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Obama’s Last National Security Strategy

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The world of today appears to be a great deal more dangerous than the one that President Obama inherited on taking office in 2009. The Islamic State (ISIS or IS) has remade the map of a large chunk of the Middle East. Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan is any more stable or peaceful despite the formal withdrawal of U.S. ground forces. War rages across eastern Ukraine. Conflicts among the major players in Asia have sharpened. Climate change continues virtually unabated, and the Ebola outbreak has once again raised the threat of pandemics.

The uncharitable believe that the Obama administration is at least partially responsible for this sorry state of world affairs. Either the administration did not finish the job that the George W. Bush administration began with its military response to global security challenges or, conversely, it didn’t go far enough in the other direction to put U.S. foreign policy on an entirely different footing more in keeping with a leader who has won a Nobel Peace prize. The “true believers” in the Obama camp, on the other hand, tick off his administration’s accomplishments—détente with Cuba, opening to Myanmar, ongoing negotiations with Iran—and emphasize the president’s shift from the hyper-militarism of the immediate post-9/11 era to the more cooperative diplomacy of the current moment.

This debate is not academic. In the lead-up to the 2016 elections, particularly if the economy remains in relatively good shape, Obama’s record on national security will be a major topic of debate. Most Republican candidates will characterize Obama as the grand appeaser who failed to stand up to Putin, Assad, Khamenei, and Xi and, moreover, coddled Castro and the Myanmar leadership. The leading Democratic Party candidate, Hillary Clinton, has already distanced herself from the administration’s record by emphasizing her own more muscular and even vaguely neo-conservative approach to foreign policy. So far, a candidate who fully embraces the more diplomatic legacy of the administration has yet to emerge (much less a critical voice that would argue that a president who expanded the U.S. drone program and authorized a wide range of military missions around the world has not sufficiently rejected the errors of past American Exceptionalism).

Into this debate on the Obama administration’s record comes the 2015 National Security Strategy, his second while in office. It is an attempt to find a fat middle position between the maintenance of what the document labels an “unrivalled military” and a “sustainable global security posture.” The document omits the administration’s obvious failures, highlights its accomplishments, and tries to assemble a range of disparate initiatives into the semblance of a strategy that is more than just avoiding errors, hitting some singles and doubles, and hoping for an occasional home run, as the president characterized his doctrine last year.

The 2015 National Security Strategy is not a home run. It doesn’t really try to be. The 2010 document attempted to outline a strategic approach based on “the world as it is.” This latest version dispenses with this strategy chapter and, after the requisite introduction, dives straight into the thematic discussion. This deliberate avoidance of grand strategy reflects Obama’s preference for the trees over the forest but also an administration chastened by the reversal of the “reset” with Russia, the end of the “new beginning” with the Muslim world, the breakdown in the Israel-Palestinian peace process, the stalled progress toward a nuclear-weapons-free world, and other policy disappointments.

This National Security Strategy will not likely silence administration critics or secure the White House for a Democratic successor in 2016. But it at least illuminates what Obama will try to accomplish globally in his last two years in office and, more importantly, how he will spin those efforts.

Something for Everyone

Like Obama himself, at least in his public utterances such as the State of the Union, the National Security Strategy is relentlessly optimistic, even more so than the 2010 version. “The United States is stronger and better positioned to seize the opportunities of a still new century and safeguard our interests against the risks of an insecure world,” it declares at the start. At times, the document even veers into Pollyanna territory. For instance, it declares without substantiation that the threat of catastrophic attacks against the United States has diminished. Although it acknowledges the challenges that still bedevil the world, the document emphasizes that the United States is more prepared than ever to meet them.

Obama’s approach to difficult and controversial issues is to find the middle way. As such, the document tries to thread the needle between acting alone and working collectively, strengthening a rules-based international order and maintaining U.S. unilateralism, increasing military spending and relying more on diplomacy, and pivoting to Asia while retaining a focus on hot spots in the Middle East and Africa. Every administration prides itself, at least rhetorically, on using all the tools in the foreign policy toolbox, keeping all options on the table, acting “pragmatically,” and using power “smartly.” But Obama, particularly on foreign policy issues, scrupulously avoids the either/ors in favor of the both/ands.

The strategy document makes sure to appeal to virtually every constituency. There’s an unambiguous focus on climate change, but energy companies will warm to the section on ensuring America’s energy independence. The part on values could appeal to neoconservative advocates of democracy promotion as well as social liberals working on LGBT rights. And for everyone who urges the president to steer clear of global affairs because “it’s the economy, stupid,” the document takes pains to link the economic strength of the United States to its ability to maintain leadership in the world.

The document, in other words, understands national security broadly. The administration would not go so far as to redefine national security as “human security”—with the challenges of hunger and homelessness on a par with the threat of armed attack—for that would make Obama an even easier target for congressional hawks. But in its elevation of economic, environmental, and human rights themes, the 2015 National Security Strategy goes even further than the previous iteration in incorporating them into its definition. This time, for instance, both climate change and health pandemics fall into the “security” category, which five years ago was reserved only for different aspects of force.

