Don’t Expect Too Much From Obama’s National Security Strategy

These strategy documents are mostly a lot of hot air. But that doesn't mean they have to be worthless.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 25:  (AFP OUT) (L-R) United States Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, U.S National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. President Barack Obama sit before Obama gives remarks at a special high-level meeting regarding the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa during the 69th United Nations General Assembly on September 25, 2014 in New York City. The UN General Assembly brings together political leaders from around the world to report on issues and discuss solutions.  (Photo by Anthony Behar-Pool/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 25: (AFP OUT) (L-R) United States Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, U.S National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. President Barack Obama sit before Obama gives remarks at a special high-level meeting regarding the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa during the 69th United Nations General Assembly on September 25, 2014 in New York City. The UN General Assembly brings together political leaders from around the world to report on issues and discuss solutions. (Photo by Anthony Behar-Pool/Getty Images)

If there’s one notion that unites the national security community these days, it’s that the United States needs strategy. It needs a strategy for defeating the Islamic State, one that matches ends to means. It needs a strategy to oppose Russian aggression, one that combines deterrence with reassuring the allies. It could use a strategy to arrest the spread of violent extremism in Africa and Europe, another to secure cyberspace, and yet another to reap the benefits of the ongoing energy revolution.

Decrying the lack of such strategies has emerged as one of Washington’s favorite pastimes. Foreign policy types routinely lament their absence in American foreign policy, condemn “adhocracy” and improvisation, and suggest, often with a sage nodding of the head, that perhaps today’s leaders simply aren’t up to the task of strategic thinking.

Indeed, one would be forgiven for concluding that a strategy — any strategy — is better than none. And after President Barack Obama acknowledged last summer that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with the Islamic State in Syria, the denunciations came from all quarters. Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein suggested that the administration was too cautious, while her House counterpart Rep. Mike Rogers said that “the severity of the problem” had not “really sunk in to the administration just yet.” Pollsters even asked Americans whether they were worried about this lack of strategy — by and large, they were.

And the repeated postponements of the president’s new National Security Strategy (Obama first told Congress to expect it soon in October 2013) have prompted wisecracks and sarcastic riffs from the foreign policy commentariat. A White House whose last published national strategy is nearly five years old must clearly lack one, and there’s little worse than being astrategic. Among all of the epithets with which one might tar a national security professional, “merely tactical” is just about the harshest.

Now, after all of the delays, the administration’s critics and supporters, who have waited with fevered anticipation, will lay eyes on the new National Security Strategy (NSS) tomorrow, as Obama is set to at last issue the updated document. The NSS, a legally required document, is typically written by the National Security Council staff with some input from various departments. With it, the president will articulate his vision of the world, his administration’s foreign policy and security priorities for the remainder of his term, and the paths by which the United States will protect its interests and values.

But don’t get your hopes up. Despite the bated breath from think tanks, foreign diplomats, and other observers of Washington’s national security folkways, publication of the new strategy is unlikely to matter much. That stems less from the nature of Obama’s White House and any defects of planning or conceptualization, and more from the inherent nature of these curious documents. They represent important endpoints of what can be an important internal process, and with some changes, they could be relevant and meaningful in their own right.

Ambassador Ryan Crocker, speaking of the NSS in general terms, once described it as “a mandated exercise” that doesn’t “tell us terribly much about national security or strategy.” While hope springs that Obama’s new version will buck the historical trend, that’s unlikely. It’s also unfortunate because, done right, the development of a new NSS actually could improve the quality of national security decision making.

Upon first encounter with a NSS, many who have studied strategy — in Ph.D. programs, the war colleges, or who have developed strategies in business — are often underwhelmed in the extreme by the White House’s version. That’s because the documents tend to lack the traditional attributes of strategy — that is, they do not spell out desired objectives, articulate the steps needed to achieve those ends, and then describe the resources necessary to carry out those steps.

NSS objectives tend to be broad and abstract. The 2010 NSS, for example, sought to “strengthen the power of our example,” “build cooperation with other 21st century centers of influence,” and “strengthen institutions and mechanisms for cooperation.” Then the documents are coupled with a series of general statements about the administration’s keen intent to achieve them. George W. Bush’s 2006 NSS put as its ultimate goal “ending tyranny in our world,” a task that would not employ solely the Bush administration’s efforts but would be “the work of generations.” They do not include detailed plans of actions, nor do they lay out the dollars or other resources necessary to get there. They routinely pledge the nation to do more on a number of fronts, and almost never spell out how it will do less in other areas. In their aspirations, generalities and rhetoric, they often resemble most a really, really long speech.

