Yesterday, Derek Reveron gave us a National Security Strategy preview.  Today, the 52-page document is being unveiled to mixed reviews.

The Obama administration is trying to make a clear break with its predecessor’s policy, in both tone and substance, while redefining "national security" to include issues that have traditionally been thought of as purely matters of domestic policy.

What’s New?

Karen DeYoung, staff writer for the Washington Post, terms it "a broad redefinition of U.S. strategic priorities."

Obama’s new doctrine represents a clear break with the unilateral military approach advocated by his predecessor after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Bush tempered that guidance toward the end of his presidency, but the Obama strategy offers "a broad concept of what constitutes our national security," the document said.

Military superiority must be maintained and "the United States remains the only nation able to project and sustain large-scale military operations over extended distances," the document says. But "when we overuse our military might, or fail to invest in or deploy complementary tools, or act without partners," it said, "then our military is overstretched. Americans bear a greater burden, and our leadership around the world is too narrowly identified with military forces."

GWU political scientist Marc Lynch is "very pleased with the new National Security Strategy. It marks a clean break with the past."

In 2006, the NSS declared America’s war with "radical militant Islam" to be the single most important overarching framework for its relationship with the world. The 2010 NSS clearly meets that threat, but defines it far more narrowly and places it within a much broader context.

How so?

The NSS lays out "a comprehensive strategy" in what it repeatedly calls a war against al-Qaeda and its affiliates, one "that denies [al-Qaeda and its affiliates] safe haven, strengthens front-line partners, secures our homeland, pursues justice through durable legal approaches, and counters a bankrupt agenda of extremism and murder with an agenda of hope and opportunity." It defines this in narrow terms: "this is not a global war against a tactic — terrorism or a religion — Islam. We are at war with a specific network, al-Qa’ida, and its terrorist affiliates." It places this war within the perspective of broader foreign policy concerns, and warns against overreaction to terrorist provocations — pointing out, correctly, that al-Qaeda’s strategy hopes to trigger such American overreactions, leading to counterproductive political responses and interventions which drain our resources, alienate our friends, and radicalize Muslims around the world.

Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network, lists what she said is the response of "senior White House folks" as to the differences between this and the previous NSS:

– Strategy’s emphasis on tending the sources of our strength.

– Strategy’s emphasis on promoting our values by living them at home.

– Strategy reduces reliance on military to solve our problems.

– Strategy narrows definition of enemy.

– Strategy of engagement "recognizes the world as it is and focuses on shaping it, not resisting it."

– Strategy embeds war on Al Qaeda in a wider strategic vision.  First sentence of 2006 strategy:  "we are at war."

– Strategy incorporates issues such as climate change whose importance Bush Admin rejected.

Christine Parthemore, the Bacevich Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, is pleased by the broad view the administration takes of security.

The big headline of the national security strategy, to me, is the major role conferred upon natural resources issues, for example reducing oil dependence, addressing climate change and food security. This NSS sets a proper path for ensuring American power in the long term: toward the intersection of natural resources and national security.

It is new to give natural resources challenges such a prominent role in mainstream U.S. strategic planning, as this National Security Strategy does. As such, mapping out new plans and ways of doing business to accommodate issues surrounding energy, climate, food and demographics is likely to be a taller task than for more traditional elements represented in this strategy.

She does a word count and notes "The new NSS mentions energy more than engagement or military. And climate change appears more than intelligence."  Of the words she tracked, development (76 mentions) tops the list, followed closely by nuclear (74).  Well down the list are energy (49), military (44), engagement (43), climate change (28), and intelligence (18).

But Duke political scientist Peter Feaver, formerly a senior official on the National Security Council teams of both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, asserts, "The roll-out of President Obama’s National Security Strategy tries to frame the strategy as a repudiation of his predecessor’s. But the reality is that the new strategy is best characterized as ‘Bush Lite,’ a slightly watered down but basically plausible remake of President Bush’s National Security Strategy."

He notes that, "Perhaps the most striking continuity is in the recognition that America must lead."

Is Everything Security?

