Obama National Security Strategy: An Opportunity Lost

The president's just-issued new national security strategy reads like a bureaucratic collection of politically approved thoughts—an opportunity lost, writes Leslie H Gelb.

Just about every senior Obama official is fanning out around Washington to brief the cognoscenti and the media on the president’s new national security strategy. These officials are so excited about the document released on Thursday you’d think they had discovered bubble gum. Actually, their 52-page document (mandated by law as a yearly exercise for presidents) displays a pretty intelligent list of all the things the United States needs to do to protect its security in the 21st century. And when I say “all” the things, I mean virtually every last deed and thought of goodness and good sense any Progressive (what liberals now call themselves) could possibly imagine. And yes, most of those things are quite sensible and important. The problem is they don’t add up to a national security strategy.

To shape a true strategy, the president must establish and explain priorities. In the Obama document, everything seems to be a top priority: economics at home, fighting terrorists (not “terror,” as George W. Bush would have it), pursuing nonproliferation and nuclear security, forging international cooperation, building international institutions, economic development abroad, promoting democracy and human rights. You get the point. A strategy also has to set achievable objectives, not just the usual American dreams and politically driven claptrap of hope. And at a minimum, strategy has to address how it’s going to get the jobs done. Just how does Washington garner cooperation from states like China and Brazil, for example, when the record has not been too promising?

In many ways, the document correctly stresses that America’s strength abroad depends on its economic vitality at home. But other than a one-time stimulus package, what is Mr. Obama planning to do to resuscitate the American economy?

In many ways, the document correctly stresses that America’s strength abroad depends on its economic vitality at home. But other than a one-time stimulus package, what is Mr. Obama planning to do to resuscitate the American economy? There’s no indication of the hard choices ahead needed to reduce yearly deficits and the absolutely overwhelming trillions of dollars in prospective total governmental debt. Hilariously, Mr. Obama reportedly phoned the prime minister of Spain the other day to tell HIM to reduce HIS deficit. If restoring the American economy is so essential—and it is—the man in the White House has to take the toughest possible steps to restore the economy and reestablish his and America’s credibility on these matters.

As for Mr. Obama’s strategic desire to build cooperation with nations around the world and get international institutions effectively on Washington’s side, forget about it—at least in any short or medium term. Most nations don’t do a damn thing and aren’t prepared to sacrifice a penny to what they see as “an American cause.” No amount of American niceness and understanding will change that. Our NATO allies have done the minimum in Afghanistan and will do less in the future. The U.N. Security Council has become virtually moribund. Just gaze upon its deficiencies in the current crisis with North Korea.

That said, don’t let what’s good about this national security document escape attention. That point about making the domestic economy the top priority is transcendental. The White House has to work on what it means to get it done. The document also speaks to a central matter that escaped the recent Bush administration, namely that the terrorist threat has morphed well beyond Afghanistan and environs in the last decade. It’s now in Yemen, Somalia and so on—and most importantly, it’s here at home. The Obama strategy recognizes those changes.

Also, don’t think for a moment that this administration is bulging with flakes, blind to the evil in the world. I don’t know a single senior official who fails to understand the serious and malevolent threats out there. Everyone realizes that the United States has to remain the preeminent military power in the world, and is willing to pay the price. The fact that they want to wind down two wars—in Iraq and Afghanistan—that are not vital to American security interests demonstrates their sound judgment, not their lack of toughness. This national security document is quite clear about the president’s commitment to maintaining U.S. military superiority.

Every commentary on the “new” strategy has noted its intent to differentiate Mr. Obama from George W. Bush, to contrast the former’s sophisticated internationalist view with the latter’s caveman interventionist one. To be sure, the document misses no opportunity to prove that “they” are not “them.” There are key differences such as Obama’s relying far less than Bush on military intervention as THE means to resolve problems and conflicts, Obama’s stress on combating climate change as opposed to Bush's opposition or later indifference, and Obama’s encouragement of democracy and democratic institutions abroad rather than Bush’s committing America to transform dictatorships into democracies. It’s worth remembering, however, that in Bush’s last two years, he began to emerge from his cave and moved in many of these directions.

None of the national security strategy documents ordered by Congress since 1986 matched the ones done during Henry Kissinger’s tenure as National Security Adviser to Presidents Nixon and Ford. Kissinger’s were genuine strategies. In Obama’s first effort, he provides some rhetorical flourishes in his introduction and conclusion. In the main, however, it reads like a bureaucratic collection of politically approved thoughts. Thus, it will quickly pass from memory. Sadly, then, his strategy paper is an opportunity lost. His next one should convey the priorities as well as the hard choices and decisions ahead for America to regain its power in the world.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.