Obama’s National Security Strategy

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on February 14, 2015


The National Security Strategy is never a riveting read, and the NSS put out by the Obama administration on Feb. 6, only their second (the last in May 2010), was no exception. “Strategic patience” was the mantra with which this NSS was launched, to fairly wide derision as a rationalisation of the last six years of hesitancy and retrenchment. It was a criticism with some basis in fact.

The NSS has a two-page cover written by the President. The opening sentence boldly declares:

Today, the United States is stronger and better positioned to seize the opportunities of a still new century and safeguard our interests against the risks of an insecure world.

This sanguine outlook is based on “America’s growing economic strength,” which includes more jobs, investments in science, and increased production of gas and oil. This is the “foundation of [U.S] national security,” says the President. While affirming that the U.S. will “act unilaterally against threats to our core interests, we are stronger when we mobilize collective action.”

The President’s opening statement mentions the threats to the United States as: the Islamic State (I.S.), Ebola, and Russia. Interestingly, the “rebalance to Asia” is back and the much-neglected relationship with India is said to be “primed”. Then there’s “deepening our investment in Africa,” the “opening to Cuba,” deproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, “cement[ing] an international consensus on arresting climate change,” tacking cyber-threats, eliminating extreme poverty, and “upholding our enduring commitment to the advancement of democracy”.

This is indeed an “ambitious agenda”.

And many more bromides follow. America will “lead a networked world,” explore space to “better understand the human race, our planet, and the depths of the universe,” and “be a champion” for marginalised ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities. On the specifics, matters are a lot less promising.

Take climate change. It is an open question whether this is an “urgent and growing threat to our national security”. For the NSS to write, “Over the last 6 years, U.S. emissions have declined by a larger total magnitude than those of any other country,” while leaving out that this has largely been brought about fracking, which the President staunchly opposed, is a little slippery. To write of “the progress made in Copenhagen” is simply dishonest.

On the “Arab Spring,” the NSS fairly says that “setbacks have thus far outnumbered triumphs.” Just as fairly, the NSS says that while “change is inevitable … the direction of that change is not predetermined.” The commitment, however, to “eas[ing] the difficulties of democratic transitions,” applies only to peaceful transformations like Tunisia—and indeed Egypt, where America will “maintain strategic cooperation,” without a word about the violent abortion of the democratic transformation. Those struggling against tyrannical regimes that are so entrenched they need a measure of force to remove are on their own, according to the NSS.

The two major present crises, of course, are Syria-Iraq and Ukraine. You would not necessarily know that from this report, where global warming, the need for healthcare, and science and innovation have as much space as these crises.

In what the NSS says about Russia, it is a little thin. “Russia’s aggression in Ukraine makes clear that European security and the international rules and norms against territorial aggression cannot be taken for granted,” the NSS correctly notes. It is encouraging to see a commitment to “countering Moscow’s deceptive propaganda” and “help[ing] [America’s] allies and partners resist Russian coercion over the long term”.

But a commitment to “continue to impose significant costs on Russia through sanctions” is not encouraging. It is quite clear the sanctions are not stopping Vladimir Putin and indeed, applied in isolation, they risk escalating the crisis. Kyiv needs to be able to raise the price of Moscow’s invasion, and for that it needs certain kinds of weaponry the U.S. has refused to supply. This does not require a conference: it would be an act of U.S. unilateralism that really would be “upholding [America’s] enduring commitment to the advancement of democracy”.

The U.S. always has to ensure that she is not the aggressor, and thus should offer chances for reconciliation. But it is quite clear now that Moscow is not on “a path of peaceful cooperation that respects the sovereignty and democratic development of neighboring states,” so for the U.S. to “keep the door open to greater collaboration with Russia” looks more naïve than magnanimous.

The word “Syria” appears eight times in something like 15,000 words, despite being the unrivalled humanitarian and strategic catastrophe in the 21st century. Fully half of the mentions appear in this section:

Joined by our allies and partners, including multiple countries in the region, we employed our unique military capabilities to arrest ISIL’s advance and to degrade their capabilities in both Iraq and Syria. At the same time, we are working with our partners to train and equip a moderate Syrian opposition to provide a counterweight to the terrorists and the brutality of the Assad regime. Yet, the only lasting solution to Syria’s civil war remains political—an inclusive political transition that responds to the legitimate aspirations of all Syrian citizens.

