Fantasy as Strategy

As required by law, President Barack Obama released his National Security Strategy (NSS) late last month. Regrettably, the document doesn’t address the nation’s security challenges particularly well and doesn’t offer much of a strategy. Instead, it glosses over some of the most serious threats, fails to present a real roadmap for navigating the world’s many danger zones, and offers diplomatic bromides and observations of the obvious.

Take, for example, the document’s discussion of the U.S.-Canada relationship. Although previous NSS documents didn’t devote large amounts of ink to Canada, they offered seasoned assessments of this priority partnership. Obama’s NSS, on the other hand, informs Americans that “Canada is our closest trading partner, a steadfast security ally and an important partner in regional and global efforts.” 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 in the blandest of terms. Iran is meekly called to task for not being “responsible.” Iran, it pays to recall, is arming insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan who are killing American troops; funneling aid and weapons to Hezbollah; and building a nuclear arsenal of its own, in violation of IAEA 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 built bridges to Europe, Asia and South America. In this regard, it’s worth noting that Iran’s response to the latest round of largely voluntary and hence toothless UN sanctions was to declare, “These sanctions are like used tissues which should be thrown in the trash.”

Speaking of the UN, 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. Of course, North Korea and Iran don’t follow those rules. And the UN is simply unable—perhaps systemically unable—to make them follow the rules, as Obama should know after 17 months of watching the UN do absolutely nothing to constrain Iran or punish North Korea. These 17 months follow decades of UN failure, the only exceptions being the Gulf War of 1990-91 and what might soon be called the first Korean War (more on this below).

Yet Obama’s NSS declares, “When nations breach agreed international norms, the countries who espouse those norms must be convinced to band together to enforce them…Strengthening the legitimacy and authority of international law and institutions, especially the UN, will require a constant struggle to improve performance.”

At best, this is fuzzy and flimsy undergraduate poli-sci rhetoric masquerading as strategy. At worst, it fails to grasp reality. Speaking of which, Obama’s NSS has the audacity to say “we need to be clear-eyed about the strengths and shortcomings of international institutions.”

One of those countless shortcomings is that the UN never does what it promises to do—whether the U.S. plays nice and genuflects at the altars of soft power, as during the Obama administration, or plays hard ball, as during the Bush administration.  The Washington Post has noticed: “How could an administration that first tried reaching out to Iran and then spent months working with its allies end up with less international unity than when George W. Bush was president?”

Moving on, 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 failed Twitter Revolution in Iran. The sad irony about Obama’s silence during the abortive democratic revolution 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.

These sorts of inconsistencies abound in Obama’s NSS. For example, even while it implicitly criticizes the Bush administration’s democracy-building project—the NSS sneers about “an endless campaign to impose our values”—it vows to “strengthen Pakistan’s democracy,” support Afghanistan’s democratic experiment and “foster” democracy in Iraq.

The NSS, to the president’s credit, 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 the Obama administration didn’t, at least not during its first year in office. In fact, this administration made a concerted 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.

In keeping with that mindset, Obama’s NSS is quick to add, “This is not a global war against a tactic—terrorism—or a religion—Islam…We are at war with a specific network, al-Qaeda, and its terrorist affiliates who support efforts to attack the United States, our allies and partners.”

Obama’s NSS spends far too much time discussing the president’s domestic policy priorities, especially education and health care. These are important issues, but they are simply not matters of national security. Moreover, part the document’s discussion of education makes little sense. Specifically, the NSS promises to “restore U.S. leadership in higher education.” Yet a global survey of universities conducted by the London-based Q.S. Education Trust concludes that six of the top 10 universities on earth, 14 of the top 25 and 37 of the top 100 call America home. Harvard is number one.

That brings us to what can politely be called “eye-rollers” in the Obama NSS:

-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 calls for “effective border security and immigration enforcement” to “keep the country safe and deter unlawful entry.” Ask the people and governor of Arizona how farcical that statement is.

