Shadow Government

The Sideline President

The president’s new national security strategy isn’t particularly new. It advances the same worn-out vision for America that has downplayed our leadership role, eroded our standing in the world, and let our enemies expand their reach all the way to our doorstep. Make no mistake: national-level strategies are important, when done right. They communicate our ...

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The president’s new national security strategy isn’t particularly new. It advances the same worn-out vision for America that has downplayed our leadership role, eroded our standing in the world, and let our enemies expand their reach all the way to our doorstep.

Make no mistake: national-level strategies are important, when done right. They communicate our intentions, reassure allies, deter adversaries, act as a guide for allocating scarce national resources, and force decision-makers to be proactive rather than reactive.

While the strategy finally pays lip-service to the need for “American leadership,” President Barack Obama has opted to double-down on the same policies of retreat that have damaged America’s credibility and allowed threats against the United States to surge.

A quick tour of the National Security Strategy (NSS) is a reminder of why sitting on the sidelines has been a dangerous strategic folly. The document perpetuates the president’s false assumptions about how to secure America — assumptions that have been the motive power behind our diminished influence.

Leading from behind leads us to safety.

The president touts his “strategic patience” approach to confronting international challenges. Translation? America is going to take a backseat until problems sort themselves out. During the campaign, then-candidate Obama said reading philosophy had taught him “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things.”

This view morphed into the threadbare philosophy of “leading from behind” which has guided the administration for six years. It posits that our deference and modesty — not our action — will tame our adversaries, transform the world’s tyrants, and trounce extremism. But reality has been much different. One need only look at Russia’s expansionism, China’s espionage and aggression, and the explosion of global terrorist threats to see how well it has worked.

Drawdowns lead to dominance.

On national defense, the president writes that under his strategy “although our military will be smaller, it must remain dominant in every domain.” But wishing won’t make it so. Ask the service chiefs about the Obama-era downsizing of the Pentagon. The Army says readiness has been eroded to the “lowest level in 20 years”; the Navy says its “fleet readiness will likely not recover” from maintenance backlogs for several years; and the Marines point out that half of their non-deployed units “are suffering personnel, equipment, and training shortfalls” which will could cause response delays and unnecessary casualties in a major conflict.

To defeat a threat, you do not need to define it. 

Throughout the president’s national security strategy, he declines to refer to the surging terror threat for what it is: violent Islamist extremism, the perversion of a largely peaceful religion into a deeply insidious worldview. Instead, the president throws up a straw man, writing that we are not at “war with Islam.” I agree with that statement, but we need to identify our enemy to defeat it. The American people grasp the difference between moderate Islam and the butchers who use it to justify the cold-blooded murder of innocents.

Terrorism is a problem for the police.

The White House vows to continue treating the fight against terror as a law enforcement problem, rather than a war akin to our long struggle against communism and fascism. For instance, outside of current conflict zones, the strategy says the administration will strive “to detain, interrogate, and prosecute terrorists through law enforcement.” This involves giving terrorists the same legal protections as U.S. citizens, rather than treating them as unlawful enemy combatants who have grossly violated the laws of war.

The president has clearly forgotten American anger at his attempt to try 9/11-mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian U.S. courts. And his strategy ignores the danger his policies have created by releasing hardcore terrorists from Guantanamo Bay, many of which are returning to the battlefield to plot against the West.

The administration’s focus on dialing back America’s approach to the war against Islamist terror has resulted in chaos. On the president’s watch, terrorist franchises have popped up around the world, extremist safe havens have proliferated, and we have witnessed the largest convergence of Islamist terrorists in history form a terrifying pseudo-state dead set on attacking America. The threat is engulfing the globe like a wildfire. Just last month, the FBI arrested an Islamic State sympathizer planning to detonate bombs at the U.S. Capitol. Even the president’s closest former advisors have criticized his dithering in the face of this danger.

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At the end of the day, strategy is meaningless if the “ends” are not paired with the “means” to achieve them. The president’s recent budget reveals which of his NSS priorities really matter to the White House.

One example is telling. The president gives roughly equal attention to “countering violent extremism” as he does to global warming in the NSS. But his Department of Homeland Security budget proposes to only fund one of them: spending tens of millions of dollars on climate change while offering no dedicated budget for helping communities identify and disrupt homegrown terror. The president’s priorities are clear.

The Islamic State and al Qaeda harbor a messianic vision of destroying America. Blindness to those aims has ushered in an unprecedented rise of radicalism that we have seen reach Paris, Sydney, Ottawa, and our own city streets in Boston. It is past time for the president to wake up and produce a cogent and forceful plan to rollback this threat — not contain it — before it is too late. Sadly, this strategy prescribes further retreat, not bolder action, to address the urgent security challenges facing our nation.

Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

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