combat team! Now you need a superstar commander to lead it, and I have just the guy for you! Someone who knows the High North like the back of his crinkly hand and has always hankered for command: Santa himself! Look, I may be a bit out of shape, but I can bring my own reindeer recon platoon and I’m available to work every day of the year but Christmas! Whaddya say?
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday. It’s good to see that rosy holiday glow in your cheeks again after that upset football victory over Army, but Santa hasn’t forgotten your worst moment of the year: almost losing a $3 billion Seawolf submarine that plowed into an underwater Pacific mountain. Really? So here is Santa’s gift for you this year: a new submarine design, based on the SSRN Seaview from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (the greatest submarine television series ever!). Check out the panoramic glass bow and its awesome undersea visibility! No way you are gonna drive into a South China Sea seamount with those big front windows! Make sure this feature gets built into your newest subs pronto!
Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger. Santa’s been impressed with all the changes you’ve been painfully forcing upon the Marine Corps to bring it into this century. Your latest initiative on changing Talent Management in the Marine Corps has the potential to be one of the most revolutionary — including bringing in an older, more diverse cohort of recruits. Your plan to overhaul recruit training and “treat people like human beings instead of inventory” really caught Santa’s eye. So this year, you’ll be getting enough yoga mats, incense, and scented candles to furnish your famously harsh boot camps at Parris Island and Camp Pendleton, to help implement your considerate new focus on the individual marine!
Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr. We know that the Space Force was created before your tenure, but that you (and lots of your airmen) are still grieving over the loss of that high-visibility mission — and especially the resources that go with it! So, Santa will be dropping off Adele’s new album, 30. It’s all about going through a breakup and divorce, and trying to reemerge stronger on the other side. It will help you sort through all those complex feelings to help you develop a better relationship with your ex.
Chief of Space Operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond. Okay, Santa is really sorry he confused you with General Naird last year. But I’ll definitely make up for it by getting you the biggest, best-est present of all this season: a Bird 1 multi-stage rocket and orbiter from James Bond’s 1967 film You Only Live Twice. This awesome baby slides up to enemy spacecraft and wraps its giant arms around them to suck them inside to their doom. Since your space buddies in Beijing and Moscow seem to be blasting way out in front with their anti-satellite capabilities, Santa wants you to get hopping on this bandwagon quick!
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz. Melting icecaps, rising sea levels, coastal flooding, crazy storm patterns, stronger hurricanes — you’re gonna be one busy dude! Santa is not happy about wearing short sleeves at the North Pole in December, so this year the elves are working on getting you a big budget increase and a whole lot of new Coasties in the ranks (hear that, Congress?). You and your folks are going to be in ultra-high demand for as long into the future as I can see. Just make sure to come say hi when you’re floating around the newly navigable waters of the High North!
U.S. Cyber Command Commander Gen. Paul Nakasone. Well, even Santa knows that it’s been a banner year for bad actors in cyberspace. And yes, I know that everything that happens in that domain is not your problem, but…come on! A ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline that shuts down U.S. oil distribution on the East Coast? Holy reindeer crap! So here’s my special gift to bring you up to speed in cyber security: an institutional subscription to 1Password, to replace all those supposedly strong passwords in your command that are actually just Cybercom1234. You’re welcome.
U.S. Central Command Commander Gen. Frank McKenzie. With no more troops in Afghanistan, and the Pentagon seriously focusing on China, you now have a whole lot of time on your hands! Who woulda thought that even a year ago? Santa has just the gift for you: The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy! So what if it’s a thousand pages long and weighs almost four pounds? Use your new free time and wide-open schedule to learn how to win friends and gain influence in the region without using up most of the Defense Department’s military resources! You could even form a study group with U.S. Southern Command Commander Gen. Laura Richardson, who has to live that way all the time. Enjoy!
U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Commander Adm. John Aquilino. Looking out to the Western Pacific, even Santa can see that you have a big problem with the time-space continuum out there — you just can’t get a lot of your stuff there nearly as quickly as the other guy. So, Santa has just the right gift: the warp drive from the Starship Enterprise that suspends the laws of physics! Get this baby working and — zap! Four carrier strike groups from San Diego to the South China Sea just like that! Or — wham! The whole Marine Corps occupying the first island chain! That’s the only way that Santa can help you overcome the otherwise mind-blowing predicament of time and distance you’ve got in the Western Pacific. Good luck!
And that’s it for this year’s holiday season! I hope you enjoy Santa’s light-hearted picks for your favorite national security luminaries this year and find ways to share our holiday joy with all of the special elves throughout your world. This year in particular, we all need to share a smile, a laugh, and a bit of joy with those around us. So from all of us here at the slushy North Pole (and from your loyal Strategic Outpost columnists), we hope you have a safe, healthy, and joyous 2021 holiday season!
Yours in social distancing,
Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, U.S. Army (ret.) and Dr. Nora Bensahel are visiting professors of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and senior fellows at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies. They are also contributing editors at War on the Rocks, where their column appears regularly. Sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter to track their articles as well as their public events.