On May 27, President Obama released his first National Security Strategy (NSS), the congressionally mandated statement of America’s overarching vision of national security and how to achieve it. You didn’t know? Don’t feel bad. Hardly anyone else was paying attention either.
In fact, the president himself held a press conference on the morning that the NSS was released, and he never mentioned it once. The stated topic of the presser was the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. Virtually all the questions asked stuck to that topic. Not one reporter asked anything about the new strategy document.
Yet the issues are hardly separable. The NSS refers several times to a clean natural environment as a factor in national security. And it admits that our dependence on oil undermines our security and leaves us vulnerable “to changes in the environment on an unprecedented scale.”
So it would have been easy enough for Obama to hold a press conference highlighting both the new NSS and his response to the Gulf disaster, linking the two in all sorts of ways. But instead, he used the oil leak to eclipse coverage of his first official statement of national security strategy.
Why? A valuable clue popped out at me as I perused the home page of the Washington Post, the bellwether of American political discourse. The Post did not even mention the NSS on its home page the day the document was released. Like all the other mass media, it followed the president’s lead and gave almost all its attention to the concern about the oil leak.
Yet the site’s list of “most viewed” articles was not topped by Obama’s defense of his containment efforts. No, number one was a seemingly obscure story: “Obama’s decision to skip Arlington on Memorial Day angers critics, some veterans.”
Anyone who had the patience to read the whole article discovered that lots of presidents have skipped Arlington on Memorial Day – including the elder George Bush, who never went at all, and the younger, who was absent in 2002, at the height of the nation’s patriotic fervor and terrorism fear. So Obama’s decision to forgo Arlington might be no big deal. Yet it outplayed the Gulf oil spill and everything else that day among Post readers.
The article explained that Obama’s decision to spend Memorial Day at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery near Chicago “has dismayed some veterans,” because “Arlington is hallowed ground.” And it cited Fox News headlines, such as “Trampling on Tradition?” and “Offensive to Soldiers?”
This article got so many readers, I suspect, because of the emotional weight of symbolism and the political weight of media spin. Fox News and the Republican Party know that Obama is most vulnerable on one question: Is he tough enough, will he make the sacrifices necessary, to protect us from the foreigners who want to destroy us?
All of those graves at Arlington are the nation’s most powerful symbol of the ultimate act of resistance to foreigners in the past who, supposedly, tried to destroy us. Facts don’t matter when we’re talking about symbolism. Arlington, as much as any place in the nation, signifies the common belief that nothing is more important than defeating “evildoers,” no matter what it takes – even the deaths of thousands of Americans.
The fear of evil invading the homeland is still a very powerful theme in American political life; Obama’s absence from Arlington, on the day we honor those thousands who protected us at the cost of their lives (at least that’s how the official story goes), apparently raised for many Post readers the question of whether we can count on him to give his all to protect us.
That question nags at a lot of Americans – not all of them on the far Right, by any means. But the right-wingers are busy every day trying to keep the question central in Americans’ minds. And they’re obviously having some success.
I suspect that’s why the White House tried to make the NSS disappear as soon as it appeared. The last thing they want is the media spotlight stirring up debate on the president’s political Achilles heel, the question of national security.
The few media analyses of the NSS gave the White House good reason to worry. They all focused on the new document’s departures from the NSS of the previous administration, such as giving up the right of “preventive attack” and putting more emphasis on cooperation with other nations to secure American interests. Since they are “news” media, their job is to look for what’s different from the immediate past.
But it gives Obama’s opponents an easy way to attack him for being weaker than Bush. An AP article, for example, began by announcing that Obama “is breaking with the go-it-alone Bush years in a new strategy for keeping the nation safe, counting more on U.S. allies,” and immediately warned: “It’s an approach that already has proved tricky in practice.” “Obama’s critics assert that his policies have largely failed,” the AP added, “given the continued defiance of Iran and North Korea on nuclear development, the stalemate in Afghanistan and rising worries about terrorist attacks at home.”
That’s exactly the kind of language the administration hopes to avoid. So it focused on its stronger suit, domestic issues. Even the oil disaster might be turned to political advantage – especially if Obama could create the impression of a real contrast between his attention to the problem and his predecessor’s disregard for the last disaster to strike the Gulf coast, hurricane Katrina.
In fact, though, in the current climate of American political discourse there is no escaping the issue of security, no matter what the subject. The oil disaster is tied to security issues not only because it wreaks havoc on the environment, but because we’re so accustomed to using the language of national security to talk about all our national problems.
So, for example, National Public Radio made the effort to deal with the oil spill, not the new NSS, its top story of the day. Yet it used language that U.S. leaders used throughout the Cold War to talk about national security: “That containment effort is, as the president said today, the federal government’s responsibility,” NPR reported. “Today President Obama took a number of steps to contain the oil spill as well as the political fallout.”
What political fallout? Ever since early Cold War days, the public has expected its government to do one thing above all: not to eliminate, but to contain, whatever new danger may come along. Whether the supposed dangers are named “commies,” “al-Qaeda,” “network of extremists,” “illegal aliens,” “oil spill,” or whatever, is secondary. No one knows what new perils may arise tomorrow.
