As required by law, President Barack Obama released his National Security Strategy (NSS) late last month. Regrettably, the document doesn’t address the nation’s security challenges particularly well and doesn’t offer much of a strategy. Instead, it glosses over some of the most serious threats, fails to present a real roadmap for navigating the world’s many danger zones, and offers diplomatic bromides and observations of the obvious.
Take, for example, the document’s discussion of the U.S.-Canada relationship. Although previous NSS documents didn’t devote large amounts of ink to Canada, they offered seasoned assessments of this priority partnership. Obama’s NSS, on the other hand, informs Americans that “Canada is our closest trading partner, a steadfast security ally and an important partner in regional and global efforts.” With a brief mention of NAFTA trade flows, the NSS declares, clumsily, “We must change the way we think about our shared borders, in order to secure and expedite the lawful and legitimate flow of people and goods while interdicting transnational threat (sic) that threaten our open societies.”
That’s about it—no description of what that change would entail, no vision of how to expand security cooperation or deepen trade, no discussion of how to deflect encroaching threats in the Arctic or Pacific.
But there’s more—or less, as it were.
Aside from references to America’s terrorist enemies, the NSS takes great pains to avoid labeling enemy regimes what they are. To be sure, there are vague mentions of “adversarial governments” and “states [that] endanger regional and global security by flouting international norms.” But regimes like North Korea and Iran are never called enemies, even though that’s undeniably what they are and what they desire to be.
North Korea, which during the Obama administration has detonated a nuclear weapon and torpedoed a South Korean ship operating in international waters, is mentioned in the blandest of terms. Iran is meekly called to task for not being “responsible.” Iran, it pays to recall, is arming insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan who are killing American troops; funneling aid and weapons to Hezbollah; and building a nuclear arsenal of its own, in violation of IAEA demands.
The NSS challenges the international community to present “a clear choice to Iran and North Korea” and threatens “greater isolation” for these twin rogues. This isn’t much of a strategy, and if it is a strategy, it’s not working. In fact, these regimes have already made their choice—emphatically and repeatedly. And the threat of greater isolation means nothing to a North Korea that has been isolated for the better part of 60 years or an Iran that has built bridges to Europe, Asia and South America. In this regard, it’s worth noting that Iran’s response to the latest round of largely voluntary  and hence toothless UN sanctions was to declare, “These sanctions are like used tissues which should be thrown in the trash.”
Speaking of the UN, Obama’s NSS talks about the need for a stronger UN, one that is “capable of fulfilling its founding purpose” and ensuring the “rules of the road” are followed. Of course, North Korea and Iran don’t follow those rules. And the UN is simply unable—perhaps systemically unable—to make them follow the rules, as Obama should know after 17 months of watching the UN do absolutely nothing to constrain Iran or punish North Korea. These 17 months follow decades of UN failure, the only exceptions being the Gulf War of 1990-91 and what might soon be called the first Korean War (more on this below).
Yet Obama’s NSS declares, “When nations breach agreed international norms, the countries who espouse those norms must be convinced to band together to enforce them…Strengthening the legitimacy and authority of international law and institutions, especially the UN, will require a constant struggle to improve performance.”
At best, this is fuzzy and flimsy undergraduate poli-sci rhetoric masquerading as strategy. At worst, it fails to grasp reality. Speaking of which, Obama’s NSS has the audacity to say “we need to be clear-eyed about the strengths and shortcomings of international institutions.”
One of those countless shortcomings is that the UN never does what it promises to do—whether the U.S. plays nice and genuflects at the altars of soft power, as during the Obama administration, or plays hard ball, as during the Bush administration. The Washington Post has noticed : “How could an administration that first tried reaching out to Iran and then spent months working with its allies end up with less international unity than when George W. Bush was president?”
Moving on, Obama’s NSS laments that “the advance of democracy and human rights has stalled in many parts of the world” and affirms that “the United States supports those who seek to exercise universal rights around the world”—but very quietly, as we learned last summer during the failed Twitter Revolution in Iran. The sad irony about Obama’s silence during the abortive democratic revolution in Iran was that it answered his own rhetorical question of a year before, albeit in a manner his supporters would never have imagined: “Will we stand for the human rights of…the blogger in Iran?” he asked during his 2008 speech in Berlin. The Iranian people know the answer.
These sorts of inconsistencies abound in Obama’s NSS. For example, even while it implicitly criticizes the Bush administration’s democracy-building project—the NSS sneers about “an endless campaign to impose our values”—it vows to “strengthen Pakistan’s democracy,” support Afghanistan’s democratic experiment and “foster” democracy in Iraq.
