Obama’s security strategy falls short
By Clive Crook
May 30 2010 19:56
The administration of Barack Obama sees its new National Security Strategy – a statement the White House sends Congress from time to time – as a work of great importance, a radical departure from its predecessor’s thinking. It is neither; nor, for that matter, is it a strategy.
Ordinarily, one might be unconcerned. A document is just a document, after all: actions are what count. The worrying thing is that the US president and his team seem so deluded about what they have produced.
I might be prejudiced. To judge the content of the statement, you have to overlook the way it is expressed, which is not easy. It was run through a management-speak machine. It emerged, repetitious and full of misprints, with added verbiage and reduced intellectual content. Then it was put through a second time.
Imagine 50 pages of this: “To prevent acts of terrorism on American soil, we must enlist all of our intelligence, law enforcement, and homeland security capabilities. We will continue to integrate and leverage state and major urban area fusion centres that have the capability to share classified information.”
Previously, as you know, many people denied that homeland security capabilities should be used for homeland security. So much for that false doctrine. And notice how state and major urban area fusion centres will in future share information. Another bold departure. The previous approach to these strangely impaired fusion centres was different, entirely different. Thankfully, those days are over.
This is the “all appropriate measures” school of policy analysis. One should do everything that is appropriate – in an integrated, leveraged, cost effective and sustainable way – while rejecting anything inappropriate, disorganised, ineffective or bound to fail.
According to this paper, the aims of Mr Obama’s national security policy include every desirable outcome. Curbing climate change is an aspect of national security. By similar reasoning, available resources embrace every aspect of his domestic and foreign policy: not just strong armed forces and a prosperous economy but also “access to quality, affordable healthcare”. National security includes everything and therefore means nothing.
The authors contrast Mr Obama’s enlightenment with the brainlessness of his predecessor. But as his actions have departed little from late-period George W. Bush, this boils down to mood and pedantry. The White House does not like to say “war on terror” or “terrorism”; terrorism is a tactic not an enemy, it explains. One can still say (indeed the administration insists) the US is at war with terrorists, violent extremists, and al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Good to have this cleared up.
Taking care not to mistake tactics for enemies, Mr Obama has increased the US commitment in Afghanistan, much as Mr Bush would have. His strategy fails to clarify the rationale. He retains the right to act unilaterally. He excludes rogue states such as Iran from his (qualified) promise to use nuclear weapons only in retaliation for an attack with weapons of mass destruction. He has scaled up drone strikes on and off the battlefield, a policy of doubtful legality. He renounces torture – as did Mr Bush – but detains terrorist suspects indefinitely without trial. He promises to close Guantánamo but the prison is still there.
Unlike many critics of Mr Obama, I see these policies as defensible. The world does not surrender to good intentions, and the administration is doing its best in difficult circumstances. Also, tone matters. It is right to encourage allies not disdain them; to cajole rivals as well as threaten. In his second term, a chastened Mr Bush came to understand this – which makes it wrong to say security policy under Mr Obama has changed that much.
One could dismiss the paper as a campaign flyer unworthy of analysis. But the administration has hard choices to make, and more than a year’s experience to think about. The strategic analysis the paper claims to provide is necessary. One only hopes the White House does not mistake this so-called strategy for the work it still needs to do.
Above all, strategy must focus on priorities and constraints. The White House says it agrees with this – the US cannot do everything, and it must have partners. But aside from such statements of the obvious, the paper is silent about what is vital in national security, what is desirable and affordable, and what is desirable but not affordable. It correctly says that ends must be aligned with means, but fails to align them. All right goals will be pursued; all available assets will be brought to bear. That is not a strategy.
Over everything hangs the greatest challenge facing the US: coming to terms with diminished power. To judge by the paper, the administration is unwilling even to think about this. Yes, it underlines mutual interest and calls for co-operation – but with American characteristics. The US will continue to lead, it insists. Its interests will not be subordinated. “We are no less powerful, but we need to apply our power in different ways,” said Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, last week.
No less powerful? US military strength is fearsome but the limits to its use bind ever more tightly. Increasingly, the co-operation the US seeks will not be on terms it dictates. Painful subjects for a mighty nation but ones that the next strategy might start to address.
where for art thou