The Power of a Superpower

The document’s discussion of military force reflects the administration’s ambivalence about hard power. Virtually every mention of the military is paired with a mention of diplomacy and vice versa. For instance, the document states that the U.S. military “will remain ready to defend our enduring national interests while providing essential leverage for our diplomacy. The use of force is not, however, the only tool at our disposal, and it is not the principal means of U.S. engagement abroad, nor always the most effective for the challenges we face.”

At the same time, the administration has attempted to curry favor with congressional hawks whose own appeasement will be needed to approve a federal budget. “Although our military will be smaller, it must remain dominant in every domain,” the document states. Here the document echoes the “full-spectrum dominance” of the Bush years.

To maintain this dominance, the administration has pushed back against the mandatory limits established by the sequestration compromise. In presenting his 2016 budget at the end of last month, the president proposed an almost 8 percent increase in the Pentagon’s core budget.  His choice for Chuck Hagel’s replacement at the helm of the Defense Department, Ashton Carterhas mirrored the “more bang, more bucks” emphasis of the National Security Strategy by backing more military spending, as well as waste reduction. As with his vigorous endorsement of “just war” in his Nobel Prize address, the president has taken pains to ensure that no one can accuse the Democrats of being soft on defense or overly critical of the military-industrial complex.

Third but not Least

In its section on U.S. policy toward different regions of the world, the “Pacific pivot” gets pride of place, as the administration seeks not only to reorient U.S. security emphasis toward Asia, but also to deflect attention from the obvious failures of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Indeed, the document’s optimism wears thin only when it addresses the Middle East, listed third after Asia and Europe (since Africa is fourth, the list is obviously not in alphabetical order). For the Middle East and North Africa, the document provides no overarching vision, just a series of disconnected initiatives:

America will therefore continue to work with allies and partners toward a comprehensive agreement with Iran that resolves the world’s concerns with the Iranian nuclear program. We remain committed to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a two-state solution that ensures Israel’s security and Palestine’s viability. We will support efforts to deescalate sectarian tensions and violence between Shi’a and Sunni communities throughout the region. We will help countries in transition make political and economic reforms and build state capacity to maintain security, law and order, and respect for universal rights. In this respect, we seek a stable Yemen that undertakes difficult structural reforms and confronts an active threat from al-Qa’ida and other rebels. We will work with Tunisia to further progress on building democratic institutions and strengthening its economy.

Again, the document attempts to appeal to all sides. Diplomacy with Iran is working, but “we retain all options to achieve the objective of preventing Iran from producing a nuclear weapon.” Boots on the ground are not part of the plan for dealing with IS and its ilk. Instead, the administration favors “a more sustainable approach that prioritizes targeted counterterrorism operations, collective action with responsible partners, and increased efforts to prevent the growth of violent extremism and radicalization that drives increased threats.” The Syrian mess can only be solved politically, with a “transition that responds to the legitimate aspirations of all Syrian citizens.”

It’s not surprising that the administration should lack a grand strategy toward the Middle East, since it has witnessed the failure of one tactic after another: democracy promotion in the wake of the Arab Spring, nation-building amid Iraq’s ongoing disintegration, counter-terrorism efforts in Yemen, shuttle diplomacy with Israel and Palestine, and so on. Who can blame Obama for seeking his legacy in Asia?

What Goes Unsaid

The National Security Strategy must go through the same sausage-making process as all major administration documents. There are not going to be any surprises. It will not introduce any innovative approaches. The differences with its 2010 predecessor are mostly ones of emphasis and tone. But also important is what doesn’t make it into the sausage.

For instance, although it discusses a political transition in Syria, the document doesn’t state explicitly that Assad must go. It is very careful to avoid any mention of providing specific assistance to the Ukrainian government, and it keeps open the possibility of “peaceful cooperation” with Russia if it changes its policy toward the conflict on its border. The document mentions the importance of maintaining “a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent that preserves strategic stability” but fails to mention that this program will cost over $263 billion over ten years (which itself is likely an underestimate). Drones, which didn’t merit a mention at all in 2010, get only one passing aside and only in the context of “embracing constraints on our use of new technologies” (this from an administration that continues to rely on drones as a substitute for boots on the ground).

Nor does the document dwell on the alliances that the United States has entered into with unsavory partners for the purposes of advancing its national security, alliances that are at odds with the fine sentiments about human rights in the “values” section of the document. In addition to longstanding relationships with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the United States has maintained close ties with Thailand and Egypt, despite recent coups in those countries.

But the big missing piece in the latest National Security Strategy, which will be Obama’s last one, is any sense of how the United States and the world as a whole can afford to address the wide range of challenges—not only IS and traditional security threats, but also climate change, pandemics, and gross inequality—when the United States and its partners are committed to pouring resources into the usual panoply of tanks, fighter jets, and drones. The Obama administration’s preference for both/and instead of the hard either/or choices comes up against the problem of limited resources. Even a superpower can’t maintain dominance in every domain and also effectively address big-ticket items like climate change, not to mention all the other bullet points on Obama’s wish list. Though the 2015 National Security Strategy skimps on grand strategy, its major shortcoming is its failure to assess the real cost of leadership.

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