Obama’s National-Security Wish List

The first installment of my analysis of the National Security Strategy.

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The Obama administration released a long-awaited update to the National Security Strategy Friday. I’ve written three pieces and am working on a fourth, discussing various aspects of it.  The first to go live is “Obama’s National-Security Wish List,” published by The National Interest.

It is in many ways a remarkable document, lucidly describing the foreign (and domestic) policy vision of the only global power, nodding to an enormous number of allies, partners and stakeholders. It is, however, only loosely about national security. More importantly, it’s decidedly not a strategy.

Despite President Obama’s assurance in the introductory paragraph that the document “sets out the principles and priorities to guide the use of American power” and his recognition that “our resources will never be limitless. Policy tradeoffs and hard choices will need to be made,” he goes on to list in bullet form eight “top strategic risks to our interests” that, in their own right and as expanded upon in the rest of the document, are anything but limited or prioritized.

[…]

As with its predecessor, a recurrent theme of the document is what the president hails in his introductory letter as “an undeniable truth—America must lead.” Indeed, he assures us, “The question is never whether America should lead, but how we lead.”

Apparently, “never” is to be taken literally here, as the issues on which America must lead are endless. Indeed, the first section posits that “there is no shortage of challenges that demand continued American leadership.” Everything from violent extremism and cybersecurity to climate change and infectious degrees to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons is on the agenda. Nor is it bounded by geography; America must lead everywhere from Europe to Asia, Africa to Latin America, from the oceans to outer space.

[…]

Again, very little of this is objectionable. Indeed, with the major exception of continuing to ignore regional realities in the Middle East and Eastern Europe—perhaps exacerbated by, but certainly not invented by, this administration—I support almost every sentence of it. But it’s a wish list, not a strategy.

The president recognizes that this “is an ambitious agenda” and allows that “not everything will be completed during [his] Presidency.” Understatement aside, it doesn’t have to be. Our Cold War containment strategy took the administrations of eight presidents to reach fruition. But it at least outlined what was most important and helped shape funding, procurement, deployment and other key decisions. The present document outlines a better future, but gives us precious little guidance on how to get there.

Interestingly, as I argue in a piece I finished drafting minutes ago and that should publish tomorrow, President Obama himself is a much more nuanced strategic thinker than shown in the document. But this was a missed opportunity to put that vision down on paper. Given that it serves as the basis for crafting our National Defense Strategy and dozens of other policy documents across the interagency, that’s a problem, indeed.

FILED UNDER: National Security, Published Elsewhere
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. C. Clavin says:

    this was a missed opportunity to put that vision down on paper

    The minute you put it down on paper it’s out-dated and becomes a target for everyone with a partisan axe to grind, James.

  2. Andy says:

    @C. Clavin:

    If a strategy is outdated the minute it’s put down on paper then it’s not a strategy.

    As for partisanship, there is always an axe to grind. That should not be an excuse for publishing wish lists titled as strategy.

  3. stonetools says:

    In the real world, James, political considerations are going to inevitably impinge on the reduction to writing of a Presidential policy paper. That’s just going to be how things are. For a Democratic President, he is going to avoid all language that can be misconstrued as ” apologising for America”, not showing “resolve”, “abdication of the USA’s leadership role”, etc.
    You should just accept that this is the case, the same as you should accept snow in winter in the Northeast.

  4. gVOR08 says:

    Yes. Obama will continue to drift without a central guiding principle. He’ll treat each situation as unique. He’ll improvise and experiment. He’ll worry about considerations of the moment rather than fixed policy. He’ll compromise and prevaricate. He’ll shuck and jive and change course day to day. He’ll seldom explain his policy. He’ll support dictators one day and rebels the next. His motto (after “Don’t do stupid stuff.”) will be “All roads lead to Rome.”

    Apparently some people think this is a bad thing?

  5. stonetools says:

    This is a problem only for those who want to treat this document as the entirety of the President’s foreign policy strategy-which everyone knows it can’t be

    But this was a missed opportunity to put that vision down on paper. Given that it serves as the basis for crafting our National Defense Strategy and dozens of other policy documents across the interagency, that’s a problem, indeed.

    Had the President done that, a handful of foreign policy professionals would have praised him for his refreshing honesty and nuanced analysis. And a ton of Republican legislators, right wing bloggers, and talk show hosts would have condemned him for his “repudiation of American exceptionalism”,his constant “apologies for America”, and his “weakness in the face of existentential threats from a militant Islam and a resurgent Russia.” Come on James, I think you know how the game is played as well as anyone now. Acknowledge this, please.

  6. James Joyner says:

    @C. Clavin: @stonetools: Everything the president says is subject to scrutiny. So what? That doesn’t relieve him of the responsibility of doing what is set out in the law; the NSS is specifically mandated in the Goldwater-Nichols act of 1986.

  7. Tyrell says:

    @gVOR08: Rome ?
    One thing the president needs on his wish list should be the total defeat and surrender of ISIS. Another would be Iran shutting down its nuclear program.

  8. gVOR08 says:

    “All roads lead to Rome.” = There are many ways to get to your goal. In other words, the goal is to keep the country safe, whatever way works. The German version, IIRC, is “So. Oder so.” Thus. Or thus. But that line risks a Godwin violation as it was used by someone else.

  9. michael reynolds says:

    I don’t see how a publicly-available document can possibly detail our strategy. I’ve never understood this. During the era of the Great Game did Britain publish a document detailing just what they planned to do with or to Russia? I mean, who starts a chess match by laying out his first three moves?

    What are we to say? That we intend to do the absolute minimum to control ISIS in the hope that the Arabs will finally step up and deal with their own stuff? That we are going to push for an arms deal with Iran and co-ordinate with them under the table on ISIS while subordinating their interests to Saudi Arabia’s? That we’re tacitly accepting Assad’s survival? That we’re going to try and woo Vietnam with trade deals in hopes that they’ll eventually give us bases on China’s border? That we’re going to go on pretending that South America and sub-Saharan Africa don’t exist because we’ve got more than enough on our plate? That we’re going to give lip service only on Ukraine because we don’t really give that much of a damn?

    It seems to me – admittedly nowhere near being any variety of expert – that the very idea of a public statement on strategy is crazy. It’s like asking a football team to announce in advance whether they’re going to pass or run the ball. How are we supposed to conduct this kind of business – which invariably relies to some degree on deception and double-dealing – out in plain view?

  10. DrDaveT says:

    @Tyrell:

    One thing the president needs on his wish list should be the total defeat and surrender of ISIS. Another would be Iran shutting down its nuclear program.

    Don’t forget magic telepathic ponies. Gotta have those.

  11. James Joyner says:

    @Tyrell: @DrDaveT:

    One thing the president needs on his wish list should be the total defeat and surrender of ISIS. Another would be Iran shutting down its nuclear program.

    Both of those things are in fact on the wish list.