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

Shadow Government

Why Obama needs to revamp his Egypt strategy

As Will points out, U.S. policy toward Egypt is in serious need of an overhaul. An example of this was a State Department announcement on April 16 that Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero would be travelling to Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank. Her stop in Egypt attracted some interest from those who follow democracy issues. Was the Obama administration finally ready to take a stand in favor of democratic reform in Egypt?

Unfortunately, no. According to State's press release, Otero was travelling through the region to discuss "water issues." The statement noted that Otero would discuss democracy and human rights along with other global affairs issues in each country, but the message to Egyptian democracy and human rights activists was clear.

In the weeks that followed, it was reported that U.S. democracy funding for the country was cut by more than half and that the administration was considering Egypt's proposal to create an "endowment fund" of out of $50 million of the massive annual assistance package it receives from the U.S. government. This fund, called the "Mubarak Trust Fund" by some, would have limited Congressional oversight and as Stephen McInerney notes, send exactly the wrong message to the Mubarak regime.

This debate over aid is just one piece of a larger problem with the U.S.-Egypt relationship. Egyptian society has served as a breeding ground for several generations of Islamic extremists. For decades, U.S. policy toward Egypt has been clouded by U.S. desires to support Egypt's 1978 peace agreement with Israel and more recently, the supposedly key role it plays in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, all by propping up a dictatorial police state that is unpopular with its citizenry.

After 9/11, it became clear to many that the U.S. role in supporting repressive regimes like that in Cairo had something to do with the extremism that was emanating from key U.S. Arab allies. The Bush administration subsequently attempted to make electoral reform an issue in the relationship, upsetting Hosni Mubarak, but sending a clear message to activists on the ground about U.S. intentions. Progress, however, was minimal and certain arms of the U.S. government, such as the State Department, never embraced the President's strategy.

Despite President Bush's rhetoric on this issue, many Egyptian activists had high hopes for President Obama.  Many of them were in the audience when he delivered his speech at the American University of Cairo in June last year. But when I visited Cairo in November for a conference, I found the men and women fighting for human rights and democracy in Egypt looking for action, not more rhetoric. They told stories about cuts to their U.S. funding or new procedures whereby only Egyptian-government approved organizations could receive grants. One activist told me of a phone call from his intelligence ministry minder joking that if you want U.S. money this year, let me know because I can help pull some strings.

Despite this benign neglect by the Obama administration, Egypt faces its best chance for reform because of an unlikely character. Mohamed El Baradei, the former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), returned to Egypt in February and has since been feted by opposition groups. It is not clear that El Baradei will run for President in 2011 -- he has smartly demanded that before he decides, he wants the system to be reformed. This rightly has caused many Egyptians to question why, under current Egyptian law, a leading international figure and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize cannot run for President just because he is not a member of a government-approved political party.

In the waning months of his time at the IAEA, El Baradei reportedly worked closely with the Obama administration. President Obama even spoke to him on the phone several times as the United States tried to get Iran to agree to a nuclear fuel swap. Now, however, the administration has been mum on Mr. El Baradei's potential electoral ambitions.

Outside Egypt, El Baradei has been treated rather poorly. Ilan Berman wrote an article on Foreign Policy's website criticizing him for meeting with the Muslim Brotherhood and stating that he might become the "savior of Egypt's Islamist opposition." An article in The Weekly Standard noted his poor stewardship of the IAEA and his failure to halt Iran's race toward a nuclear weapon.

The continued popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood is indeed cause for concern but one meeting should not be construed to imply that the secular El Baradei will somehow save the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is a major political force in Egypt, winning 20 percent of the seats in parliament in 2005. It is also not a monolith and if El Baradei decides to run, he will have to try to win over some of its moderate elements.

It is true that under El Baradei, especially after the invasion of Iraq and the U.S. failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the IAEA became increasingly anti-American. El Baradei went out of his way to go easy on the Iranians despite evidence that Iran continued to flout its international commitments. However, El Baradei is contemplating a run for the Presidency of Egypt, not of the United States. His credentials as an independent minded international civil servant make it clear that this is not some democratic reformer being foisted on the Egyptian people by Washington.

These commentators are letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. El Baradei represents the best chance for democratic reform in Egypt that we may see for some time. It is time for the Obama administration to take a stand on Egypt's upcoming elections and make clear to the geriatric Mubarak that his departure from the political scene is not cause for the elevation of his son Gamal to the presidency.

In addition to calling for reform of Egypt's electoral laws, the next time Mr. El Baradei is in Washington senior administration officials should meet with him to send the message that how Egypt handles this leadership transition will impact the overall U.S.-Egypt relationship. Washington should also rein in our ambassador in Cairo who has repeatedly made comments that have undermined the work of democracy and human rights activists in that country.

President Obama has tried to repair the U.S.-Egypt relationship to further U.S. efforts in the region, but also spoke about the importance of democracy during his Cairo speech. Now that the peace process has gone off the rails, perhaps it is time to set aside that short-term concern and the water issues and focus on achieving real democratic change in Egypt. Egyptians are watching whether the President's actions will match his rhetoric.