David Sanger and Peter Baker of NYT contend that the document "describes an American strategy that recognizes limits on how much the United States can spend to shape the globe."  But many observers disagree.

CNAS senior fellow Andrew Exum:

Considering the financial crisis from which our country is still emerging, I am surprised there is not more in the National Security Strategy about the environment of scarcity in which the United States now operates. Strategy is, in part, about setting goals, prioritizing those goals, and matching resources to each goal. Aside from the section about spending tax-payer money wisely — which seems more about reducing fraud, waste and abuse than anything else — there seems to be little acknowledgment that the United States might not be able to pursue all of our national security goals as vigorously as we might like in part due to spending constraints.

I’m still trying to understand how the acknowledgment that the United States must address its deficit to ensure our future security squares with a bold statement like ‘the United States of America will continue to underwrite global security’. That is an especially bold claim considering the fact that this document seems to consider security to include not just physical security but economic security, food security, medical security and addressing problems of governance and reducing poverty outside America’s borders. This document is much like the recently released Quadrennial Defense Review in that I liked a lot of what it had to say but was left unsure of what the administration’s true priorities are heading into the rest of its term in office.

Robert Haddick, managing editor of Small Wars Journal, agrees and contends that "the new National Security Strategy isn’t strategy" at all.

The new National Security Strategy (NSS) has the skeleton of a true strategy. It properly begins with ends, describing America’s enduring national interests (security, prosperity, values, international order). It then moves on to ways, the approaches and actions the United States government will employ to achieve those ends (for example, non-proliferation strategies, encouraging science research, promoting human rights, and strengthening alliances). It even discusses means, the resources the government and the country will mobilize to implement the ways. So far, so good.

But what is missing is an honest analysis of the obstacles, challenges, and adversaries that stand in the way of execution, and how the government intends overcome these. The strategic world is almost always competitive; smart and experienced adversaries are attempting to thwart success. The strategic competition is a match-up of strengths and weaknesses; the NSS has virtually no discussion of these match-ups. The NSS in long (very long) on ideals and aspirations. It does very little to recognize the competitive global environment, the strengths and weakness the United States brings to the competition, and how these compare to the advantages and vulnerabilities of adversaries (who largely remain unnamed in the document).


The resulting document thus seems more like a windy political campaign speech than frank strategic analysis (the Bush administration’s 2006 NSS measures up no better by these standards). So what is the Obama administration’s real national security strategy? How does the administration really view the competitive environment, honestly size up America’s capabilities, evaluate the vulnerabilities of adversaries, and really rank the priority of its goals? We won’t know until some archives are opened far in the future.

Tim Fernholtz, a writing fellow at The American Prospect, disagrees in part with Exum, observing that the defense budget is so large that concern about minimal constraints is misplaced.

While stressing the debt in relation to the Defense budget may seem like a good way to assert some prudence, our political dynamics are such that national security spending is sacrosanct and a "more brutal prioritization of efforts" will be directed at fragile domestic programs

Michael Cohen, senior fellow at the American Security Project and one-time chief speechwriter for U.S. Representative to the United Nations Bill Richardson and Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat, observes that the document "reads like it was written by a speechwriter (which it was!)" which "speaks to the somewhat platitudinous and exceptionalist nature of the paper."

Most notably, Cohen argues that the NSS "defines US interests too broadly,"

For example, at one point the paper notes, "The burdens of a young century cannot fall on American shoulders alone – indeed our adversaries would like to see America sap our strength by overextending our power." But then it says this later, "The United States will continue to underwrite global security."


But at some point there has to be an actual, not rhetorical recognition that every global problem is not necessarily America’s problem or requires an American solution; and that so long as we define our interests in the broadest possible terms it will that much harder to get our domestic house in order.

What is perhaps most interesting about Obama’s foreign policy agenda is the inclination to see domestic issues as influencing our global competitiveness and standing; but not necessarily to see statements like "underwriting global security" as undermining the achievement of these domestic priorities.

I’ll be addressing these issues separately, as will some of our experts.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.