Shadow Government

Grading Obama’s National Security Strategy 2.0

What do you say in your second National Security Strategy (NSS) when world events appear to have debunked the assumptions of your first? That is the challenge facing President Barack Obama, who just released his long-delayed second edition NSS. NSS 2.0 was expected back in 2013 as a scene-setter for Obama’s second term, and was ...


What do you say in your second National Security Strategy (NSS) when world events appear to have debunked the assumptions of your first? That is the challenge facing President Barack Obama, who just released his long-delayed second edition NSS.

NSS 2.0 was expected back in 2013 as a scene-setter for Obama’s second term, and was rumored to be “just about to pop” pretty much ever since late fall of 2013. Now, a little over halfway through his second term — or, to use President Obama’s preferred sports analogy, well into the 4th quarter of his administration — he has finally released the document.

There are probably many reasons for the delay. It is very hard to write a good NSS and every administration has found it hard to stick to a timeline. But according to reports, a major reason why it was delayed was that world events kept rendering obsolete the latest draft. The pace of events hasn’t slowed, nor has the world bent itself more to Obama’s liking, but delaying the NSS further proved a less palatable option than just releasing the document and moving on.

As it happens, I can empathize a bit with President Obama’s predicament. I worked on two NSS that faced somewhat similar challenges. I was the junior staff member on President Clinton’s NSC in 1993-94 responsible for shepherding his first NSS through the interagency wickets. There was a draft almost ready to go in September, but the dramatic reversal of fortunes in Somalia made famous in the movie “Black Hawk Down” forced endless rewrites and it was not until the following summer that we finally released a much-revised NSS. The early drafts were much more forward-leaning on the “assertive multilateralism” the Clinton administration hoped to pursue; the final version was far more modest, more in keeping with the curtailed global role President Clinton was actually willing to fulfill.

I also headed the office responsible for producing President George W. Bush’s 2nd NSS and worked closely on that project with my Shadow Government wingman, Will Inboden. In many ways, this is an even better window into the challenge facing Obama’s staff. Writing an NSS 2.0 requires steering between two stubborn and competing facts. On the one hand, the same man still is president, and so the basic worldview and value structure is not likely to be all that different. (There was a much bigger change in strategic orientation between the pre- and post-9/11 geostrategic orientation of the administration. NSS 1.0 was written in the wake of 9/11, but before the Iraq invasion.) On the other hand, there likely has been a lot of water under the bridge in the interval and some of that water may have eroded if not washed away core premises or assertions of the earlier strategy.

In Bush’s case, some very big premises had been challenged. Most importantly, coalition forces had not found the large stockpiles of WMD in Iraq, the ones that the administration had claimed justified preemptive action. Moreover, the core logic of the Bush strategy — that in the long-term the solution to the challenges confronting the United States would require the spread of human liberty protected by democratic institutions — had seemed to be shaken by the victory of a terrorist group, Hamas, in the Palestinian Authority elections; if democracy was the long term answer, Hamas’ exploitation of elections showed that in the short-term there were very serious challenges.

I will let the reader determine whether the Bush Administration satisfactorily addressed these challenges in the Bush NSS 2.0. Based on my reading of Obama’s NSS 2.0, we at least addressed “inconvenient facts” more directly and more explicitly than did President Obama.

For the most striking and important thing about Obama’s NSS 2.0 is the extent to which the last several years have challenged some critical implicit premises on which Obama’s NSS 1.0 rested.

Here is just a partial list:

  • Obama believed that Bush’s Iraq surge had so stabilized the country that we could afford to withdraw all U.S. forces without adversely affecting Iraq or our national security interests.
  • Obama believed that his Afghan surge was on track to produce adequate security in Afghanistan to allow the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces on an accelerated and fixed timeline there without adversely affecting Afghan or our national security interests.
  • Obama believed that the principal near-to-midterm challenge in the Middle East was how to get the Israeli-Palestinian peace process going again.
  • Obama believed that near-term prospects for political reform in the Middle East were so dim — that the near-term stability of the Arab autocrats was (perhaps unfortunately) guaranteed — that therefore the logical course of action for the United States was to pivot away attention, resources, and energy from the Middle East to other theaters.
  • Obama believed that Libya, to the extent he paid it much attention, belonged in the “win” column on non-proliferation.
  • Obama believed that al Qaeda was on the ropes and that, if only we could kill Osama bin Laden, we would be close to declaring strategic victory and thus ending the war on terror.
  • Obama believed that Europe was not a zone for worrying about old-school security threats and that the reset with Russia had ushered in a new era of partnership.
  • Obama believed that the United States should pivot attention to Asia, and could do so without a robust increased military presence because prospects for cooperation with China were bright.
  • Obama believed that, because of all of this, he could accelerate the downsizing of the U.S. military — that he could secure something of a peace dividend that could be spent on “nation building at home.”

All of these premises have been thoroughly rebutted by events of the past several years. And what leapt out to me in Obama’s NSS 2.0 is how hard you have to read in the fine print to find acknowledgment of these facts, let alone any serious consideration of what it means for changing strategic direction. Instead, the document reads like the drafters believed that nothing much had changed, or at least that whatever had changed fit rather nicely within the original framework and did not necessitate a changed strategic direction.

Put another way, what leapt out at me was how much Obama’s NSS 2.0 needed some of Obama’s 2015 National Prayer Breakfast message: acknowledgement of what he had gotten wrong in the past.

To be fair, a close reader will find differences. The most striking difference is the extent to which the document calls out Russia. While the early media coverage emphasizes the limits to American power that the document acknowledges, I expect that the Russia language will get more attention down the road. And the drafters were careful to at least mention all of the places and events that marked dramatic change from 2010 to avoid the silliest form of criticism: “What do you mean we don’t acknowledge Libya? It is right there on page 26.”

And there are other aspects that I think Obama’s NSS 2.0 gets right:

  • Obama is right to say that it is not a question of whether the United States must lead but how it will lead. Stylistically, I think they overdo the “lead” word — the NYT counts some 100 mentions — but they are right to acknowledge that fact.
  • Obama is right to acknowledge that the United States has a strong hand. Our economy is in better shape than it was in 2009. Our military is still the most capable military in the world. Our geostrategic position is better than any other great or would-be great power. What weaknesses we have are principally weaknesses of choice and decision, not of endowment or position. Indeed, the core of the Republican 2016 message on foreign policy is not that America has a weak hand that must be strengthened, but that we have played a strong hand poorly.
  • Obama is right to emphasize new challenges, especially cyber, and to call for important legacy objectives like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Asian trade agreement.

I think these strengths partially outweigh some other weaknesses that critics will doubtless emphasize, such as the relative inattention to prioritization or to the strategic logic of how to respond to the countermoves of our adversaries. These parts could have been strengthened, but Obama’s NSS 2.0 compares favorably with Clinton’s later NSS’s on these and other dimensions.

Indeed, if you just look at the range of issues covered, it is hard to identify one that would not appear in a Republican NSS (maybe the opening to Cuba would not get the positive mention) — and there are few global challenges listed that would be ignored by others.

In that sense, this document is more bipartisan than the 2010 document, and even explicitly so. President Obama calls for a restoration of the bipartisan center in his cover letter, and the strategy returns to the theme in the conclusion. There is less campaign hubris in 2.0 than there was in 1.0, and so in that sense could be considered a first step towards restoring bipartisanship in foreign policy.

I hope so, but I think additional steps will require additional candor — candor that more accurately reflects the extent to which the administration got some things wrong in the past six years and thus needs to do some things differently going forward.

I did not see enough of that in my initial reads of the document. Perhaps I will find more after a couple more re-reads.

Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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