The Mark | 6.9.10
By Alan W. Dowd
“The United States of America faces a broad and complex array of challenges to our national security.” So begins the Obama administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS), an outline of policy that U.S. presidents are required by law to present early in their administrations. The purpose of an NSS is to explain how each administration views the security challenges facing the United States—and how it plans to address them.
Regrettably, President Obama’s NSS glosses over some of the most serious threats, confuses domestic issues for matters of national security and largely fails to present a real roadmap for navigating the world’s many danger zones, opting instead for diplomatic bromides and observations of the obvious.
Take, for example, the white paper’s discussion of the U.S.-Canada relationship. Although previous NSS documents didn’t devote large amounts of ink to this critical relationship (a function of the strength and solidity of the U.S.-Canada alliance), they offered seasoned assessments of this priority partnership. Obama’s NSS informs Americans that “Canada is our closest trading partner, a steadfast security ally and an important partner in regional and global efforts.” U.S.-Canada security cooperation, according to the document, “includes our defense of North America and our efforts through NATO overseas” and “is critical to the success of international efforts” such as “climate negotiations” and “economic cooperation.” With a brief mention of NAFTA trade flows, the NSS declares, clumsily, “We must change the way we think about our shared borders, in order to secure and expedite the lawful and legitimate flow of people and goods while interdicting transnational threat (sic) that threaten our open societies.”
That’s about it—no description of what that change would entail, no vision of how to expand security cooperation or deepen trade, no discussion of how to deflect encroaching threats in the Arctic or Pacific.
But there’s more—or less, as it were.
Aside from references to America’s terrorist enemies, the NSS takes great pains to avoid labeling enemy regimes what they are. To be sure, there are vague mentions of “adversarial governments” and “states [that] endanger regional and global security by flouting international norms.” But regimes like North Korea and Iran are never called enemies, even though that’s undeniably what they are and what they desire to be.
North Korea, which during the Obama administration has detonated a nuclear weapon and torpedoed a South Korean ship operating in international waters, is mentioned only twice in Obama’s NSS, in the blandest of terms. Iran is meekly called to task for not being “responsible.” Iran, it pays to recall, is arming the insurgents in Afghanistan who are killing American and Canadian troops; sending fighters into Iraq to kill Americans and Iraqis and destabilize the Arab world’s only democracy; funneling aid and weapons to Hezbollah; and building a nuclear arsenal of its own, in violation of International Atomic Energy Agency demands.
The NSS challenges the international community to present “a clear choice to Iran and North Korea” and threatens “greater isolation” for these twin rogues. This isn’t much of a strategy, and if it is a strategy, it’s not working. In fact, these regimes have already made their choice—emphatically and repeatedly. And the threat of greater isolation means nothing to a North Korea that has been isolated for the better part of 60 years or an Iran that has been isolated for 30. They not only cope with isolation; they seem to revel in it.
On a related note, Obama’s NSS talks about the need for a stronger UN, one that is “capable of fulfilling its founding purpose” and ensuring the “rules of the road” are followed. But the bad guys don’t follow those rules. And the UN is simply unable—perhaps systemically unable—to make them follow the rules.
Obama’s NSS laments that “the advance of democracy and human rights has stalled in many parts of the world” and affirms that “the United States supports those who seek to exercise universal rights around the world”—but very quietly, as we learned last summer during the abortive Green Revolution (or Twitter Revolution) in Iran. The sad irony about Obama’s silence during the democratic stirrings in Iran was that it answered his own rhetorical question of a year before, albeit in a manner his supporters would never have imagined. “Will we stand for the human rights of…the blogger in Iran?” he asked during his 2008 speech in Berlin. The Iranian people know the answer.
To his credit, the president’s NSS declares that “for nearly a decade the nation has been at war with a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.” Most Americans agree with that characterization, but this administration didn’t, at least not during its first year in office. In fact, the Obama administration made an effort to expunge the “war on terrorism” phraseology from official pronouncements, using the banal, bland and bureaucratic “overseas contingency operations” instead. Obama’s secretary of homeland security even went so far as to use the Orwellian phrase “man-caused disasters” rather than call terrorism by its name.
While Obama’s NSS gives short shrift to key allies such as Canada, glosses over threats posed by enemies and oversells the capacity of the UN, it spends far too much time discussing the president’s domestic policy priorities, especially education and health care. These are important issues, to be sure, but they are simply not matters of national security.
The NSS also includes a slew of eye-rollers.
For example, it announces the pressing need to reduce the deficit, as if the Obama administration didn’t push federal spending and deficits to levels not seen since World War II.
It promises “a greater emphasis on exports,” yet this administration has done the very opposite in practice. It pays to recall that Obama has not spurred Congress to approve free trade agreements with Colombia and South Korea—agreements that have languished since the Bush administration. Nor has he stopped Congress—a Congress controlled by his party—from backsliding into protectionism. In fact, Obama’s 2009 stimulus package was laced with buy-American provisions that had a chilling effect on free trade.
It offers a number of implicit and sometimes overt criticisms of the Bush administration, especially in relation to the rule of law: “America’s commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law are essential sources of our strength and influence in the world. They too must be cultivated by our rejection of actions like torture that are not in line with our values [and] by our commitment to pursue justice consistent with our Constitution.” Indeed, Obama’s predecessor was called a torturer for holding terrorists in Gitmo and subjecting some of them to harsh interrogation. Yet Obama’s drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which most Americans recognize as an essential element in the wider campaign against terror, are, in effect, executions without trial. What does that tell the world about this administration’s commitment to the rule of law? This is not to criticize the president’s drone war, but rather to point out the president’s messaging problem.
Finally, it claims, “We succeeded in the post-World War II era by pursuing our interests within multilateral forums like the United Nations.” This is simply not accurate. Only once during the Cold War was the UN effective in promoting U.S. security interests in a direct way—during the Korean War—and only then because the Soviets were absent from the Security Council. They never made that mistake again. In fact, systemic limitations—the Soviet and Chinese vetoes—made it impossible for the UN Security Council to promote Western interests. So the West worked through other organizations and a grouping of ad hoc coalitions during the Cold War—and by and large continues to do so today.
On this and many other national-security issues, the Obama administration is learning that wishing and wanting something to be a certain way does not make it so.