America Needs a More Restrained National Security Strategy

As the American cable news entertainment channels focus on the artificial "American Sniper" controversy, the Obama administration’s issuance of its second and final national security strategy (the last one was done in 2010) was buried deep in the back pages of the newspapers. Unfortunately, most Americans don’t choose to know much about U.S. foreign policy or American history, and therefore even the small minority that watches cable news or movies about such topics thinks they represent reality. For example, Clint Eastwood, a Republican, uses his movie to helpfully rewrite history to confirm George W. Bush’s fantasy conflating pursuit of the 9/11 attackers with his unrelated and disastrous invasion of Iraq. No matter that the heroically portrayed Chris Kyle, the sniper, is part of a US force that invaded the country in violation of international law for no good reason and is killing an Iraqi insurgency – which is trying to fight off the foreign occupiers and their oppressive Shi’ite government – that didn’t exist before the invasion. And Eastwood’s alternative reality, like leftist Oliver Stone’s similar blockbuster film fantasy a few years ago about the liberal icon JFK’s assassination, has a good chance of hardening in the public mind.

That’s because most Americans (unlike say Europeans), including US policymakers, are ignorant of their own history, even recent history – and especially where foreign policy is concerned. And because they are foggy on this history or choose to ignore it, American policymakers have difficulty developing a coherent strategy for the United States. Obama’s strategy fails this test too, but it at least recognizes the limitations of US military power in remodeling countries around the world to American liking. In an introduction to the strategy, Obama writes, "…America leads from a position of strength. But this does not mean we can or should attempt to dictate the trajectory of all unfolding events around the world. As powerful as we are and will remain, our resources and influence are not infinite. And in a complex world, many of the security problems we face do not lend themselves to quick and easy fixes." Given the recent dumping of trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives (American and local) in losing wars (OK, I said it) in Afghanistan and Iraq and the current U.S.-induced or -aggravated chaos in Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan, this statement should be obvious on its face. It is apparently not to administration critics, such as the ubiquitous Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and his sidekick Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC), however, who berate Obama for running a weak foreign policy that is too reluctant to use American power.

When Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, defended the new strategy by saying, "There is a lot going on. Still, while the dangers we face may be more numerous and varied, they are not of the existential nature we confronted during World War II or during the Cold War. We cannot afford to be buffeted by alarmism in a nearly instantaneous news cycle." Again, this conclusion is seemingly obvious – reminiscent of the more restrained foreign policy of President Dwight Eisenhower during the 1950s. Eisenhower would deftly deflect foreign policy "crises" and sent US forces into battle on only one curious occasion during his eight years in office – Lebanon in 1958. Ike was proud of the fact that no American service member lost a life during combat while he was president. During his tenure, Eisenhower faced similar criticism that he was a "do-nothing" president, yet historians now correctly see that he was secretly on top of things and that he merely regarded doing nothing as doing something. Obama is less confident in his ability to resist pressure from the military and other vested interests for an interventionist American foreign policy, because he didn’t serve in the military and he didn’t defeat the Nazis, as did Ike.

So despite his laudably cautious nature (relatively speaking), Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan, was slow to get out of Iraq, got back into Iraq and now Syria, was goaded by the French into overthrowing Libya’s leader, and has escalated Bush’s drone wars in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen – all in Islamic countries, thus continuing Bush’s documented fueling of resultant Islamist radicalism the world over.

Obama is now being pushed into providing arms for the Ukrainian government to battle Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists and into putting more forces on the ground to fight the ISIS in the Middle East. He should avoid both of these options, because Ukraine is in the Russian sphere of influence, and ISIS is more of threat to the Middle East region that it is to the United States.

If Obama wants a lasting legacy in foreign policy, he should be the first president in the post-Cold War era (the elder George Bush and after) to create a coherent and sustainable national security strategy that deals with the current limited real threats to US security and hedges against the future rising of China. After the disastrous and costly wars, the great recession, and consequent accumulation of monstrous levels of national debt, the United States needs to work toward real economic renewal through cutting defense spending (which Obama and the Congress are currently toying with increasing) and slashing massive entitlement programs, such as Social Security, Medicare, etc. In the long-term, all indices of national power – including military expenditure – rest on a strong economy.

Thus, to reduce defense spending, the United States, in all regions of the world, should let regional powers take the lead unless a potentially catastrophic security crisis erupts – the crises in Ukraine and involving ISIS do not reach that level. This "balancer-of-last-resort" strategy would save trillions of dollars, allow the renewal of American power well into the future, save American and foreign lives, and reduce Islamist radicalism worldwide and consequent blowback terrorism, thus making America more secure and less prone to curtail unique civil liberties.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.