Indeed a big part of the “oil spill” story is precisely the unexpectedness of it. But that’s the point. The government’s number one job, according to the prevailing political discourse, is to be constantly on guard, to prevent unexpected threats from invading our borders and doing us harm. The New York Times captured the point in the headline of its analysis of the NSS: “New U.S. Security Strategy Focuses on Managing Threats.” I’ve called it “apocalypse management.”
The one thing the Times – and the rest of the mass media that bothered to cover the NSS – got wrong was summed up in that little word “new.” It was the George W. Bush NSS that was really new. Obama is merely going back to what had been the general consensus of U.S. national security strategy since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s day. And Obama knows it.
When he was running against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2008, he summed up his foreign policy views for the Times‘ David Brooks: “I constantly reject this notion that any hint of strategies involving diplomacy are somehow soft or indicate surrender. … It’s an argument between ideology and foreign policy realism.” Then he added: “I have enormous sympathy for the foreign policy of George H.W. Bush” – now recalled as an arch-“realist,” because he seemed to be content to manage and contain threats with a mix of power and diplomacy, as so many presidents before him did, rather than declaring an ideological crusade to exterminate evil, as his son did.
So the mass media took Obama’s return to an old overarching “national security strategy” and trumpeted it as something new – when the press bothered to pay attention to the NSS at all. And when the press focused on the continuing drama of the oil gushing into the Gulf, the same theme of containing and managing threats seemed unavoidable. That’s what the public wants to read and hear; that’s what sells newspapers (as they used to say).
Thus, when the Arlington cemetery article dropped out of the top spot on the Washington Post‘s “most viewed” list, it was replaced by “Success of ‘top kill’ still uncertain.” The next day, though the story about Arlington Cemetery was still high on the list, it had been passed by a new piece on the oil disaster titled “Obama struggling to show he’s in control.”
The three stories were all so popular because they all raised the same issue, the issue that dominates our political life: Is the president in control, in this age of uncertainty? Can he manage all the dangers that threaten us? The administration expects to do better at the polls if it can confine those questions as much as possible to the domestic sphere.
But the political opposition keeps demanding at least some answers in the realm of foreign affairs, demanding signs that Obama is tough enough to contain enemies abroad as well as dangers at home. So it was surely no accident that, just two days after the NSS release, the stories about “uncertainty” and “control” in the Gulf had been replaced at the top of the “most viewed” list by “Options studied for a possible Pakistan strike.”
“The U.S. military is reviewing options for a unilateral strike in Pakistan,” the story began, “in the event that a successful attack on American soil is traced to the country’s tribal areas.” (And right next to it, at the top of the Post print edition’s front page, was a large photo of a joyous midshipman graduating from the Naval Academy.)
Such stories are planted by the administration quite intentionally – a good reminder that the mass media are generally happy enough to follow wherever the administration’s media spin leads. And it always leads back to images of a president working hard, and successfully, to stay in control of an uncertain world. The ever cooperative ladies and gentlemen of the press apparently had no interest in challenging that image by probing the NSS, or any of the conventional national security issues, at the press conference the day it was released.
With one notable exception: the irrepressible, inspirational dean of the press corps, Helen Thomas. She predictably went off message to ask bluntly: “Why are we continuing to kill and die” in Afghanistan? “What is the real excuse? And don’t give us this Bushism, ‘If we don’t go there, they’ll all come here.’”
Obama had just begun offering some rambling, officious rhetoric about the “network of extremists” when Thomas interrupted to ask bluntly whether he thinks they are “a threat to us.” The president replied just as bluntly, and predictably: “They absolutely are a threat to us. They’re a significant threat to us.” That’s not the nuance of the new NSS. It’s the simplistic fear-mongering cliché of the old Bushism. What else can a president dogged by fears of being labeled “weak” say in a nation suffused by a myth of endless deadly threats?
None of this excuses Obama’s many George W. Bushisms, in policy as well as rhetoric – like those out-of-control drone attacks that are more likely to kill innocent civilians than “bad guys.” But those of us who want to change those policies have to persuade our fellow citizens to talk and think in new ways about national security. First, we must know what we’re up against.
That’s why it’s useful to read the story of the NSS-that-wasn’t, or any of the mass media news: not to get facts but to keep up with the prevailing mythic narrative, the way our ancient ancestors listened to the tales told around the fire at night – not asking “Is it true?” but “What does this mix of fact and fiction reveal about the most basic assumptions and values of our culture?”
For a long time, the front pages and home pages of our mass media have reflected the most basic assumption of our political discourse: We’ll always face threats, new and old, to the American way of life and even the existence of the nation itself. The highest value we aspire to as a nation, it seems, is to manage those threats wisely.
Until that basic myth begins to lose its power, we are likely to see the political arena dominated by the question of whether the president is tough enough to manage threatening perils both at home and, even more, abroad. And we are likely to see him respond with all sorts of gestures – some of them deadly and self-defeating – calculated for their symbolic value in that political arena.