Shadow Government

Obama’s National Security Strategy: real change or just ‘Bush Lite?'

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. If you only read the Obama Team's talking points, or only read the mainstream media coverage, which amounts to the same thing, this assessment may come as a big surprise. But if you actually read the Obama's NSS released today, and President Bush's most recent NSS released in 2006, the conclusion is pretty obvious.

  • President Bush's NSS emphasized effective, action-oriented multilateralism to address the challenges of the day: to "strengthen alliances to defeat global terrorism and work to prevent attacks against us and our friends" and to "develop agendas for cooperative action with the other main centers of global power." Obama's NSS emphasizes "comprehensive engagement" built on the "cornerstone" of our traditional allies but expanding outwards to include "more effective partnerships with other key centers of influence."
  • Bush's NSS emphasized that our national security did not rest solely on material factors (eg., the balance of military forces) but also on the strength and appeal of our moral values, especially America's commitment to defend and advance "human rights protected by democratic institutions." Obama's NSS makes the same point: "The United States rejects the false choice between the narrow pursuit of our interests and an endless campaign to impose our values."
  • Bush's NSS recognized that international institutions were flawed but essential and thus needed to be reformed. Obama's NSS makes the exact same point: "we need to be clear-eyed about the strengths and shortcomings of international institutions that were developed to deal with the challenges of an earlier time and the shortage of political will that has at times stymied the enforcement of international norms. Yet it would be destructive to both American national security and global security if the United States used the emergence of new challenges and the shortcomings of the international system as a reason to walk away from it. Instead, we must focus American engagement on strengthening international institutions and galvanizing the collective action that can serve common interests..."
  • Bush's NSS identified the most urgent threat to be the nexis of WMD proliferation (especially nuclear), terrorists, and state sponsors of terrorism. Obama's NSS makes the same determination, "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."
  • Bush recognized that the war on terror would require all elements of national power, from military to law enforcement to soft power, and Obama's NSS makes the same point.
  • Obama's NSS even explicitly endorses America's prerogatives to use military force well before it is a last resort -- "While the use of force is sometimes necessary, we will exhaust other options before war whenever we can (emphasis added)" -- and unilaterally -- "The United States must reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend our nation and our interests." (emphasis added)

Perhaps the most striking continuity is in the recognition that America must lead. This was an important theme of Bush's NSS. Effective action depended on American leadership - "the international community is most engaged in such action when the United States leads." The conclusion of the 2006 NSS hammered home the point:

The challenges America faces are great, yet we have enormous power and influence to address those challenges. The times require an ambitious national security strategy, yet one recognizing the limits to what even a nation as powerful as the United States can achieve by itself. Our national security strategy is idealistic about goals, and realistic about means. There was a time when two oceans seemed to provide protection from problems in other lands, leaving America to lead by example alone. That time has long since passed. America cannot know peace, security, and prosperity by retreating from the world. America must lead by deed as well as by example."


Obama's NSS similarly emphasizes America's "global leadership" and "steering those currents [of international cooperation] in the direction of liberty and justice" and "shap[ing] and international order" because " global security depends upon strong and responsible American leadership." Leadership goes beyond seeing the world as it is and includes transforming the world according to America's interests and values or, as Obama puts it: "In the past, the United States has thrived when both our nation and our national security policy have adapted to shape change instead of being shaped by it." Even the extra focus on rebuilding America at home (what the NSS deems "renewal") is justified not merely as an end in itself (which it surely is) but also as a means to another end of expanding America's global influence. To those who hoped Obama would embrace American decline, this NSS should come as something of a shock.

Measured in word-count, the biggest difference between Obama's NSS and his predecessor's is the long section devoted to domestic policy, both economic and social. The premise behind discussing domestic policy in an outwardly focused national security strategy is a reasonable one: our ability to meet global challenges and opportunities is a function of our national power and the foundation of national power is the health of our economy and domestic society. Moreover, the biggest change since the 2006 NSS is the global and domestic economic crisis. Downplaying the domestic determinants of power would seem odder than addressing them directly, as this NSS does. However, by this logic, there is no obvious place to draw the line between what belongs in this document and what does not -- economic strength depends on the productivity of the workers which depends on their education and their health which depends on their fitness which depends on their emotional and spiritual well-being which depends on ... and so on. Reading the domestic policy section one gets the sense that the authors struggled with where to draw the line and probably erred on the side of inclusion.