The NSS tends to be highly informed by what the government is already doing and by how the current administration differs from previous ones. George W. Bush’s 2002 strategy, for instance, issued a year after the 9/11 attacks and less than a year before the invasion of Iraq, is best remembered for its nod to preventive war. Noting the danger inherent in the combination of radicalism and technology, the Bush administration’s strategy document observed, “History will judge harshly those who saw this coming danger but failed to act.” It did not need to spell out the ongoing war in Afghanistan and the looming one in Iraq.

As administrations endure in office, their National Security Strategies tend to impose a post-hoc logic on activities they have already undertaken. Their aim is not so much to sketch out a path toward future objectives as it is to identify the underlying principles and thinking that animate current policy and then articulate them in high relief. The most skilled NSS authors can then package these as the product of overarching strategic thought that sets the stage for a secure, free, and prosperous future.

In so doing, the National Security Council staff who write the NSS have to navigate sometimes-treacherous bureaucratic waters. In drafting a national strategy, they must avoid trying to give something to everyone, while also avoiding the charge that a key issue has been left out. Recent administrations have tended to err on the side of inclusion, focusing on some big overarching themes but making a passing reference to all sorts of issues. Obama’s 2010 NSS, for example, mentioned not only terrorism, nuclear weapons, and economic growth, but also pandemic disease, aviation security, STEM education, and immigration reform.

So given these inherent flaws, is it all a wasted exercise?

Believe it or not, it’s not. And that’s because drafting and publishing a National Security Strategy is one governmental exercise in which the process matters more than the product. In producing a NSS, foreign policy officials from across a variety of agencies and departments are forced to think deeply, if not always strategically, about the grand sweep of U.S. action in the world. They must step back from the day-to-day grind and consider core issues and future possibilities. Eisenhower’s maxim — “plans are worthless but planning is everything” — has become cliché, but it retains a truth. At a minimum, producing a new NSS, even if it doesn’t produce an array of new answers, can at least prompt national security leaders to ask themselves the right questions.

The document could, however, represent more than this. Strategy is, after all, ultimately about allocating finite resources — time, attention, dollars, and capability. Failing to embrace this fact represents the most persistent failure of National Security Strategies stretching back to the 1990s, and the gap between their rhetoric and the prevailing budgetary reality is often stark. Given the huge budget cuts to discretionary spending and the looming threat of another sequestration round on the horizon, the 2015 NSS ought to help those tasked with implementing U.S. policy to prioritize among many important objectives.

If past is prologue, the new NSS is unlikely to provide much in the way of concrete guidance. Had it aimed to drive decisions on discretionary spending — which reflect, after all, how the nation apportions its national security priorities — the NSS would have been released a year ago in order to guide the development of the White House’s proposed 2016 budget. But the president’s budget was delivered to Congress in final form before the NSS was even published.

By reversing this sequence, future presidents can infuse their own National Security Strategies with greater meaning and salience. They could ensure that their strategies aim at driving the budget cycle, not merely providing a finely hewn strategic framework for resource decisions that have already been made. The Pentagon saying goes, “Show me your budget and I’ll describe your strategy.” That’s 100 percent right — laudatory ends disconnected from budgetary means do not a national strategy make.

Second, the NSS should include a classified component that lays out a very clear prioritization of goals and objectives, obstacles to their attainment, and ways of removing or mitigating those hindrances. An administration will naturally release an unclassified version that will no doubt continue to look more like a long speech than a strategy document. But a classified version would permit greater candor, increased precision, fewer lines written for public consumption. And that might even mean a bit more strategy.

Third, the White House should ensure that its NSS is followed by a series of implementation directives that specifically outline, Cabinet agency by Cabinet agency, how the National Security Council expects its plans to be executed and who will be held accountable for ensuring that the president’s priorities are being implemented. It does little good for the White House merely to fling even the most brilliantly written NSS into the great unknown, only to sit back and wait for it to take effect on impressionable foreign policy minds. The NSS’s publication should be the first major step in a series of directives that ensures the government’s prompt and proper execution.

Let’s be clear. The president’s forthcoming NSS represents an important signaling device, and the process used to develop it can be useful indeed. It warrants scrutiny for the snapshot it gives into the administration’s views of the global security and economic environment, U.S. interests and values, and the role of the America in the world. But it can and should be much more. Given the manifold strategic challenges that characterize today’s world, Washington must do better.

Anthony Behar-Pool/Getty Images

Richard Fontaine is the chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security. He worked on the National Security Council staff and at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @RHFontaine

Shawn Brimley is the director of studies at the Center for a New American Security and served as director for strategic planning on the National Security Council staff and at the Pentagon during the Obama administration.

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