Most in the international relations community are not amused by the president's National Security Strategy.


The reaction from the international relations community to President Obama’s 2015 National Security Strategy, presumably the last of his term of office, has been overwhelmingly negative. James has already written several articles critiquing it and links to them here, here, and here.

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s reactions are pretty typical:

Former Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn blasted the Obama administration’s national security strategy on Sunday, describing it as too narrowly focused on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

“We need a much broader strategy that recognizes that we’re facing not just this tactical problem of ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” Flynn, who retired last year as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“We’re facing a growing, expanding threat around the world,” Flynn said, noting that terrorist threats have doubled in the Middle East and Africa.

At Foreign Policy David Rothkopff is equally citical:

Of course, if you are like most Americans, you won’t ever read it at all. Which is just as well. Along with being devoid of strategy, the document is also devoid of surprises or new ideas. That could be because its focus is not, as would be the case in a real strategic planning document, the future. Instead, it is the past. This document is really a brief filed by the president in defense of his record to date.

To be fair, most documents like this read like brochures. (Although thanks to its language and its focus, this one has more the feel of the annual report of a really big NGO than it does an official planning document of the most powerful nation the earth has ever known.)

ZenPundit Mark Safranski remarks:

The Obama administration released its National Security Strategy last Friday, shepherded by the National Security Courtier, Susan Rice. Even by the increasingly mediocre standards for this exercise the administration managed to hit a new low for vapid superficiality, muddled thought and brazen political appeals to Democratic Party special interest groups, notably the gay lobby and environmental activists.

In an interview at RT, Larry Johnson declaims:

I used to be a college professor. This reminds me of a poorly prepared term paper by a desperate student who hadn’t properly prepared for the exam. This thing is a mess.

One Democratic lawmaker went so far as to refer to it as a “stump speech”.

Not all of the reaction has been negative, however. Thomas Wright of Brookings finds a lot to praise:

But, in this document, the White House is also making it clear that it does not want to be defined by the return of geopolitics. It rejects the notion that the future of the order is at a hinge point. It sees many of these crises as immediate but not likely to define the next decade. It does not identify stark strategic choices that the United States must choose between.

So what is there instead? The first section, on security, focuses on homeland security, terrorism, conflict prevention, non-proliferation, climate change (which it calls “an urgent and growing threat to our national security”) access to shared spaces (maritime, air, cyber, and space), and global health. These are the transnational and largely shared challenges of our time. This is how the document begins and it clearly is what matters most to the president. It implies continuity with where the president began in January 2009.

This document is a valuable and thoughtful contribution to the discourse. I am much more in the first camp than the second, but this is a debate that needed to happen and has now truly begun.

John Feffer of LobeLog sees it as a continuation of the approaches and goals articulated in the president’s 2010 NSS:

The 2015 National Security Strategy is not a home run. It doesn’t really try to be. The 2010 document attempted to outline a strategic approach based on “the world as it is.” This latest version dispenses with this strategy chapter and, after the requisite introduction, dives straight into the thematic discussion. This deliberate avoidance of grand strategy reflects Obama’s preference for the trees over the forest but also an administration chastened by the reversal of the “reset” with Russia, the end of the “new beginning” with the Muslim world, the breakdown in the Israel-Palestinian peace process, the stalled progress toward a nuclear-weapons-free world, and other policy disappointments.

This is a theme underscored by Michael Noonan:

President Obama’s 2015 National Security Strategy reiterates the 2010 vision that the United States’ enduring interests are:

The security of the United States, its citizens, and U.S. allies and partners;
A strong, innovative, and growing U.S. economy in an open international economic system that promotes opportunity and prosperity;
Respect for universal values at home and around the world; and
A rules-based international order advanced by U.S. leadership that promotes peace, security, and opportunity through stronger cooperation to meet global challenges.

Dr. Feffer (ibid.) continues:

The strategy document makes sure to appeal to virtually every constituency. There’s an unambiguous focus on climate change, but energy companies will warm to the section on ensuring America’s energy independence. The part on values could appeal to neoconservative advocates of democracy promotion as well as social liberals working on LGBT rights. And for everyone who urges the president to steer clear of global affairs because “it’s the economy, stupid,” the document takes pains to link the economic strength of the United States to its ability to maintain leadership in the world.

The document, in other words, understands national security broadly.

