Shadow Government

A grading rubric for President Obama’s national security strategy

The signs all point to an imminent release of President Obama's National Security Strategy. The administration has prepped the battlefield with a flurry of puff pieces fed by exclusives and on-the-record quotes about the administration's strategic dexterity (see here, here, here, here and here. The high-profile events of the past few weeks -- an arms control treaty signing and a mega-summit on nuclear proliferation -- nicely tee-up the roll-out of a Big Think Piece. And not a moment too soon.

The National Security Strategy is technically overdue (under the provisions of the Goldwater-Nichols Act, it was supposed to be handed in 150 days after Obama took office) but if the Obama administration does release it in the next few weeks they will easily beat the marks set by their predecessors. George W. Bush's first NSS was released in September 2002 and Bill Clinton's was released in July 1994. The official 150 day deadline is absurdly premature -- no administration has sufficient national security legs that early in their tenure to release a document of this scope and import. But the longer an administration delays, the more the strategy becomes hostage to events. Bush's first NSS had to be rewritten from scratch after 9/11. Clinton's first NSS was primed to hit the streets in early October 1993, only to have a core strategic emphasis -- assertive multilateralism -- flounder on the streets of Mogadishu; it took some 9 months of internal debate and several damaging leaks before the various circles could be squared (full disclosure: I helped coordinate that effort while serving on Clinton's National Security Council staff.  I also had a lead role in the drafting of Bush's second NSS, released in March 2006).

The Obama team has for the most part avoided the self-inflicted wounds of the "damaging leaks" variety. The leaks that have happened seem intended, designed as prebuttals more than anything else. And there has been no paradigm-shifting event to throw a monkey-wrench in the drafting process -- not yet, anyway.

But that does not mean that it has been all smooth sailing. On the contrary, the Obama team has struggled with two different kinds of self-inflicted wounds, and it is likely these have made writing a quality National Security Strategy very challenging indeed.

First, the Obama administration has had an almost debilitating case of "Anything But Bush" syndrome. The bash-the-predecessor reflex was the central pillar of the presidential campaign and in that capacity served Obama's purposes well. With the pliant media as an echo chamber, the administration has stuck to the script doggedly, even when it requires them to make absurd claims: like trying to pretend that they were the first administration to confront the problem of loose nukes. The problem is that in pretending this administration has a monopoly on strategic wisdom and is following a group that had a monopoly on strategic stupidity, Team Obama has set their own bar impossibly high. In fact there is far more continuity in national security across administrations than discontinuity, even with a "change" administration like this one (I have a little cottage industry going around the country giving lectures on the theme of continuity in American grand strategy). Any honest National Security Strategy will reflect that fact. But if the the ABB syndrome won't let the Administration admit any continuities, the drafters of the strategy are forced to reinvent well-worn wheels.

Second, the team has added an injury to this insult, by touting the strategic brilliance of their President beyond the normal levels of White House staff loyalty. Obama does not need a grand strategist like Henry Kissinger as his advisor because, we are told, Obama is his own Kissinger. All White Houses praise the strategic thinking of the Big Man in the Oval Office, but the lavish praise heaped by the staff on this President's strategic acuity seems especially out of proportion. For certain, it raises expectations that his NSS must be a strategic masterpiece worthy of a strategic genius.

I think this is an unhelpful and even unfair standard. No NSS can be as original and as brilliant as the Obama Team's spin would seem to promise. So in the spirit of bipartisan unity, I propose six other more achievable criteria which I intend to use to evaluate the new strategy:

  • Is it strategic? Does it go beyond a list of worthy objectives to describe ways of reaching those goals and ways to counter the machinations of others to thwart our efforts? And does it offer a plausible, if broad-brush prioritization. It is unreasonable to expect the NSS to precisely rank every goal -- "We consider country XYZ to be of only secondary import" -- but it should indicate what matters most.
  • Is it coherent? Does it offer a plausible account for why the strategy is expected to work as they promise? (President Bush's 2006 NSS spent a fair bit of time explaining why if terrorism was the problem the spread of democracy must be part of the solution). Does it identify assumptions and causal logics (in fact, even if it avoids using social scientific labels and jargon).
  • Is it persuasive without being defensive? Does the NSS address reasonable critiques or does it content itself with straw-man arguments?
  • Is it confident without being arrogant, humble without being servile, and diplomatic without being dishonest? It is very hard to thread these needles, but the best national security rhetoric coming out of the administration -- the peroration on our country's strategic values at the end of President Obama's West Point speech announcing the Afghan surge -- accomplished it. This will be especially important for Obama's NSS because the administration has made recalibrating the rhetoric of national security an especially high and explicit priority. The biggest challenge for Obama on this dimension: dealing honestly with the ideology that animates the terrorist networks who pose the greatest threat to the United States.
  • Is it candid? President Obama has not presided over a strategic disaster, but there is still plenty of ‘splaining to be done. The Israel-Palestinian peace initiative has lurched about; no credible observer thinks the Iran file has been deftly handled; relations with key allies like Japan and the UK and France and key partners like India have been needlessly rocky; and some issues -- the rise of China, North Korea, Latin America, and Sudan -- seem to be lacking much strategic vision. Does the NSS deal with these challenges honestly or does it pretend that no mistakes were made on their own watch?
  • Is it wise? This is the most important, of course, but it also may be the hardest to judge. The NSS chart's America's course but must do so without the benefit of hindsight. Reasonable people can disagree, but a good NSS will help bound the terms of a reasonable debate.

Of course, as I tell my graduate students about their dissertations, the only good NSS is a published one. If they wait until they have it perfect, the NSS may be too late to be of much use. We are not at that point yet, so the time is ripe for a release.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

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