Obama's National Security Strategy: The Sounds of Silence

Jun 07, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

A gap always exists between the stated words of a strategy paper and the actions of the leaders who promulgate it. The disparities and discrepancies may be relatively minor or monumental. Minor gaps are to be expected. One reason is that the former enunciates principles and presents a mental picture in broad strokes whereas the particular is rooted in hard realities of a given time and circumstance. Sound policy-making nonetheless refers to the more encompassing, more abstract cognitive map for assessing the meaning of the particular, its linkages with other issues and how alternative courses of action relate to the larger design. When that does not occur, the strategy loses cogency and the aggregation of individual policies loses coherence. That is more often the case than not. For concerted behavior over time in accordance with a logically conceived design is prey to the vicissitudes and distractions of a democratic polity -- as well as the limitations of individuals.

A less innocent reason for the "gap" is that it was not taken seriously from the outset. The exercise may have been launched because that is what is expected of new presidents, especially foreign affairs neophytes. In those cases, the document can be little more than an amalgam of ideas generated in various corners of the foreign policy bureaucracy without much theme or direction. Consequently, it simply is not very helpful as a guide to purposeful action -- and it does not lodge very securely in the minds of senior officials.

A variant of this second phenomenon is to affirm an abstract theme or two that offers a measure of verbal continuity while falling short of a producing a strategic framework suited to the demands of the country's multifaceted and wide-ranging external relations. Here, the motive is to impress on the audience a concept that conforms to the cultivated self-image and public style of the president, e.g. human rights for Jimmy Carter, diplomacy for the current incumbent.

Obama's security opus is a mix of the innocuous and the self-indulgent. It is not a serious strategic statement -- despite the lavish praise bestowed on it by a scion of the Washington foreign policy establishment who declared it a work of statesman-like genius, perhaps not seen since Bismarck. The basis for this critical judgment is three-fold.

First, it is too self-conscious in reiterating lofty ideals that have been staples of Obama's rhetoric since the campaign. Nothing wrong with that in principle. It is just that he abandoned them in practice from the moment his foot crossed the threshold of the White House. They include, inter alia, transparency, openness, square-dealing and -- in the foreign policy realm -- cooperation, consultation, coordination, multilateralism and the primacy of diplomacy. To stick to the latter, this administration has followed those precepts only slightly more than did its predecessor, although skillful at creating an impression at variance with behavior -- an impression now fading among our erstwhile enthusiastic well wishers abroad.

The NSS boldly declares that the United States must be "sensitive to the strategic objectives of other states" and must "emphasize listening to others." This is hardly an accurate description of what this administration has been doing for the past sixteen months. The list of governments and groups with whom it refuses to speak grows steadily. It devalues the counsels of partners, and lecturing friend and foe alike is the characteristic mode of communication.

The second reason for discounting the new strategy's seriousness is its failure to occupy the intellectual middle ground between the abstruse and the concrete. This long document begins with 9/11 and Afghanistan; the 'war on terror' looms over everything else. For that is unmistakably designated the paramount security concern of the United States. That is a highly dubious proposition; yet, it is given no more scrutiny in this self-consciously farsighted document than it is in everyday discussions. (One wonders whether Bismarck would have deemed the bin-Laden bunch as more important than managing the consequences for the world system of China's rise). So the immediate focus is narrow, yet the study covers just about every aspect of American public life and public policy, e.g. education, civics, energy, finances. This is reminiscent of the Cold War days when a similar encompassing perspective was driven by the threat and multiform competition from the Communist world. It was great to have federal money poured into area study programs but today it is hard to see how the shortcomings of American education are related in any way whatsoever to al-Qaeda. Are so-called charter schools (the White House's discredited pet initiative) the imagined instrument for contending with the dangers posed by violent Islamic jihadists? Are charter schools now to be our counter madrassas?

A conscientious security strategy would provide guidance, at the very least, for addressing the deep issues raised by our interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. They include: Is the country prepared to live with any level of terrorist threat from the Greater Middle East? If not, what are the implications?; what place does nation-building in that region have in our omnibus security strategy?; how do we appraise the intangibles of alienating a large swath of the region's population and losing our moral standing worldwide?; how do our leaders engage the American people in thinking honestly about these questions?

Finally, this broad gauge report is a committee product with all the drawbacks of the genre. It is a consensus document leaning toward the lowest common denominator of agreement and anodyne language. The preliminary materials that went into its composition may or may not have been braver and more incisive. The president is unlikely to have read them. I doubt that he will ever reread this composite.

As to the critical economic dimension, here are a few comments:

1. A grand security strategy is not the best vehicle to address the profound structural problems that bedevil the American economy. There are thin grounds for deferring to those currently responsible for our macro economic policy, especially as regards the parlous financial situation. Yet that is exactly what this report does in limiting itself to bromides and vague exhortation. From a security perspective, there is much more to be said.

2. America's exalted sense of self is rooted in the belief that we are pace-setters and world beaters in every domain. Yet the great financial crisis that continues to menace us was an American product in every respect. Its underlying philosophy, its dubious innovations, its practices -- all bear the mark MADE IN USA. We have lost a good amount of authority as a consequence. Moreover, we find ourselves in the impossible position of either stifling that uncomfortable truth in order to sustain national mythology, and sense of prowess, or we have to admit that we are not as exceptional as we think.

3. The erosion of American dominance, and thereby influence, is occurring more rapidly and cutting more deeply in the economic sphere than in the political or, certainly, military realms. That already is beginning to register in the manifestly greater independence of mind shown by other states -- even as we flex our military muscles in obscure places and devise plans to extend the field of action. If we continue in this manner, we will be left with stranded armies physically able to do almost anything in remote locations even as the metropole degrades.

4. Spending a few trillion dollars in the futile attempt to obliterate totally and forevermore the "terrorist" threat accelerates that process.