He is, however, not without criticism:

But the big missing piece in the latest National Security Strategy, which will be Obama’s last one, is any sense of how the United States and the world as a whole can afford to address the wide range of challenges—not only IS and traditional security threats, but also climate change, pandemics, and gross inequality—when the United States and its partners are committed to pouring resources into the usual panoply of tanks, fighter jets, and drones. The Obama administration’s preference for both/and instead of the hard either/or choices comes up against the problem of limited resources. Even a superpower can’t maintain dominance in every domain and also effectively address big-ticket items like climate change, not to mention all the other bullet points on Obama’s wish list. Though the 2015 National Security Strategy skimps on grand strategy, its major shortcoming is its failure to assess the real cost of leadership.

FILED UNDER: Africa, Climate Change, Democracy, Middle East, National Security, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    Yeah, why don’t we have a publicly-available, clear policy that explains our goals and the means to achieve them in the middle east,

    1) Where we must defend Israel forever
    2) But remain an honest broker
    3) And overthrow Assad
    4) While destroying the people trying to destroy Assad,
    5) While negotiating an arms deal with Iran,
    6) Which backs Assad,
    7) But also supports our effort to destroy ISIS,
    8) With the help of the Kurds,
    9) Who are at war with Turkey,
    10) Which is trending more Islamic and tacitly aids ISIS,
    11) Which is now competing with Al Qaeda,
    12) For recruits that come from anti-assimilationist NATO countries,
    13) And from Arab states like Egypt which is run by thugs,
    14) Because when they finally got to vote, they made a mess of it,
    15) Which explains why we’re OK with monarchy in Saudi Arabia,
    16) Which provides logistical support so that we can fight Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula,
    17) Where some group we’ve never heard of just took over Yemen,
    18) And I could go on like this all day. Without even getting to Libya, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, let alone China and North Korea.

    Now, why can’t that all be reduced to a neat paragraph so all the cognoscenti of the foreign policy establishment – most of whom have been involved in one fiasco or another – can write their oppo pieces and cash their checks and sell their books?

    Why? Why?

  2. Will Taylor says:

    It’s clear we have amateurs running the US foreign policy. The evidence is overwhelming and pretty pathetic. Who could forget when the president referred to ISIS as the JV team?

  3. michael reynolds says:

    @Will Taylor:

    Right. I’m sure the Bush team wrote up wonderfully complete documents that made FP geeks thrill with delight. And that’s why everything went so very well during Mr. Bush’s 8 years in office.

  4. Will Taylor says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I’ll acknowledge Bush didn’t have a great foreign policy, but can you for once stop blaming Bush for everything. Obama has been in the office for over 6 years and he has to take responsibility for his actions. You’re being intellectually dishonest when you don’t acknowledge the errors and flaws in Obama’s policy. i mean did you even read that article or just quick to respond and bash Bush.

  5. michael reynolds says:

    @Will Taylor:

    That’s not what I was saying. We are discussing the NSS, a document. My point was that if there is no connection between the NSS and an effective foreign policy – a case that would be supported if Mr. Bush’s team produced a wonderful NSS – then perhaps the entire idea of publicly announcing our priorities and goals is silly.

    There’s a version of this in my professional life, a split between people who plan books or series, and people who improvise them. The entire establishment, and certainly the educational establishment, are advocates of planning, detail, note cards, spread sheets, outlines. I make sh!t up as I go along, which in my opinion is why my series don’t fall apart two books in. Rigidity is the enemy of effectiveness. But improvisation frightens people who would rather have the comfort of rigidity than the effectiveness of improvisation.

  6. Will Taylor says:

    @michael reynolds:

    i understand your points and I’m not trying to fight with you today. Foreign Policy is always complicated and i’m of the mind that there are some things that would be best kept secret from the public. Even though I have significant issues with Obama’s FP, i don’t root against him. I’m still an American and want whats best for this country even if its contrary to what the GOP wants. My issue is with the people he has surrounded himself with and the mixed signals he has been sending to the American public and our allies.

