Obama’s National Security Strategy Is Better Than His ‘National Security Strategy’

My latest for War on The Rocks, "IS OBAMA REAL(IST) CONFUSED?"


My latest for War on The Rocks, “IS OBAMA REAL(IST) CONFUSED?” has posted. It’s the third of four pieces I’ve written related to the new National Security Strategy. It spells out in detail the argument I alluded to yesterday:

The Obama administration’s updated National Security Strategy (NSS), released Friday morning, has been widely panned by defense analysts, including yours truly, as a wish list lacking in strategy, being overly focused on placating the U.S. domestic audience, and “really just a PR exercise.” (To be sure, others are more positive, seeing it as rising “above immediate crises and headlines” to provide “a compelling picture of the broader context of the global environment,” albeit one not remotely aligned with the administration’s military spending and procurement policies.) By contrast, President Obama’s actual national security strategy is quite nuanced and very much takes into account costs and benefits. And while he eschews the “realist” label, his actual policy choices seem very much guided by hardheaded weighing of gains to the national interest versus cost in terms of blood, treasure, and bandwidth.

On Monday, Vox released an interview executive editor Matthew Yglesias conducted with the president “in late January.” Off-the-cuff Obama is strangely more lucid-and certainly more candid-on his national security priorities than his staff, at least in the form of the NSS. He articulates why he eschews the realist label, identifies “disorder” as our biggest national security threat, and lays out a reasonably detailed series of thoughts on conflict intervention.

The piece is longish and the supporting argument defies excerpting, so I’ll refer you to the original piece. I will provide one example:

In closing, the president returns to a constructivist incrementalism: “Our successes will happen in fits and starts, and sometimes there’s going to be a breakthrough and sometimes you’ll just modestly make things a little better.” That requires flexibility and patience: “Sometimes the play you run doesn’t work and you’ve got to have a plan B and a plan C. But the overall trajectory, the overall goal, is a world in which America continues to lead, that we’re pushing in the direction of more security, more international norms and rules, more human rights, more free speech, less religious intolerance.” Finally, “Those efforts over time add up, and I’m confident that there’s a way for us to maintain our idealism, be hardheaded in assessing what’s out there, confronting the dangers that we face without exaggerating them.”

Just that last paragraph alone contains more strategic nuance than the entirety of the National Security Strategy. By failing to prioritize, the latter makes all threats seem central and all objectives seem equal; that’s the opposite of strategy. Thankfully, the president seems to understand that few threats are sufficient to warrant major military intervention and that attempts to make the world safer and more prosperous by spreading our values are worthwhile but not urgent; it’s a slow process of chipping away.

As I’ve mentioned many times previously, my main criticism of the Obama foreign policy is an ironic one: bad messaging weakens reasonably good policy. Obama brought very little substantive policy or executive experience and no foreign policy experience to the table when he first ran for president but rose to prominence mostly on the strength of extraordinary talents as an orator and a much better communications team than Hillary Clinton or John McCain. Yet, he’s made reasonably prudent foreign policy decisions, showing sound instincts on most issues, but flubbed the rollouts by either trying to appease multiple constituencies or seeming not to care what people thought about his policies.

Regardless, a National Security Strategy that was a more polished version of the Vox interview would have been much more useful in helping the Defense Department and other agencies set priorities and decide where to take prudent risks.

FILED UNDER: Environment, National Security, World Politics, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. C. Clavin says:

    So, by and large, you don’t have a problem with his actual policies…but just wish he had better writers and PR people?
    Well that certainly explains why you vote Republican.

  2. Jack says:

    “really just a PR exercise.”

    His entire presidency has been just a “PR exercise” focused on placating his base while punishing anyone that disagrees with his ideas…or lack thereof.

  3. C. Clavin says:


    while punishing anyone that disagrees with his ideas

    Really? Who has been punished? I mean besides Bin Laden and Ghadaffi and bunch of others who had Reaper drones rain missile fire down on them?
    I’d love to hear more about this punishment you are so concerned about.

  4. Moosebreath says:

    “In closing, the president returns to a constructivist incrementalism: “Our successes will happen in fits and starts, and sometimes there’s going to be a breakthrough and sometimes you’ll just modestly make things a little better.” ”

    Seems like this applies not just in the foreign policy sphere. In spite of his goal on entering the Presidency of being a transformative President like Reagan, rather than a incrementalist like Clinton, on everything except for health care he has been a incrementalist.

  5. Jack says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Who has been punished?

    Whistleblowers, conservative groups, Fort Hood soldiers, military pastors, non-immigrants trying to make their way in life, Americans that already had health insurance, the middle class, Veterans, small business, businesses that require citizenship for hiring, reporters, Christians, anyone who takes the Constitution seriously, the American people subject to mass NSA surveillance, and students forced to eat Michelle Obama lunches–to name a few.