Substantively, perhaps the biggest difference (which earns the "Lite" moniker) is that Obama's NSS uses a blurry soft-focus approach where Bush's NSS was more sharply delineated. Bush labeled the ideology ("militant Islamic radicalism"), Obama leaves it a bit vague ("a far-reaching network of hatred and violence). Bush named the country that posed the most urgent threat (Iran), but Obama only describes the features of such a country. Bush labeled the values ("democratic"), Obama generally discusses values without the label.

In a document so long, there are also curious omissions: only the slightest reference to Latin America; no recognition of the challenge posed by Venezuela and neo-Bolivarism; barely any mention of Southeast Asia (despite all of the ballyhooed "America is back" nonsense); the climate change desiderata are mentioned but the Copenhagen setbacks are not; and lots of discussion of the goals in Iraq and Afghanistan and much less discussion of the threats and challenges that might impede those goals.

There are other tonal differences. Bush's NSS led with the observation that the country was at war; Obama's NSS moves that point to the second paragraph. Bush's NSS was written with an eye to explaining to Bush critics why controversial policies were pursued. Obama's NSS engages Obama critics much less often in the text. Bush's NSS was shorter and stayed in President Bush's terse "voice"; Obama's NSS is longer, perhaps reflecting Obama's more florid "voice" but also perhaps reflecting the contribution of many more authors to the final document.

Grading the NSS is hard. As I do with difficult student grading, it is best to give it a provisional grade and to read and reflect on it some more before posting the grade with the registrar. Overall, I think it earns a respectable B-, but I reserve the right to raise or lower the grade as warranted.

The NSS scores better on some elements of the grading rubric I proposed than others. By embracing the outlines of the post-Cold War and post-9/11 grand strategy that has guided U.S. policy thus far, it is basically as strategic and coherent in outline as its predecessors; the harder test is in the application of this broad outline to specific cases like Iran or North Korea (a matter I will take up in a later post). It is not particularly persuasive, but mainly because it does not engage the reasonable critiques of Obama's record. For that matter, it is not particularly candid -- there is no recognition that Obama has been trying to implement this strategy for over 15 months and has a record of both successes and failures to explain. The frequent cheap shots at President Bush come off as defensive and perhaps even reflective of a deeper insecurity (which might also explain why the roll-out has tried to downplay areas of continuity). Yet I think it does a pretty good job of being confident without arrogant, especially in discussing American leadership. Assessing whether it is wise requires going beyond the rhetoric to evaluate the implementation, and here there might be room for debate (and more blogging!). To pick just one non-trivial example, everyone agrees that America's fiscal challenges constitute a grave challenge for national security, but not everyone would agree that Obama's new health care plan and stimulus package have helped alleviate the fiscal burden.

Grading the media's coverage thus far, however, is comparatively simple: they have earned a failing grade that borders on malpractice. It appears that even reporters who were given advanced copies have been content merely to parrot superficial talking points built around caricatures rather than do serious analysis. Some handy grading rules of thumb: any reporter who limits the comparison to the Bush 2002 NSS (and worse just to parodies of the 2002 NSS) flunks the assignment; any reporter who pretends that the Bush National Security Strategy consisted entirely of preemption and unilateralism flunks the assignment; any reporter who looks only at the NSS rhetoric not the NSS-in-action, meaning the actual performance, flunks the assignment. So far, both the AP and the Washington Post have flunked. The New York Times did slightly better; it only quotes the 2002 NSS, but was far more nuanced in comparing the Obama rhetoric to Obama reality and noted that for all the talking points, Obama's NSS leaves open all of the same options, including the use of preemptive military force.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

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