  7. Modulo Myself says:

    There’s not much in any of those links that ranges beyond dislike of Obama and a dull provincialism. You have to wonder if half of these experts have ever left the country, and if so, was it for a policy conference? There are no solutions to Syria, just as there were no solutions to the mess made in Iraq other than leaving. ISIS is not a world-shaking threat. The fact that other countries exist and have strategies of their own should not cause existential pandemic. And the Russia obsession is so bizarre. I get the sense that foreign policy types with a photo of shirtless Putin as their desktop background really believe that only they have the key to understanding Russia. Like Obama doesn’t really get Putin in the way that teenagers get The Smiths…

    Basically it’s a compendium of nothing. What’s really funny is how bureaucratic it all sounds. “Dumbama should stop wtih the euphemisms and start being QB and hitting home runs. No more generalities. Terror threats have doubled. Red Alert!” Right, you tell them, Emo Grandpa.

  8. Scott says:

    A lot of the conversation among the experts seem to be viewing the world from different heights (i.e 50,000, 30,000, 10,000, 5,000 ft and so forth.) and their complaints are from that specific perspective. Someone who just wants the very broad strategy picture will complain over the words describing the next two year horizon and those who want tactical answers to how we are handling ISIS next year will have no patience with the vague high level dialogue.

    I think people may be just talking past each other.

  9. michael reynolds says:

    @Will Taylor:

    Mixed signals are an essential element of foreign policy. We need to be able to talk out of both sides of our mouths sometimes, and we need to be able to say different things to the public and to heads of state and to some (not all) members of Congress. Insistence on transparency is counter-productive, even crippling.

    Do the above-referenced foreign policy mavens know this? Of course they do. Is their real motivation to improve American foreign policy? Maybe in a few cases. But I suspect in most cases their motives are to count coup on old competitors, to score points, to make themselves seem more important than they are, to get a TV gig, to get tenure at their university, to make their paymasters at their “think tank” feel they’ve gotten their money’s worth.

    And above all hangs the Ultimate Prize: there’s a new administration coming, and with it comes jobs and prestige and jobs and access and jobs and offices in the White House or failing that at the Pentagon or Foggy Bottom or on K Street. This is beltway bullsh!t from people who have wet dreams of an office in the west wing. And of course the instant any of these folks get the gig, they will immediately pull a 180 on transparency in FP.

  10. gVOR08 says:

    @michael reynolds: I am constantly impressed with the faith many of Obama’s critics seem to have in Obama’s mojo. If he’d only try we’d have better GDP growth. If he’d only try we could shut down the government without hurting anything. If he’d only try he could write down a simple, fool-proof plan for Crimea. If he’d only try he could destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities forever in one clean strike.

  11. stonetools says:

    Let’s face it, most of these foreign policy experts hanker for a return to the Cold War, with talk of grand strategy, a “world class” adversary like the Soviet Union, a black and white world where you can move players around as if the world was just a big chessboard. It’s not surprising that a chess game was chosen as the lead image for the article-that’s how most of these FP experts would like to see the world.It’s all pretentious bullsh!t, and not the way the world actually is these days.
    Let’s forget the chess game metaphor, and start thinkiing of the world as made up of a lot of players, each of which has agency and their own way of looking at things. Start there.
    Also l;et’s stop thinking that the USA can magically solve all problems and resolve all issues, if only the President does the right things and sends the right signals. That’s nonsense, too. The US is the biggest player: but it’s not omnipotent and omniscient. And allies and enemies all get to vote.

  12. @michael reynolds:

    10) [Turkey] is trending more Islamic and tacitly aids ISIS,

    So are you finally conceding I was right when I said this back in October and you poo-pooed the idea as ridiculous?

  13. Will Taylor says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I’m not saying these think tank guys and analysts are always right and don’t have their own agendas, but a few of them have been point on in their criticism over the presidents FP. i mean even Bill Clinton had it right in 2013 when he criticized Obama.

    btw, in response to your last paragraph, i am well familiar with the disgusting incestuous game going on with lobbyists and our “elected” representatives. If the media actually reported a sliver of the crap going on, we’d be heading for a revolution.

  14. Modulo Myself says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Lots of people are aiding ISIS, including, indirectly, Israel. According to Robert Parry:

    In August 2013, when I first reported on the growing relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia in an article entitled “The Saudi-Israeli Superpower,” the story was met with much skepticism. But, increasingly, this secret alliance has gone public.

    On Oct. 1, 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu hinted at it in his United Nations General Assembly speech, which was largely devoted to excoriating Iran over its nuclear program and threatening a unilateral Israeli military strike.