All of those sentences are deceptive. A lot of statistics have been wheeled out to defend the Obama administration’s conduct of the campaign against I.S., but I.S. has actually gained territory in Syria since the U.S. airstrikes began. Moreover, the President’s Iraq-first strategy has done nothing to dislodge I.S.’s Takfiri Caliphate in its capital, Raqqa, or Syria more generally, and I.S. “treat[s] its Syrian territory as the most valuable and sustainable.”

The President’s training of a 5,000-man moderate rebel army is not intended to counter both I.S. and Assad; it is intended only to counter I.S., yet still Assad has said such a force will be “fought like any other illegal militia“. So far Obama has refused to supply a no-fly zone to the Syrian revolution because it would “constitute an act of war against the Assad regime“—a regime whose removal is Obama’s official policy—but once Assad attacks this force the contradictions in his policy, which is at present based on ceding Syria to Iran and being Iran’s de facto air force, will become evident and a side will have to be chosen.

The spirit of “no military solution”—a phrase not included in the NSS—hangs over the whole document. And of course it’s true: there is no purely military solution to anything. There is not a dichotomy between the use of force and achieving a political solution: tactical military victories are meaningless if it is not backed up with a strategic-political program, but force can be a valuable component in a political solution. This is the case in Syria, where “[t]he only route to a political solution … is regime change,” as Michael Doran pointed out seventeen months ago.

Perhaps the most extraordinary sentence in the NSS is:

Our efforts to remove and destroy chemical weapons in Libya and Syria reflect our leadership in implementation and progress toward universalization of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The chemical weapons “deal” in Syria in September 2013, which called off the proposed airstrikes that would have punished Bashar al-Assad for murdering 1,400 people with sarin in exchange for the neutralisation of Assad’s chemical stockpile, was a defeat for the United States, making her a partner of the Bashar regime (and Russia) and nearly destroying the moderate opposition that was the U.S.’s ostensible ally. For that price, Assad was granted a license to kill not only with conventional weapons but chlorine gas. And Assad still hasn’t given up the chemical weapons—and why should he? He’s a legitimate partner of the international community while this process lasts.

Nor had Muammar el-Qaddafi given up all of his chemical weapons. After Qaddafi’s deposition, it was found that the Libyan dictator had only given up half of his chemical stockpile. This has reinforced a pattern: only the removal of dictatorial regimes ensures WMD disarmament.

The most crucial part of the NSS is this:

Stability and peace in the Middle East and North Africa also requires reducing the underlying causes of conflict. America will therefore continue to work with allies and partners toward a comprehensive agreement with Iran that resolves the world’s concerns with the Iranian nuclear program.

I have recently devoted much space to pointing out that the Obama administration is pursuing a nuclear accord with Iran the better to consolidate a rapprochement with the Islamic Republic, ceding Tehran wide swathes of the Middle East from Syria to Iraq to Yemen, on the premise that Iran can (and will) suppress Sunni terrorism and install stability in a way America’s traditional allies cannot. This cryptic paragraph suggests that the heretofore denied connection in the administration’s mind between a nuclear accord with Iran and regional stability actually is on the agenda.

(In an interview with Vox on Feb. 9, which fell slightly short of an NKVD-level interrogation, the President also made this connection: “if … we’re able to get a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran [on the nuclear program], then we have the basis, I think, for a movement towards greater stability.” Last October, it was revealed that President Obama had written four letters to Ali Khamenei. It has now been shown that Khamenei responded in “recent weeks” to Obama’s letters, which “raised the possibility of U.S.-Iranian cooperation in fighting Islamic State if a nuclear deal is secured,” a proposal about which Khamenei was “noncommittal”.)

The most shameful section of the NSS is when it announces: “The mass killing of civilians is an affront to our common humanity and a threat to our common security.” Adding: “We affirm our support for the international consensus that governments have the responsibility to protect civilians from mass atrocities and that this responsibil­ity passes to the broader international community when those governments manifestly fail to protect their populations.” It made no mention of Syria.

The President opened the NSS by saying that he wished for the restoration of “the bipartisan center” to American foreign policy. The document shows no awareness that in the President’s excessive caution, his belief that force has almost no part in pursuing American political aims, and the President’s willingness to make dangerous gambles by switching between allies and enemies, notably Iran, it is Obama who has moved away from the internationalist, bipartisan foreign policy of the last several decades.

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