Not So New National Security Strategy

Last week, the White House released the Obama administration’s National Security Strategy. Considering that the administration brought in people such as Michele Flournoy (Undersecretary of Defense for Policy)  – who during the Bush administration created a start-up think tank, Center for New American Security, and had a lot to say about national security policy before Obama took office – the first question is: Why did it take so long?  Given that foreign policy was such a big issue during the campaign, you would have thought that the administration could have crafted a national security strategy within a year of occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

More importantly, after taking more than year, you would have thought that they could do better.  As a candidate, Senator Obama campaigned on "change we can believe in," but as president his national security strategy is less change and more of the same.  Some of the big themes in the Obama administration’s national security strategy include:

  • Disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda and its violent extremist affiliates in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and around the world
  • Reverse the spread of nuclear and biological weapons and secure nuclear materials
  • Advance peace, security, and opportunity in the greater Middle East
  • Invest in the capacity of strong and capable partners
  • Promote democracy and human rights abroad

Compare those to the big themes in the Bush administration’s first national security strategy, issued a year after 9/11:

  • Champion aspirations for human dignity
  • Strengthen alliances to defeat global terrorism and work to prevent attacks against us and our friends
  • Work with others to defuse regional conflicts
  • Prevent our enemies from threatening us, our allies, and our friends, with weapons of mass destruction
  • Ignite a new era of global economic growth through free markets and free trade
  • Expand the circle of development by opening societies and building the infrastructure of democracy
  • Develop agendas for cooperative action with other main centers of global power

They don’t sound a whole lot different, do they?

The biggest difference, of course, is that the Bush administration made preemption a centerpiece of its policy –  "The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction – and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively" (which was more correctly prevention since the purpose was to "act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed") – and demonstrated a willingness to act unilaterally.  The Obama administration’s tone is softer:

  • While the use of force is sometimes necessary, we will exhaust other options before war whenever we can, and carefully weigh the costs and risks of action against the costs and risks of inaction.
  • The United States must reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend our nation and our interests, yet we will also seek to adhere to standards that govern the use of force.

But the differences seem more like style over substance.

The only part of Obama’s national security strategy that deals with a direct threat to the United States is the section dealing with al-Qaeda.  The administration seems fixated on al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan as the epicenter of an actual physical threat to America.  To begin, al-Qaeda and the Taliban are not one and the same.  That may have been true on 9/11, but now there are elements of the Taliban simply vying for power in Afghanistan without any real ties to al-Qaeda or endorsement of al-Qaeda’s radical ideology.  And the al-Qaeda that exists today – what’s left of it, including Osama bin Laden, presumably holed up in Pakistan – does not have the same operational capability, i.e., global reach, that it did on 9/11.  In fact, both al-Qaeda and the Taliban represent more of a local threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan than a global threat.

Like the Bush administration before it, the Obama administration fails to recognize how and why the ideology fomented by the likes of al-Qaeda is able to gain traction with Muslims.  They believe that a "constructive vision" will somehow counter radicalization:

We are striving to build bridges among people of different faiths and regions. We will continue to work to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, which has long been a source of tension. We will continue to stand up for the universal rights of all people, even for those with whom we disagree. We are developing new partnerships in Muslim communities around the world on behalf of health, education, science, employment, and innovation. And through our broader emphasis on Muslim engagement, we will communicate our commitment to support the aspirations of all people for security and opportunity.

But lack of democracy and human rights provided by Uncle Sam are not at the heart of what makes America an easy target for Muslim anger.

Rather, it is a U.S. foreign policy of interventionism – however well intended – that is a root cause creating resentment and hatred.  Nothing in the Obama national security strategy significantly changes that.  Although the national security strategy reinforces President Obama’s pledge to withdraw military forces from Iraq, it proclaims that the "United States will continue to retain a robust civilian presence commensurate with our strategic interests in the country and the region."  That may not be military occupation, but it is nonetheless an occupation by a foreign power and likely to be viewed as America trying to run the internal affairs of a Muslim country.  And it’s pretty clear that the national security strategy is all about continued occupation – and managing the internal affairs – of Afghanistan (indeed, there are now more U.S. troops in Afghanistan than in Iraq).

In the final analysis, the Obama national security strategy is more the same than different than the Bush administration national security strategy.  And perhaps the fatal flaw is: "a broad conception of what constitutes our national security."  The more national security is about everything, the more it is about nothing.  Rather than broadly defining national security, it needs to be more narrowly defined so that we can focus our efforts on what truly matters.  Instead, it seems we are destined to continue doing the wrong things.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.