The White House’s National Security Strategy (NSS) was unveiled last Friday, the first since 2010. Against the backdrop of crises abroad and economic uncertainties at home, the NSS will attract little attention beyond Beltway policy aficionados. Despite the recurring mantra of American leadership, the NSS is long on ambition and citing lofty aims and very short on the substance of how to achieve them through well defined and thought out strategies.
Of course, other political time bombs dominate the agenda. At home, the President’s budget with about an 11% real spending increase landed on Capitol Hill, immediately declared by the Republican majority as dead on arrival. Overseas, Ukraine grabbed the headlines away from the latest horrors committed by the Islamic State (IS). German Chancellor Angela Merkel and France’s President Francois Hollande rushed to Moscow to confront President Vladimir Putin over the Ukraine crisis now that Washington is considering or threatening to arm Kiev with defensive weapons. Mr. Obama’s absence was palpable even though the visit so far has had no visible effect on Mr. Putin.
Returning to the NSS, the President’s strategy for destroying IS has been properly adjusted to the more achievable goal of “defeating” it. Likewise, the highly publicized “strategic pivot to Asia” has also been downgraded to “rebalancing” to the Pacific. But the crises that preoccupy the globe are almost entirely outside Asia. For the foreseeable future, that condition will not change meaning rebalancing must be for the longer term. The debate over Ukraine reinforces the need to focus on crises elsewhere.
Perhaps most surprisingly is the NSS’s elevation of four priorities. These include placing far greater attention on countering pandemics such as Ebola; the scourge of global poverty; climate change; and cyber threats. Each is a noble goal. But how each is to be integrated into American priorities and then fit into an overarching and well-resourced strategy is left to the NSS reader’s imagination.
The NSS however is loaded with assertions about U.S. leadership and “leading” is probably the most overworked word in the document. After taking great credit for rejuvenating the U.S. economy through job creation and massive reductions in unemployment, the NSS was a veritable advertisement praising American entrepreneurial, academic and innovative excellence all accelerated by White House policy. Reality is somewhat different for the middle and lower economic classes and the many millions who either left the job market or could only find part time work.
The impact of this document and indeed to the reaction to many of Mr. Obama’s major domestic and international initiatives from promoting tax and entitlement reform to shifting the Russian reset button to more “reassertive” policies provokes one to ask “where is the beef?” Setting lofty goals is fine. But creating effective solutions is a more important matter.
As Napoleon advised, if you are going to take Vienna, then damn well take Vienna. Do not pussy foot around. If the president is going to lead, then lead.
Here is some advice. A new version of the old Nixon Doctrine is needed. That doctrine held that the U.S. assumed responsibilities for strategic stability and security. Regional states would assume increasing burdens for local security. A 21st century version will demand more effort on partnerships—recognized in the NSS as vital. But these partnerships have not been well defined and in some cases invented.
In the Middle East, the Gulf Cooperation Council, relying on Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE, must form the nucleus against IS, engaging Egypt and Turkey as well. To bring Turkey aboard, a no-fly zone over (parts of) Syria must be established. The real strategic value will be to increase pressure on Bashar al Assad to reach some form of political accommodation with the opposition and al Nusra/IS forces as the no-fly zone will clearly inhibit Damascus’ ability to wage the battle through the air.
Creating a pan-Arab-Sunni-GCC ground force is likewise essential as a signal and threat to IS as well as to encourage Iraq both to expedite the integration of Sunnis into and the retraining of its army. That means establishing a clear-cut chain of command and responsibilities for action in Washington and among the 62 state strong coalitions and establishing a specific headquarters in the region now. But real presidential leadership is the missing ingredient if any structure and discipline are to be imposed on the means to defeat IS.
If Mr. Obama can become the force for mobilizing coalition responses by leading both from the front and where necessary from behind with real rather than vague strategies and promises, IS is doomed. If not, this will be as a former secretary of defense famously mused “a long, hard slog.”
Dr. Harlan Ullman is Senior Advisor at both the Atlantic Council and Business Executives for National Security in Washington, DC whose latest book “A Handful of Bullets—How the Murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Still Menaces the Peace” advances these and other recommendations.