-It talks about the need to “promote security and stability in space…[and] maintain the advantages afforded to the United States by space.” One wonders how shutting down the shuttle’s replacement achieves that.

-It tells us “there is no greater threat to the American people than weapons of mass destruction, particularly the danger posed by the pursuit of nuclear weapons by violent extremists and their proliferation to additional states.” Obama’s solution? The U.S. and other Western powers—none of whom have transferred nuclear weapons to violent extremists—are cutting their nuclear arsenals.

-It promises that “a world without nuclear weapons…will increase global security.” As a matter of fact, nukes have promoted global stability, enhanced U.S. security and prevented world war for 65 years. Remember, in the pre-nuclear age, we fought two world wars in the span of 20 years.

-It claims the foundation of “regional and global security will remain America’s relations with our allies, and our commitment to their security is unshakable.” Tell that to the Czechs and Poles, who exposed themselves to great risk by offering to host U.S. missile-defense assets, only to have the Obama administration jettison the NATO-endorsed plan; or the British, who weren’t consulted about the Obama administration’s decision to offload a handful of Gitmo detainees onto the British colony of Bermuda; or the Israelis, who are publicly shamed and privately lectured for defending themselves; or the fragile democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan, where America’s “unshakable” commitment has a timetable.

-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 called on Congress to approve free trade agreements with Colombia and South Korea—agreements that have languished since the Bush administration.

-It offers a number of implicit criticisms of the Bush administration, especially in relation to the war on terrorism and Obama’s definition of the rule of law. Striding up the high ground, Obama uses his NSS to promise “a commitment to pursue justice consistent with our Constitution.” “Our moral leadership is grounded principally in the power of our example,” the NSS declares. “Over the years, some methods employed in pursuit of our security have compromised our fidelity to the values that we promote.” 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. This is not to criticize the president’s drone war, but rather to point out the president’s messaging problem.

-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 true. 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 then only because the Soviets were absent from the Security Council. They never made that mistake again. Indeed, the very thing that protects the U.S. from UN encroachment—veto authority—is what prevents the U.S. from pursuing its interests within the UN Security Council.

-Finally, it laments that “common purpose is at times lacking in our national security dialogue. This division places the United States at a strategic disadvantage. It sets back our ability to deal with difficult challenges and injects a sense of anxiety and polarization into our politics that can affect our policies and our posture around the world. It must be replaced by a renewed sense of civility and a commitment to embrace our common purpose as Americans.”

Many of us said very similar things when the Bush administration begged for unity as Iraq unraveled, when congressmen and senators who once supported the war walked away, when newspapers outed classified programs that had kept the country safe from another 9/11, when the anti-war left made the president the enemy and smeared battlefield commanders as betrayers, when would-be presidents declared the surge a failure even before it had taken hold.

Unlike Obama’s supporters, some of whom wanted Bush to fail, I hope this commander-in-chief succeeds at protecting America. I hope he wins what really is a war on terrorism, faces down the thugocracies in North Korea and Iran, and stands up to China and Russia. But sadly, this NSS misses the mark.

Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.

  • Tom

    The only "man-caused disaster" I can see is the current Obama regime. As with most of the Regime's policies, this is also a joke.

    • Carolina Don

      The Obama agenda is to bow down, kiss a$$, and apologize for America's greatness, and desert our allies.

  • ze-ev ben jehudah

    Barack Hussein Obama;Better known as Mr No Brains.
    Tell me who your friends are and I will tell you what you are.N I better not
    because I'll land in jail if I would speak my mind.Mr no brains? you have
    got no cojones, and like Mr Carter peanuts for brains.

  • Andres de Alamaya

    I try not to think of Obama because those thoughts ruin my digestion and make me feel sick all over. Whenever his name comes up I look at the calendar to see how much longer we'll have to suffer him.

    • Jim C.

      Only six more years of Obama to go, Andres!

