Best Defense

The NSS: Not a strategy, but still a good process for national security officials

Here is a great insight into the way Washington really works, from my CNAS colleague Richard Fontaine. By Richard FontaineBest Defense political officer Obama’s new NSS has a lot in common with its predecessors, and I don’t mean just on substance but also on process and presentation. That’s because the name is somewhat of a ...

whitehouse.gov
whitehouse.gov

Here is a great insight into the way Washington really works, from my CNAS colleague Richard Fontaine.

By Richard Fontaine
Best Defense political officer

Obama’s new NSS has a lot in common with its predecessors, and I don’t mean just on substance but also on process and presentation. That’s because the name is somewhat of a misnomer: the National Security Strategy isn’t really a strategy — in every administration it’s more like a really long speech. It doesn’t try to match ends to resources or anything of the sort. It won’t say that we want to partner with the Iraqis after our drawdown (which is in the document) so we will need X amount of money and Y personnel for Z years and we’ll do it this way (which is not). That’s not the way it goes.

The way these things work is that you don’t lay out some big vision that the government then sticks to. What you do is look at what you’ve been doing already, try to discern the principles behind your actions, and then package them as the product of overarching strategic thought. You tell yourself that what you are actually doing is bringing into high relief the principles and thinking that implicitly underlay policy thus far. That’s actually sort of right, but it doesn’t mark a new course — it’s a distillation of what you already believe and are doing.

Then you throw in something for everyone. You try to touch on every conceivable priority so the administration can’t get punched for having overlooked a “key” national security issue. You like terrorism? We got terrorism in here! You like loose nukes? Got that too. Minerals? Climate change? Disease? Ditto. You like cold weather? This recognizes that we are an Arctic nation!

Then you spin it as completely, utterly different from your predecessor, even though the vast majority of it is exactly the same — we have the same old interests and values and mostly use the same old tools in pursuit of them. You play up the differences on the margin and package it in rhetoric that basically says “Our long international nightmare of the ignoramuses in the last administration is over; with our clarity of strategic thought we will be much more competent.” The media usually falls for it — it’s about preemption! They want forcible Iraq-style regime change everywhere! It’s NOT about preemption! They DON’T want forcible Iraq-style regime change anywhere!

Then you use it almost exclusively externally. Policymakers will rely on guidance provided by PC and DC papers that have actual agreed-upon policies and actions, but not on a NSS-style document. It’s not like the Secretary of State or a desk officer or an NSC director will say, “Ah, this issue just came up. I know how to deal with it now because there is a paragraph in the NSS that tells me what to do.” The only reason you would conceivably cite the NSS as a policymaker is if you are arguing that your preferred course is right and someone else’s is wrong — “See, paragraph 3 on page 17 says that our nation is committed to do exactly what I am advocating; yours isn’t in there, so I am right and you are contradicting the President’s policy.”

So is it all a wasted exercise? Surprisingly, no — but you have to recognize the limitations.

It’d be nice to set at least a few priorities, as a signal to the world America will fight (metaphorically speaking) for them. The new administration’s NSS should, but doesn’t. (Of course you can also envision the conversation behind closed doors — Official 1: “I think we should say that our relations with Europe, India, Japan and China are our most important.” Official 2: “What? That means they are more important than Canada! They’ll be insulted! More important than Paraguay? That will needlessly antagonize them. Andorra? It’s shooting ourselves in the foot. We can’t set priorities without alienating all the non-priority countries and all the people who care about issues we don’t think are really, really important. What if this very conversation gets leaked to the press?!”)

The National Security Strategy can also be a valuable exercise to provoke a public debate among the foreign policy community. The significant portions of the new NSS that link our domestic situation to America’s power abroad is new, and hopefully that will at least generate an external discussion, in the government, on Capitol Hill, and externally — not just of the costs of our overseas engagement but about the sustainability of our domestic policies.

In the end, it may be that this is one governmental exercise where the process matters more than the product. In order to produce a National Security Strategy, smart people think for a long time about the grand sweep of U.S. policy. Senior policymakers, to the extent they play a role in the process, are forced to think through core issues and future possibilities in a way that is much different from their day to day grind. And all that process can provoke our foreign policy leadership to think more deeply, more broadly, and more about the future than they otherwise would — and that can’t be a bad thing. Maybe Eisenhower said it best: “Plans are worthless but planning is everything.” 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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