  6. C. Clavin says:

    So…you really have nothing.
    Whistleblowers who broke the law are being punished? Unlawfully? How exactly?
    Conservative groups are being punished? How exactly? By being subjected to the same treatment as liberal groups?
    Christians have been punished? How exactly? By not being allowed to force their views on everyone else?
    Students getting free lunches are being punished by being served healthy food?
    I have health insurance thru my firm. Our rates have gone up less since Obamacare than before. Oooooh, please stop the punishment.
    C’mon bub. Facts. Where is the punishment?

  7. michael reynolds says:

    For once let’s not let the morons hijack an otherwise potentially interesting thread.

  8. Jack says:

    @C. Clavin: Blah, blah, liberal diatribe, blah, blah, Obamasycophant, blah, blah, you dumb conservatives don’t know what’s best for you and we do!

  9. Jack says:

    @michael reynolds: Then you should not comment.

  10. Tony W says:

    @Jack: Yeah, thought so….

  11. Jack says:

    @Tony W: Was that an original thought or did Michael give it to you?

  12. Tillman says:

    @Moosebreath: To be fair, an incremental approach during two wars is probably the only approach available.

  13. Tillman says:

    @C. Clavin: Who has been punished?

    @Jack: Christians


  14. James Pearce says:

    “more free speech, less religious intolerance”

    Caring about both parts of that probably means you’re a liberal. The right is too often fine with religious intolerance, and indeed they seem to want more of it.

  15. C. Clavin says:

    I asked for facts…you have got nothing.
    Reynolds is right…if you don’t have anything to offer…then don’t offer.

  16. Scott says:

    Not knowing how a National Security Strategy is created, it seems to me that a strategy would not be from a unitary source such as the President (no matter how dominant a personality he or she could be) but rather a collective effort of many people of differing expertise. The President may input his particular spin but I would expect the NSS to be somewhat bland.

    In addition, I would expect a NSS to not veer or evolve too wildly depending on who is in office. Especially since the US is so dominant in the world. So, in essence, perhaps the undiluted thoughts of the President would be more interesting than the published NSS.

  17. Jack says:

    @C. Clavin: I provided a list of people punished by this administration. A simple google search on “Obama punishes __________,” will get you the facts you need, friend.

    You are just like this administration, punish those that do not agree with your viewpoint.

  18. michael reynolds says:

    I renew my objection (from another thread) to the notion that this or any president should lay out our strategy in anything but vague generalities. Superbowl coaches don’t publish their play books. Anything said ends up being reduced to a media-sized bite, “Obama to Japan: You’re Not As Important as Korea!” and that in turn leads to incessant whining, not just from opponents but from friends and allies. Greater transparency would roil the waters not calm them.

    The specific crisis of ISIS is a perfect example of why transparency would be foolish.

    I’ve believed from the start that Mr. Obama’s strategy for ISIS was to contain it by using the minimal necessary force in the hopes that our regional allies, who (aside from the Kurds) range from gutless to despicable, would be kept alive long enough to locate their balls and start taking responsibility. That seems to be happening, at least a little. The public face is “no combat soldiers” because anything else gives the Arabs an excuse to yet again do nothing while the US acts as their mercenaries. Do I strongly suspect that we’d put in ground troops if necessary? Sure. But saying that publicly just lets everyone in the region off the hook. And in the end a solution absolutely requires the Arabs and Kurds to handle this themselves, there is no long-term solution that involves us re-invading.

    What would have been gained had FDR openly admitted in 1943 that we were not invading Italy as part of some grand strategy but in large part as a sop to Stalin, and in a different way, to Churchill? Should he have held a fireside chat and explained that we were in effect using one monster to kill another? Your sons are dying on the Murmansk run so we can prop up a nasty piece of work we’ll be at war with just as soon as he kills off Hitler for us?

    There are times when transparency is not a good thing in foreign policy.

  19. C. Clavin says:

    hahahahahahahahaha…I googled

    “Obama punishes Christians”

    as you suggested.
    First item up:

  20. Scott says:

    I have seen many of these type of documents that are just requirements mandated by Congress. The NSS is required by the Goldwater – Nichols Act of 1986. Maybe, after 30 years, it is time to reconsider the requirement. Has it become like the President’s budget, just a starting place for strategy? And is it just a dutiful document created to fulfill a requirement that few read or care about?

  21. michael reynolds says:


    I’d suggest we ask whether the Bush administration did a better job of creating the NSS. If they did, and yet got dramatically worse results, then maybe the whole idea’s kind of silly.

    Had this sort of document been required in 1940, Europe today would be spending Reichsmarks.

  22. Jack says:

    @C. Clavin: I googled C. Clavin, and the first thing that came up was a bestiality porn site…I’m assuming that’s not you though…or maybe it is.