  • Jim C.

    It is rich beyond belief that a website that has beat the drum for war with anyone in a turban for years, that inflated Saddam Hussein into an "immediate threat" to our nation, that bought hook line and sinker the neoconservative pipe dream of reforming the middle east by force–is calling anything "fantasy."

    Advocating spending on defense as if the Soviets are going to nuke us tomorrow? Pure fantasy. The whole defense industry sinkhole that has supped on American taxpayers dime more than all other government programs combined and actually driven our foreign policy for half a century–fantasy-based.

    • USMCSniper

      No Jm C you mindless progressive fool, it’s not the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — it’s the War on Poverty. Incredible as it may seem, Americans transfer more than a trillion dollars each year to low-income families (white trash, beaners, and chimpouts) through a bewildering variety of programs, all in the name of fighting poverty and inequality. That’s about seven times the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

      While a nuanced interpretation of the evidence may identify a few positive returns on our “investment,” we have a right to expect a lot more for a trillion dollars a year. Perhaps it is time to stop worrying about an "Democrats Vietnam Betrayal" exit strategy for the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and formulate one for the War on Poverty that works.

      • tghenso

        Touche to you Mr. USMCSniper. Libs just can't understand some things like economics, national security. illegial immigration….shall I go on?

        • Jim C.

          "Liberlas just don't understand…" if that helps you rationalize your own ideas, go for it.

          • watchful

            At least we are rational. You just take your LSD and dream of a utopia that exists nowhere.

      • Jim C.

        That's right; it's just that simple: a buncha layabouts supported by us hardworking citizens to the tune of a trillion bucks.

        Exit strategy in Afghanistan: leave yesterday, tape a note to the door: "You're welcome. Next time we won't be so nice."

        • USMCSniper

          And there will be a next time as Afghanistan reverts to an Al Qaeda stronghold under control of the Taliban who will attack America again. You are not really the sharpest knofe in the drawer. Remember Osam bin Laden and his response to the Clinton Cut-And-Run in Somolia? Al Qaeda-trained Somali fighters downed American helicopters in the Black Hawk Down battle in 1993. Eighteen Americans died and were abandoned by President gutless Clinton, which was enough for a gutless Clinton to order a hasty retreat. Osama Bin Laden took notes. "We realized," he later explained, "that the American soldier was a paper tiger." That was followed by no less than 9 major terrorist incidents, the last being 9/11. God you are naive.

          • Jim C.

            Not naive. I'm glad we've been killing bad guys. I think we should have run the Taliban out the week after 9/11 and kept Special Forces there on the hunt.

            What IS ridiculously naive is thinking we're going to turn these countries into Western democracies simply by playing whackamole on their bad guys. We should play whack a mole on their bad guys–but that's not going to "stop" terrorism. What's ultimately going to stop terrorism is the war of ideas between Islam and the West.

          • MaryAnn

            We need to do both.

          • Jim C.

            That is true MaryAnn, but we should do so without spending trillions and putting our kids' lives on the line trying to occupy and democratize places that are not exactly grateful for our help.

          • MMcFM


            When my brother spent his year in Afghanistan the average age of the American soldier was slightly older than his tender age of 44 — 46 years old was the average age of the American soldier two years ago. These men and women are people who've had accomplished professional lives and have been called up to fulfill their National Guard activation. When we say it's the best trained, best educated military ever seen, we mean it. My brother has five M.A. and used to run a $4 Billion state agency.

          • Jim C.

            So "kids" (all soldiers are someone's kids) set you off, but no comment on the meat of it?

          • Stephen_Brady

            Jim, you can't do both without spending money on the project. A few special forces teams are not going to defeat the adherents of an ideology that embraces 1.2 billion people (and if only 1% of them are radicalized, that means we face an implacable enemy at least 12 million in number).

            I've put my kids' lives on the line, and therefore, put my "money where my mouth" was. And democracy? That would be nice, but it's not necessary in order to destroy an enemy. And that's what has to be done. The enemy must be destroyed, wherever he is found.