    Amid the bellicosity, Netanyahu dropped in a largely missed clue about the evolving power relationships in the Middle East, saying: “The dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran and the emergence of other threats in our region have led many of our Arab neighbors to recognize, finally recognize, that Israel is not their enemy. And this affords us the opportunity to overcome the historic animosities and build new relationships, new friendships, new hopes.”

    The next day, Israel’s Channel 2 TV news reported that senior Israeli security officials had met with a high-level Gulf state counterpart in Jerusalem, believed to be Prince Bandar, the former Saudi ambassador to the United States who was then head of Saudi intelligence.

    And there’s this:
    And, in June 2014, speaking as a former ambassador at an Aspen Institute conference, Oren expanded on his position, saying Israel would even prefer a victory by the brutal Islamic State over continuation of the Iranian-backed Assad in Syria. “From Israel’s perspective, if there’s got to be an evil that’s got to prevail, let the Sunni evil prevail,” Oren said.

    If Obama actually told the truth about the Middle East, serious people would lose their s–t. What frightens people about Obama is that he seems comfortable knowing the truth. Bush II and Reagan were both too dumb to know anything. Bush I had his own interests and Clinton was in his heart terrified of left-wing thoughts about American foreign policy and whose interests it serves.

  15. @Modulo Myself:

    Which was my point back in October: “They continue receiving funding from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc. to act as a proxy soldiers against Iran by disrupting Iran’s allies Syria and Iraq.”

  16. Modulo Myself says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Obama’s signals to Iran may have been moves to break this alliance. Witness the Republican drones going nuts.

    From a certain angle, our policy has been really clear. Overthrow anybody we can overthrow (Egypt, Syria) and try to get the other old despots out (Syria) or weaken their power (Saudi Arabia, Likud) because it has to be done. He’s an actual neoconservative rather than one of the schizo ones who brought us Iraq on the strength of 450,300,323 policy papers delivered only to each other. Obama’s real political problem is that he’s too cool for the free food/drink/lame white people from DC circuit and went through the Petraeus lifestyle (wear uniform/do things to score with younger women) in college.

  17. steve says:

    Can we even have a “Grand Strategy” without a Grand Enemy? It was so much simpler during the Cold War. Oppose Russia and Red China. Now, we need to selectively work with both of those countries while also opposing them in other areas. Our NATO allies depend upon Russian gas and oil. India and China will trade with us, but they also do so with Russia. We sell F-16s to Saudi Arabia while they finance ISIS. It’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world. I don’t see us having a clear, clean Grand Strategy for a long time, unless we get the neocons back in. Then we get invade and bomb everything.

  18. Dave Schuler says:

    As I’ve said any number of times before, I think the U. S. has a grand strategy but, unlike Russia, France, or the UK, ours is an emergent phenomenon that isn’t being forged and guided by a handful of elites.

  19. Jeremy R says:

    In an interview at RT, Larry Johnson declaims:

    Kind of scraping the bottom of the barrel when you cite a Russia Today interview w/ Birther, central player in the “whitey tape” hoax and all around sleaze-ball bigot, Larry Johnson.

  20. michael reynolds says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Yeah, I think I was too quick to pooh-pooh that, though I think my larger point about ISIS has proven to be right. They’re in a box and the box is getting tighter. So far Mr. Obama’s been spot-on regarding ISIS. They lost the Mosul dam, they lost Kobani, they’ve been pushed back a bit from Baghdad, and they’ve galvanized at least Jordan to get in the game.

  21. CB says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    From a purely functional point of view, as a professional, can you expand a bit on the advantages/disadvantages of this emergent view? I’m intrigued by the way you put that

  22. DrDaveT says:

    @michael reynolds:

    We need to be able to talk out of both sides of our mouths sometimes

    Hear, hear. Let the Duchy of Grand Fenwick be our model.

  23. Turgid Jacobian says:

    Grand strategy absent a countervailing superpower? Accretive international institutions and norms? Lots more explicit comma about structured confrontation/escalation with nuclear powers, as they come to be?

  24. Andy says:

    IMO it’s emblematic of a larger national dysfunction that so many opinions about this NSS are rooted in partisanship. The document is indefensible to anyone with a passing knowledge of strategy, yet the usual suspects lamely defend by dredging up President Bush or attack it because – Obama!