  23. michael reynolds says:


    That is a particularly noxious lie, and frankly I think it should cause you to be banned from this site.

  24. Scott says:

    @michael reynolds: Good point. Decided to go to Wikipedia and I offer this quote:

    The National Security Strategy issued on September 17, 2002 was released in the midst of controversy over the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war which is contained therein.[8] It also contains the notion of military pre-eminence that was reflected in a Department of Defense paper of 1992, “Defense Policy Guidance”, prepared by two principal authors (Paul Wolfowitz and I. Lewis Libby) working under then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney.

    Talk about foreshadowing the rest of the decade. Maybe the NSS needs attention paid after all.

  25. Jack says:

    @michael reynolds: You are a particularly noxious liar, and I think you should be banned from this site. See, I can state opinions too.

  26. stonetools says:

    First of all, thank you James for a well considered article. It’s interesting that you see his problem being one of good policy let down by poor messaging. This is exactly how I feel about his domestic policy.
    I’m OK with a policy that’s a constructive incrementalism. I think one of Obama’s problems is that the Middle East tends to suck up all the attention in the room, like the problem child that takes up all of the teacher’s time. I think Obama, if he had his way, would focus a lot more attention on China and south Asia, where half of humanity lives. Instead, he has to spend all his time dealing with the latest outbreak of some thousand year old quarrel in the Middle East.

  27. C. Clavin says:

    Speaking of Bush and Cheney and their NSS…I see Iran is now going to be training Iraqi Military.
    Greatest Foreign Policy Blunder ever.
    Who cares how well written Obama’s NSS is? As long as he doesn’t fvck us up as bad as Bush and Cheney and their cabal did.

  28. anjin-san says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Theres an article on foxnews.com today about atheists “bullying” the Air Force. Those must be some tough atheists, I mean the Air Force has nukes and everything…

  29. Modulo Myself says:

    We have to factor in that one of the main constituencies for Obama’s foreign policy is the military, which has rarely been a haven for unconventional thinkers. Another is the intelligence community. How much of what we do is bound by the logic of what we have on the ground? Do we need to be involved in Yemen because of Yemen or because our fleet of drones need somewhere to go? We have an enormous military machine that far outstrips any other military in the world, and yet it’s somehow treated as a lens through which we can see the world clearly.

    This goes double for intelligence. As far as I can tell, the terrorists who attacked in Paris were exactly the people who should have been caught because of the umbrella of agencies collecting data and metadata. They were know as extremists and their wives were talking repeatedly, which should have been flagged, because the point of monitoring everything is to be able make these connections out of the noise of everywhere else.

    Instead, they became threats once they attacked. So basically, we have an enormous infrastructure violating our privacy every second with the sole purpose of doing this one thing–making connections that humans can not make–and it failed. And no one even says a word about it.

  30. gVOR08 says:


    @michael reynolds: You are a particularly noxious liar, and I think you should be banned from this site. See, I can state opinions too.

    Anybody know of an emoticon for shaking your head sadly?

  31. C. Clavin says:

    @michael reynolds:
    Guys…c’mon…lighten up. It was a simple mistake.
    The website he saw said I have an appendage like a horse…not that I like horses.
    Jack has a reading comprehension problem…but y’all knew that.

  32. Moosebreath says:

    @C. Clavin:

    “The website he saw said I have an appendage like a horse”

    Leave your hooves out of this!

  33. Tillman says:

    @Modulo Myself: Well, to be fair, we’re not collecting all the telephone metadata of everyone in Paris.

    Paris is in France.


    Unless you’re referring to the one in Texas, or Arkansas.

    Definitely a failure of French counterterror efforts to be sure though. Do they spy as much as us?

  34. Tyrell says:

    I certainly agree that the President should not lay out and list strategies. But goals should be stated. For Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon it was the containment of communism. This proved to be successful as the Soviet Union and communist bloc fell, also in part due to Reagan’s strong, determined leadership.
    One goal should be the defeat of terrorist groups and the end of the terrorist movement.

  35. Will Taylor says:


    If you want to stalk commenters, I suggest you learn how to use the Deep Web.

  36. Tony W says:


    the Soviet Union and communist bloc fell, also in part due to Reagan’s strong, determined leadership.

    You really believe that, huh? Well I guess if a butterfly flaps its wings in New York….

  37. mannning says:

    Obama’s grand security policy is obscured by poor messaging to the public is what I read here. So long as that is true, it seems that any articulated policy by this administration is poorly messaged (witness ObamaCare!), and whether it is good or not we have to believe all will be well, because He said so, or His countless minions said so. That He is about to have yet another Defense Secretary, perhaps His 4th or 5th in 6 years (I lost count) indicates something seriously at odds with reality between Him and His secretaries.
    Never mind the ultimate measures of a successful presidency–a sound economy, a safe nation, a strong military, and an ever-decreasing national debt, none of which we are experiencing now that we should have. The economy is extremely fragile, the threats from within and without have increased (and we don’t call them for what they are!), sequester is about to emasculate our military, the national debt has doubled to $18 Trillion +, and is still growing by leaps, and entitlements are growing out of control.