            Victory is won in such ways. However, victory is never bloodless, nor without cost in treasure. We've forgotten this, over the years since the fall of Germany and Japan.

          • Jim C.

            Fair enough–I am FOR taking the fight to the enemy; but don't you think there are more effective ways that don't involve huge amounts of troops and open-ended occupations? Intelligence, commerce….

            Think of our intelligence in the region prior to 9/11: calling it 'poor' would be generous, right? Compare that to what we'd spent on the Soviets. We're getting better–and yes, thanks to our troops– but we've just scratched the surface in understanding.

            When he first proposed Iraq, it didn't strike me as right–but I was intrigued. I thought he might be engaged in a game of chess. But it turns out they hadn't really thought it through.

          • Stephen_Brady

            Jim, I don't want to do commerce with my enemies. Commerce helps them, not us.

            Our intelligence in both Iraq, but especially in Afghanistan, would have been much better had not Mr. Clinton decimated our NOC agents on the ground. It's not all Clinton's fault, but he did go after the CIA and the DIA with a vengeance.

            I agree with you on the overall spending limits on intelligence, thought.

            Given Saddam's proclamations of massive WMD power, in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, it is not surprising that the intel agencies of the world, along with most of the DEMs in Congress, agreed with military action against him. Had he allowed inspectors in, told the truth about his weapons … hell, he might be alive and in power, today.

          • Jim C.

            My take on it was that–especially after Gulf War I (which I thought was justified) Saddam had been reduced to a paper tiger, but didn't want the region–esp. Iran–to know this.

            You are certainly right that the Clintons, and Gore et al. were all making belligerent noise about Iraq. I think our media dropped the ball, there, as the need to "do something" after Sept. 11 grew.

            As for "commerce with our enemies"…a bit late for that, I'd say. I mean, some of our best friends are our enemies!

  • Jac

    It just boggles the mind how out-of-touch with historic reality liberals are. The lessons of twentieth century history, which are so clear and consistent, are totally lost on those starry-eyed dreamers. Even as a first grade kid in a school yard it was obvious to me that giving in to bullies was counterproductive, but "progressives" seem to have an innate inability to understand this basic fact of life. God help America under narcissistic BHO, who can't be replaced soon enough.

  • Thunder

    "The new National Security Strategy released by the Obama White House last month refuses to recognize that our nation is at war with violent Islamist extremism, according to Sen. Joseph Lieberman."

    Why the refusal?
    Because next comes: "what are you going to do about it?"
    and NOBODY there has the answer…………………………….just a bunch of * #$%^ kids

  • JosephWiess

    Obama is Jimmy Carter in mufti. This urban gecko is so afraid of people that he's not willing to call evil, evil.

  • badaboo

    Well whatever we've done thus far is not working , neither Obama nor Bush . What we need is a complete pull out of our boys , who are simply longlasting moving targets . Pakistan is the source of the Taliban , they are playinbg both sides . I say pullout , we've got satellites , smart bombs , drones and we can [if we have the will to] develop competent intelligence . We've had no competent intelligence ,and that is not the fault of any president , it is the incompetence of the agencies themselves , because they all have been sufficiently funded over the years . And uh …"covert "means COVERT .
    Let the afghans go to hell , they want no part of democracy, keep the sateellites focused and bomnb the hell out them when we see them starting trouble .

  • Helen

    I would like to say. Lay low play it cool wait patiently for November
    we can change things fast for better. Remember when we get rid
    of the libs in washington things will begin to change . We will not
    have to wait for two more years or 6 as someone said. Heaven
    forbid. 6 years!!! we want have a country left. It is being destroyed
    Everyone must see that. One would have to be nuts not to see that.

  • jemc50

    A security strategy Neville Chamberlain would love.

    It weakens our sovereignty and gives the wrong message to our enemies.