    The sad truth is US strategy became unmoored from reality after the USSR collapsed and with each passing year this only becomes more obvious. We don’t really have a national strategic consensus anymore except to agree that the US is indispensable and must maintain its dominant position in world affairs and be able to act with a free hand whenever and wherever necessary. This latest NSS continues that trend but it’s less believable because the world is changing and the assumptions about the US as the singular power are increasingly called into questions (at least they are outside of the beltway).

    I agree with Joyner and others who point out this NSS is quite a bit different from the President’s more realistic view. At some point a US President (clearly not this one) must begin the process of injecting actual strategy based on realistic ends, ways and means into the giant bureaucracy that is the National Security Establishment. It’s disappointing that President Obama, with no more elections to win, chose to let his bureaucracy kick the can down the road with this NSS.

  25. MBunge says:

    What this is all about is that Obama is the first President…hell, he’s the first major political figure of any stripe in the modern era who seems to not be 100% committed to the “America, fuck yeah” school of foreign policy. Yeah, Obama’s content to drone strike anything that moves but how many decades do you have to go back to find someone at the top of the U.S. system who seems to believe, on at least some level, that…

    1. America neither can nor should try and run the world.

    2. Congress should have a role in foreign policy.


  26. Tyrell says:

    @michael reynolds: I haven’t heard that about Turkey. I had thought that they were firmly in our camp and could be relied on to spearhead and provide bases to launch a full frontal assault on ISIS. If we have lost Turkey, we are in deep trouble. I would like to read some reports about the situation in Turkey. Most of the reading that I have been doing lately involving the middle east has been accounts and histories of the Arab situation during the Lawrence era. I have not quite got up on all the current stuff, all I catch is the CNN breaking news.

  27. CB says:


    I can’t disagree with any of that, very well put. This stands as my biggest disappointment with the Obama administration, and if I’m being honest, my country as a whole.

  28. Guarneri says:

    I certainly haven’t read the document, and I’ll leave it to others as to just how grand it must be, but if this is true:

    Though the 2015 National Security Strategy skimps on grand strategy, its major shortcoming is its failure to assess the real cost of leadership.

    …it is summarily disqualified as a strategy, as no “strategy” that fails to address resource requirements and trade offs is more than just a puff piece.

  29. @Tyrell:

    haven’t heard that about Turkey. I had thought that they were firmly in our camp and could be relied on to spearhead and provide bases to launch a full frontal assault on ISIS. If we have lost Turkey, we are in deep trouble.

    ISIS is killing lots of Kurds, which is good for Turkey because it weakens the Kurdish separatist movement in their own country. So Turkey is happy to let the slaughter in Syria and Iraq continue as long as it doesn’t threaten to spill over into Turkey itself.

  30. Dave Schuler says:


    I’ve written on it extensively over at my place. The idea is the result of a year-long debate between me and my professor of U. S. diplomatic history just about a half century ago. His position was that the U. S. didn’t have a “foreign policy”. Mine was that, in the terms I’d use now, our foreign policy was an emergent phenomenon, the product of many forces and many voices.

    The disadvantages of such a system are that it’s hard to put your finger on just what our foreign policy is at any given moment and impossible to fine-tune. The advantages are that it’s persistent and durable.

  31. CB says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Thanks, I’ll hop over to your place

  32. Dave Schuler says:


    Just search for “emergent” over there.

  33. JohnMcC says:

    @Dave Schuler: It occurs to me that if the US has an ’emergent’ foreign policy (nominalization for “improvised”?) that a fairly rigid National Security Strategy document would be MORE important than would be so for a nation that has straightforward and obvious-to-all foreign goals and needs. Whereas if I understand this thread correctly, the NSS of ’15 is being criticized for lacking specifics. But I’d never even heard that we had an official document re-jiggered every 5 years until Dr Joyce began his critique (although I try to know lots and lots of stuff in this field) so I’ll sit quietly and learn broadly; next stop is ‘your place’.

  34. Dave Schuler says:


    Not improvised. More like in continuing approximation, the product of competing, contending, and complementary forces.

  35. JohnMcC says:

    Totally off topic (and light-hearted!): When I read the ‘headline’ of this posting, my brain made of it “Injured Reserve…Take Off on South Runway…White House…Network Security Services”. Do you gentlemen compose your own headings? Was the intention to make old, slow-moving heads like mine explode?