Patience Isn’t Always a Virtue
The White House released its long-overdue National Security Strategy (NSS) on Friday. Criticisms of the administration’s leadership failures have clearly gotten under the White House’s skin, because this is a document drowning in the term leadership. So we will “lead with purpose,” “lead with strength,” “lead by example,” etc. The central conceit of the document, though, is ...
The White House released its long-overdue National Security Strategy (NSS) on Friday. Criticisms of the administration’s leadership failures have clearly gotten under the White House’s skin, because this is a document drowning in the term leadership. So we will “lead with purpose,” “lead with strength,” “lead by example,” etc.
The central conceit of the document, though, is the concept of “strategic patience.” By this the Obama administration means not doing too much in the world, seeing how things develop before acting, using our powers in limited ways that will accrue large effects over time. They see it as “influencing the trajectory of major shifts in the security landscape today in order to secure our national interests in the future.”
And to an extent, they’re right. The United States often insists on immediate results, in international affairs as in so many other aspects of government activity. Smart strategies take into account cost-effectivness, and immediate effects are often extremely costly (their emphasis on cost does not extend to considering the national debt as a security risk, however).
But patience has its costs, too. Our “patience” in Syria has cost 230,000 lives and 5 million refugees, an expansion of Iran’s influence in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, destabilization of friendly countries in the region to include Jordan and Turkey, and the spread of horrific tortures and war crimes on a large scale. President Obama’s patience is the Syrian peoples’ tragedy.
Not just Syria’s, either. The inactivity this strategy was written to justify has acquiesced as forces of darkness chip away at the post-Cold War order. The president may believe that the United States is well-positioned to ride out a more chaotic and dangerous international order; that is surely true. But confidence in a peaceful and prosperous international order has declined markedly during President Obama’s tenure, and that injects costly uncertainties for the United States, as the guarantor of the order and one of its most globalized economies. Just to take one example, our refusal to make any compromises on our limited involvement in Syria has prevented Turkey from joining the fight and has caused Arab members of the coalition to pull back from their military roles — making much more difficult the defeat of the Islamic State.
Still, the administration is courageous to try and put current threats in perspective. It’s politically risky for our national leaders to do so, because it will look naive should future attacks occur — all the political incentives align with an excess of caution and prevention, as Steve Krasner has pointed out. Susan Rice is right that the Islamic State isn’t a threat of the magnitude of Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan. Those countries had a real prospect of defeating the United States in war. They may not have been able to conquer our country, but they could at least have forced us to retreat from Europe and the Pacific, losing the war and losing our allies. The Islamic State poses no such terrible prospect.
It still poses some grisly and terrible prospects, though — and not just the burnings and beheadings that are YouTube sensations, but the large-scale and routine war crimes like trafficking in children as sex slaves that the Islamic State practices in territory under their control and the fear it has struck in countries of the Middle East.
And the NSS argument would be so much more persuasive if the administration had itself soberly and consistently assessed the threat the Islamic State poses. The White House now scolds that “we must always resist the overreach that comes when we make decisions based upon fear,” but that’s actually a pretty good description of the panicky reaction of his administration when videos of beheadings began to occur.
The sections on human rights are soaringly written, but ring embarrassingly hollow in light of all we are not doing in Syria, Iraq, Mali, Ukraine, and elsewhere. Even the countries used as examples of our involvement (Tunisia and Burma) get precious little attention and assistance, and nowhere near the whole spectrum of government involvement this strategy promotes. Much contained in the 2015 Obama administration National Security Strategy is commendable. Unfortunately, it bears little resemblance to the actions of the 2015 Obama administration.
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