The Obama National Security Strategy: “Mush” Ado about Nothing?

post to UNC Press Blog, 9 June 2010

In the world of U.S. foreign policy, the release of a new National Security Strategy is a big deal. This congressionally mandated exercise offers an opportunity for the executive to grapple with basic issues, and it may even herald the birth of a “doctrine” (as it did for George W. Bush in 2002). The Obama administration rolled out its NSS in late May in grand style. The president previewed it at West Point, and then following its release on the 27th, senior administration figures stepped forward to make sure the study’s significance was perfectly clear.

Alas, it is not so clear, as anyone who wishes to inflict a reading of this NSS on themselves will discover. (It’s lying in wait at the White House website [pdf].) The statement’s prose is leaden and cliché ridden, its organization mechanical and repetitive. It offers no easy-to-grasp Obama doctrine, indeed no coherent point of view. Those who fear that U.S. policy suffers from conceptual mush will find ample confirmation here.

As best I can make out, the new NSS:

  • affirms the fundamental U.S. commitment to democracy and human rights. But it fails to resolve a conundrum dating back to the Jimmy Carter presidency. Are these principles to be applied universally or selectively? Are they simply a vague, long-term aspiration or a driving concern behind day-to-day policy?
  • rejects preemption (the misnamed subject of the Bush doctrine). That is, except on occasions when it is judged necessary to strike at countries insufficiently responsive to U.S. demands. Thus weasel words render meaningless what is heralded as a real shift.
  • insists that the United States will continue to play a robust international leadership role even as the document expresses worry over a weakened domestic economic base and flawed international institutions. It’s not clear what steps the Obama administration has in mind to set the U.S. economy and international institutions right even though both are indispensable to the avowed U.S. ambition to run the world. A bit of disconnect as well as overreach here?
  • announces that Al Qaeda and its “affiliates” are the prime enemy and not Islam. How to square this claim with Washington’s determination to destroy a loose, religiously-inspired Taliban coalition sprawled across two countries, to support autocratic regimes throughout the region as bulwarks against domestic Islamist challengers, to ostracize and isolate popular religious groups such as Hamas and Hizbullah, and to align closely with an Israel where strong anti-Muslim sentiments prevail? Perhaps what the NSS meant to say is that the administration does not oppose Islam, only those who take their Islam politically and too seriously.
  • posits globalization as the prime context in which U.S. security policy must operate. Unfortunately, this globalization is the narrow and shallow conception popular in the foreign policy establishment. It is largely oblivious to how globalization has in fact developed and functioned historically. Pardon a historian for thinking that a policy without a firm grip on the past is not much of a policy.

Reading this document is a disheartening and mind-numbing exercise. The administration has lots of general ideas and vague positions but no priorities, no coherent vision, no practical guidelines. It seems that Obama, who came into office with a lot to learn about foreign policy, has not made much headway in his education. To judge from this document, his administration still lacks a matured sense of principles and purpose essential to set priorities, shape decisions, and impose a modicum of bureaucratic discipline. He thus stands little chance of mastering the dazzling array of difficult problems already advancing on him in serried ranks. If this is the best that the White House and its heavy hitters can do, they — and we — are in serious trouble.

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