The NSS, to the president’s credit, declares that “for nearly a decade the nation has been at war with a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.” Most Americans agree with that characterization, but the Obama administration didn’t, at least not during its first year in office. In fact, this administration made a concerted effort to expunge the “war on terrorism” phraseology from official pronouncements, using the banal, bland and bureaucratic “overseas contingency operations” instead. Obama’s secretary of homeland security even went so far as to use the Orwellian phrase “man-caused disasters” rather than call terrorism by its name.
In keeping with that mindset, Obama’s NSS is quick to add, “This is not a global war against a tactic—terrorism—or a religion—Islam…We are at war with a specific network, al-Qaeda, and its terrorist affiliates who support efforts to attack the United States, our allies and partners.”
Obama’s NSS spends far too much time discussing the president’s domestic policy priorities, especially education and health care. These are important issues, but they are simply not matters of national security. Moreover, part the document’s discussion of education makes little sense. Specifically, the NSS promises to “restore U.S. leadership in higher education.” Yet a global survey of universities conducted by the London-based Q.S. Education Trust concludes that six of the top 10 universities on earth, 14 of the top 25 and 37 of the top 100 call America home. Harvard is number one.
That brings us to what can politely be called “eye-rollers” in the Obama NSS:
-It announces the pressing need to reduce the deficit, as if the Obama administration didn’t push federal spending and deficits to levels not seen since World War II.
-It calls for “effective border security and immigration enforcement” to “keep the country safe and deter unlawful entry.” Ask the people and governor of Arizona how farcical that statement is.
-It talks about the need to “promote security and stability in space…[and] maintain the advantages afforded to the United States by space.” One wonders how shutting down the shuttle’s replacement  achieves that.
-It tells us “there is no greater threat to the American people than weapons of mass destruction, particularly the danger posed by the pursuit of nuclear weapons by violent extremists and their proliferation to additional states.” Obama’s solution? The U.S. and other Western powers—none of whom have transferred nuclear weapons to violent extremists—are cutting their nuclear arsenals.
-It promises that “a world without nuclear weapons…will increase global security.” As a matter of fact, nukes have promoted global stability, enhanced U.S. security and prevented world war for 65 years. Remember, in the pre-nuclear age, we fought two world wars in the span of 20 years.
-It claims the foundation of “regional and global security will remain America’s relations with our allies, and our commitment to their security is unshakable.” Tell that to the Czechs and Poles, who exposed themselves to great risk by offering to host U.S. missile-defense assets, only to have the Obama administration jettison the NATO-endorsed plan; or the British, who weren’t consulted about the Obama administration’s decision to offload a handful of Gitmo detainees onto the British colony of Bermuda; or the Israelis, who are publicly shamed and privately lectured for defending themselves; or the fragile democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan, where America’s “unshakable” commitment has a timetable.
-It promises “a greater emphasis on exports,” yet this administration has done the very opposite in practice. It pays to recall that Obama has not called on Congress to approve free trade agreements with Colombia and South Korea—agreements that have languished since the Bush administration.
-It offers a number of implicit criticisms of the Bush administration, especially in relation to the war on terrorism and Obama’s definition of the rule of law. Striding up the high ground, Obama uses his NSS to promise “a commitment to pursue justice consistent with our Constitution.” “Our moral leadership is grounded principally in the power of our example,” the NSS declares. “Over the years, some methods employed in pursuit of our security have compromised our fidelity to the values that we promote.” Yet Obama’s drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which most Americans recognize as an essential element in the wider campaign against terror, are, in effect, executions  without trial. This is not to criticize the president’s drone war, but rather to point out the president’s messaging problem.
-It claims, “We succeeded in the post-World War II era by pursuing our interests within multilateral forums like the United Nations.” This is simply not true. Only once during the Cold War was the UN effective in promoting U.S. security interests in a direct way—during the Korean War—and then only because the Soviets were absent from the Security Council. They never made that mistake again. Indeed, the very thing that protects the U.S. from UN encroachment—veto authority—is what prevents the U.S. from pursuing its interests within the UN Security Council.
-Finally, it laments that “common purpose is at times lacking in our national security dialogue. This division places the United States at a strategic disadvantage. It sets back our ability to deal with difficult challenges and injects a sense of anxiety and polarization into our politics that can affect our policies and our posture around the world. It must be replaced by a renewed sense of civility and a commitment to embrace our common purpose as Americans.”
Many of us said very similar things when the Bush administration begged for unity as Iraq unraveled, when congressmen and senators who once supported the war walked away, when newspapers outed classified programs that had kept the country safe from another 9/11, when the anti-war left made the president the enemy and smeared battlefield commanders as betrayers , when would-be presidents declared the surge a failure  even before it had taken hold.
Unlike Obama’s supporters, some of whom wanted Bush to fail, I hope this commander-in-chief succeeds at protecting America. I hope he wins what really is a war on terrorism, faces down the thugocracies in North Korea and Iran, and stands up to China and Russia. But sadly, this NSS misses the mark.
Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.