Critics accuse the administration of being too slow to act in Syria and Russia. In a new strategy document, the White House says that was the plan all along.
- By Gopal RatnamGopal Ratnam is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering the White House, the Pentagon and broader national security issues. A native of India,Gopal has covered topics ranging from child-labor law violations and the automotive industry to the international arms trade, the politics of weapons purchases, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has reported from dozens of countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Most recently he was the Pentagon reporter for Bloomberg News.
This story has been updated.
The White House’s new national security policy, issued Friday, urges a long-term view of confronting conflict in a world awash with urgent crises. It served as more of a defense of President Barack Obama’s response to threats rather than offering a new direction, and bolsters his belief that acting deliberatively now could stave off worse threats later.
“Progress won’t be quick or linear,” National Security Advisor Susan Rice told an audience at the Brookings Institution think-tank, where she unveiled the strategy — the second and likely final policy document of its kind for the Obama administration.
“But we are committed to seizing the future that lies beyond the crisis of the day, and pursuing a vision of the world as it can and should be,” Rice said.
It was an attempt to push back on the criticism that for years has been heaped on Obama for failing to quickly deal with crises — including the rise of the Islamic State and Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine — that have erupted on his watch. Rice urged a policy of “strategic patience” that allows America to prove its power when it must, but as often resists reflexive responses that could ensnare the U.S. in long-term conflicts.
A White House summary of the strategy, released ahead of Rice’s remarks, repeatedly highlighted the administration’s intent to lead — in partnerships, with military power, and “with a long-term perspective, influencing the trajectory of major shifts in the security landscape today in order to secure our national interests in the future.”
That is a clear pushback to lawmakers, policy experts, and prominent U.S. journalists who have lambasted the White House for “leading from behind” — a catchphrase that the administration itself once used to describe the U.S. role in the 2011 coalition bombing campaign in Libya, but has since become shorthand for being too passive in global crises.
Stewart Patrick, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Friday’s strategy plan fails to make clear how the U.S. should choose between competing priorities of responding to immediate threats while still refusing to fully invest in helping solve world crises. He said the Pentagon, the State Department, and other security and diplomatic government agencies may be unable to build their own respective strategies without clearer advice from the White House.
The blueprint “provides little guidance about the relative importance of the multiple interests it identifies,” Patrick wrote Friday.
The National Security Strategy, required by U.S. law, is intended to set the direction for the administration and communicate American intent to lawmakers, the public, and the world. It is Obama’s second such strategy, and likely last, before he leaves office in early 2017.
It details how Obama believes the United States should deal with threats ranging from Chinese aggression in the Pacific and cyberattacks, to the rise of the Islamic State, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, genocidal regimes, and climate change. It also makes a strong case for using all elements of American power — not just with military force, but also through financial and economic sanctions against nations and leaders who disrupt the world order.
The strategy document also calls for stopping “mass atrocities” and reaffirms America’s role in protecting civilians from genocidal regimes. But Obama has been hesitant to intervene in a number of global hotspots, including the ongoing slaughter of civilians in Nigeria by Boko Haram extremists.
Obama’s strategy also touts the efficacy of sanctions to punish countries and actors that threaten to cause instability. In some of the document’s strongest language, the administration warns that the U.S. “will exact an appropriate cost on transgressors” who engage in aggression, proliferation of nuclear materials and other forms of unprovoked violence.
In an indication of how expectations often implode, Rice acknowledged that Obama’s 2010 strategy document anticipated a “cooperative and collaborative relationship” with Russia. Those hopes have since been dashed, and Moscow remains a top concern for the U.S. and its European allies, as Russian President Vladimir Putin shows little sign of relenting from his march on Ukraine, including annexing Crimea last year and continuing to stir unrest in the country’s east.
Obama and European leaders have imposed crippling economic and financial sanctions against Russian firms and officials, and Ukraine separatists. Critics have blamed the administration for not sending weapons to Ukraine to defend itself from Russian military aggression, even though the White House is now considering doing so.
Additionally, the White House calls climate change and energy security as key to U.S. national security. It says America is a world leader in oil and gas production, and can afford to reduce foreign energy imports. But it cites a “significant stake” for the U.S. to help secure Europe’s energy needs, and thereby wean much of the West off its dependence on Russia for oil and gas. That will help undercut Putin’s campaign to roil Ukraine.
On climate change, the White House highlighted a 2014 agreement between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping to cut China’s carbon pollution. It also took care to maintain that the burgeoning diplomacy between Washington and Beijing — the world’s two largest economies — would still be tightly managed with an eye toward China’s dubious record on maritime security, trade, and human rights issues.
In a significant nod to the growing U.S.-India ties, the strategy praised New Delhi’s role as a regional security provider. Beijing is likely to view Washington’s urging of a greater role for India in regional affairs as a threat to China’s ambitions.
In his earlier security strategy paper, issued in May 2010, Obama focused on ending the war in Iraq and adding more troops to the fight in Afghanistan. Lawmakers have been expecting to see an updated strategy at least since late 2013, but, ironically, its release has been delayed as the administration has struggled to keep up with quickly unfolding crises.
Iraq has returned to haunt Obama since U.S. troops withdrew from Baghdad in 2011 — fulfilling his campaign promise to end the war that killed nearly 4,500 American troops and cost hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars.
Last year, Obama agreed to send American troops to back Iraq after seeing fighters for the Islamic State extremist group overrun the war-torn nation and systematically murder its people. The militancy has its roots in Iraq and Syria, where Obama also has been roundly criticized for offering too little help, too late, to staunch oppressive policies by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that, in turn, fueled the insurgency.
Against the advice of some of his own top advisers, Obama refused to arm moderate, vetted Syrian rebels early in their fight against Assad. It is a prime example of the administration’s restrained foreign policy, against the backdrop of a civil war that has killed nearly 200,000 in four years. The chaos gave the Islamic State an opening to control large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq.
Obama later relented, and by mid-2013 allowed the CIA to begin arming a small group of rebels. That effort is now said to have stalled, and the Pentagon has taken over the effort to vet, recruit, and train as many as 5,000 rebels a year under a $500 million program.
Despite the broad sweep of the strategy, critics of the administration — including lawmakers of both parties, former cabinet officials, foreign leaders and policy experts — are likely to see the plan a continuation and endorsement of Obama’s foreign-policy approach of the last four years.
“This new strategy is a regurgitation of the same failed policies that have engendered an international environment of weakness and made the United States and our allies around the world less safe,” said Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), a member of the House Armed Services committee.
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