    God help us to survive this presidency, and perhaps the next one too.

  38. C. Clavin says:


    Never mind the ultimate measures of a successful presidency–a sound economy, a safe nation, a strong military, and an ever-decreasing national debt, none of which we are experiencing now that we should have.

    When have we ever had an “ever-decreasing national debt”? So your point is that we have never had a successful Presidency? Fascinating observation..
    We seem as safe as any other time to me. How exactly are we less safe than any other time? And how exactly is that Obama’s fault?
    How is the economy unsound? and how is that Obama’s fault?
    How exactly is the military weak? And how exactly is that Obama’s fault.
    I anxiously await explanations for your pronouncements.

  39. John425 says:

    @michael reynolds: If liars were banned from websites, where would you go? What would become of you?

  40. C. Clavin says:

    I’m curious…what satisfaction does being an internet troll bring you?
    Is it an inexplicable visceral feeling?
    Or rather, is there some sort of rational thought that drives you to act this way?

  41. John425 says:

    @C. Clavin: A visceral response is kinda close, Cliffie, but not quite a cigar for you. You, and several others like Reynolds, have never contributed anything of value to this blog and yet you feel smug by sniping at pro-American values. So, in frustration, I reply in kind. I consider it my duty to laugh at you every time you present your “Big Lie” Crap. Humor and needling are the best antidotes to your inanities and diatribes.
    So, back on the gerbil exercise wheel for you Cliffie.

  42. mannning says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Typical response. Challenging what is self-evident.

    Anyone that sees the size of the national debt should be shuddering, but there are fools that believe we can afford the interest, as the debt soars upwards to over $25 Trillion over 2015-2025 . And, any stockbroker is currently shaking in his boots over the bubble about to break in the market. Google Porter Stanberry, for one example.

    Then you have the military, which is being reduced to a pittance, and not able to execute many of its basic missions. Topping it all off is the fabulous destruction of ISIL under Obama’s rules of engagement! Both planes are now down for “repair”. (sarcasm) But some here live in a fool’s paradise where everything is simply rosy!

    Read the force projections from the DOD for the next 5 years. It is frightening. Troops down to less than 490k, which is around our pre WWII level, and the Air Force down to 40-odd wings from over 130. Etc.Etc. Google Air Force for a Wiki summary of the ongoing aircraft fleet reductions. They are retiring over 630 A/c, 400 of which are our current first-line fighters ( F-15, F-16) and our only supersonic bomber (B-1B), and are not procuring more F-22As, but are receiving F-35s at a very, very slow pace. This gamble on the F-35 is dicey at best. There are reports that many potential users are extremely upset at the poor performance relative to what they thought they were buying. The fate of the A-10C is up in the air.

    All in all it is a very disturbing picture.

  43. C. Clavin says:


    Anyone that sees the size of the national debt should be shuddering

    The debt has been climbing since Reagan exploded it. Why is that Obama’s fault? He’s been reducing the deficit at a rapid rate.

    And, any stockbroker is currently shaking in his boots over the bubble about to break in the market.

    The current Bull Market is almost 6 years old. It’s probably due for an adjustment….maybe 10%? But it NOT being driven by a bubble. But just out of curiosity…what do you think the bubble is? Housing? Tech? What?

    Then you have the military, which is being reduced to a pittance

    A pittance? Apparently you don’t know what that word means. We spend more on military than our next 15 competitors combined. How does that make us weak? Seriously. The US Military is weak? Are you fvcking nuts?

    This gamble on the F-35 is dicey at best

    Again…the procurement for the F-35 is a lot longer than the past 6 years. Why is this Obama’s fault?

    Challenging what is self-evident.

    I don’t find any of this to be self-evident of anything but your ODS.

  44. Matt says:

    @mannning I don’t get why people keep insisting on comparing military numbers from WW2 with today. One modern missile frigate could take out a fleet of ww2 frigates and I doubt it would take any damage. One modern soldier would absolutely decimate a squad of draftee soldiers from ww2 if the encounter occurred at night. There’s just miles of technological difference in our weapons and training.

    The f35 is awful and should of been canned half a decade ago. Anyone with half a brain can see how this crap has happened over and over. History is littered with multi-role fighters that ended up being mediocre because of too many mission requirements.

    The a-10c should be rolling along but the air-force has been trying to kill the A-10 since well pretty much day one. I have friends who absolutely love that craft and the people who flew them. All of them of course were deployed in Afghanistan.