Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Five holes in the administration’s new National Security Strategy document

My CNAS colleague Patrick Cronin sat in yesterday on Pentagon strategist Amanda Dory’s conversation with some bloggers. Here is his report. By Patrick M. Cronin Director, Best Defense office of plans and strategy We live in a dangerous world. That was certainly the conviction of President W. Bush after September 11, 2001. And it would ...

Dricker94/flickr
Dricker94/flickr

My CNAS colleague Patrick Cronin sat in yesterday on Pentagon strategist Amanda Dory’s conversation with some bloggers. Here is his report.

By Patrick M. Cronin
Director, Best Defense office of plans and strategy

We live in a dangerous world. That was certainly the conviction of President W. Bush after September 11, 2001. And it would appear to be the major presumption of President Barack Obama. According to Amanda Dory, deputy assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, who yesterday reached out to the blogosphere via teleconference, the White House’s recently released National Security Strategy hammers home the threat posed by transnational terrorism but also places greater emphasis on linkages with the weapons of mass destruction. Issues such as the danger posed by fissile materials that are not locked down and the risk posed by biological weapons are highlighted in the new document. Hence, terrorism remains a focal point of American security, albeit now fitting into a wider and more complex security panorama.
Among possible differences between the rhetoric of the National Security Strategy and the reality of national security and defense policy, five points might be offered:

  • The National Security Strategy, echoing the QDR, underscores the critical importance of overseas engagement with allies and partners, as well as regional and international institutions that over time become far more capable than they are today. Yet making traditional alliances like NATO or the U.S.-Japan alliance more effective and durable may well be more challenging than supposed. There is also a problem of sheer time management, because traditional alliances have a welter of consultative machinery that requires a good deal of care and attention.
  • A second cluster of issues concerns U.S. relations with partners and erstwhile adversaries. Iran’s recent diplomatic gambit over nuclear fuel and North Korea’s recent use of force at once demonstrate just how difficult it is to implement the sensible precepts of the National Security Strategy. Another issue in both documents arises from the largely unspoken tension between growing partnerships with major powers like China and Russia, from whom threats could emerge in new domains, especially cyberspace and space. Clearly a public strategy document is not the place to harp on such complexities, but reconciling these dueling aspects of relations with the same countries is likely to bedevil putting the words into action.
  • A third issue not highlighted (for understandable reasons) has to do with unexpected contingencies. The document does an admirable job at discerning trends. It makes only veiled hints at how much elasticity is left for shocks or "black swans," those rare events that often end up defining an era or in this case an administration’s security policy. There is considerable anxiety in political circles about the impact of a terrorist attack on the homeland, and this document rightly places homeland security and our society’s resilience on the very top of national priorities.
  • A fourth issue concerns the gap between ends and means, especially when it comes to the U.S. budget. A great deal of the National Security Strategy focuses on the economy and the need for the United States to get a grip on its long-term deficits that could erode its power. But although Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has recently spoken out about keeping down defense spending, his previous budgets have not exactly emphasized fiscal austerity.
  • Finally, the National Security Strategy barely mentions the subject of strategic communications. What gives? According to deputy assistant Secretary Dory, it remains up to each department and agency to execute policy and articulate it in what she dubbed a ‘federated approach.’ At the same time, she pledged, the State Department is in process of shoring up public diplomacy and the Department of Defense will continue to grapple with strategic communications. Surely her deft outreach on the National Security Strategy might well be viewed as a welcome sign that the White House and the Pentagon, at least, appear to be working from the same playbook.
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