Obama's National Security Strategy: Is 'I'm not Bush' ending?

As the Obama administration seeks to differentiate itself from its predecessor, it may risk playing down the role of 'hard power' too much. The National Security Strategy will be unveiled Thursday.

Pete Souza/The White House/Reuters/File
US President Barack Obama in a national security meeting in the Situation Room of the White House in Washington on February 17. The new National Security Strategy will be unveiled Thursday.

President Obama’s first National Security Strategy, to be unveiled by the administration this week, is being summed up in some circles as a repudiation of President Bush’s reliance on “unilateral” American power.

But in its emphasis on strong international alliances, the promotion of universal values like democracy and human rights, and the crucial role of a strong economy and an innovative society at home, the document looks to be just as much a reaffirmation of traditional US foreign-policy themes.

The National Security Strategy, a broad statement of foreign-policy goals for addressing key international threats to America’s well-being, is slowly emerging from its wraps. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is to lay out the strategy in a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington Thursday. Mr. Obama gave a preview of the strategy’s key points in a West Point commencement address Saturday, White House officials say.

In the West Point speech, Obama spoke of an “international order” that “can resolve the challenges of our times.” It will be promoted through four “pillars” of American action: renewed and expanded alliances; strength abroad through strength at home, with an emphasis on education, clean energy, technology, and innovation; support for international development and a revitalized diplomatic corps; and promotion of democracy and human rights.

The new National Security Strategy will underscore that the American military is unrivaled in the world in its reach and resources, and it will call for the United States to maintain its military superiority, according to the Associated Press, which obtained a summary of the strategy.

It won’t surprise anyone that any White House would vaunt the essential role of US military might.

Still, the Obama White House may be at risk of playing down the role of “hard power” in the world too much, some foreign-policy analysts say, especially as the administration seeks to differentiate itself from its predecessor.

“Every presidency starts off defining itself by trumpeting the opposite of whatever its predecessor did, and that’s been true in spades going from George W. Bush to Obama,” says Robert Lieber, a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University in Washington. “But at a certain point that gets old, and we’re at a point where the overplayed ‘we’re not Bush’ mantra is raising anxieties among friends and allies in Asia and the Middle East.”

Much of the world, Professor Lieber says, will be watching the new security strategy to see if Obama largely plays down the role of hard power. Such a move would exacerbate growing jitters about a less assertive America, he says.

“If this [administration’s] allergy to almost any of the rhetoric that resonates with whatever the Bush administration did or said is perpetuated” in the document, he says, “we’re very likely to see the repercussions in a series of foreign-policy problems.”

Others say they expect Obama’s strategy to address emerging challenges to national security, including climate change and energy innovation.

“A lot of it will be focused on terrorism and religious extremism,” said Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts at a Monitor breakfast Wednesday. But the president’s attention to the broad implications of energy challenges tells him that “in principle, this [issue] will be emphasized within” the National Security Strategy.

At the breakfast, Senator Kerry promoted as “a national security priority” the new clean-energy legislation he is sponsoring with Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut.

Steven Clemons, who directs the American strategy program at the New America Foundation in Washington, says Obama’s West Point speech suggests that the new document will recognize “the vital need for the US to return to its role as a benign, constructive force in global affairs.”

Referring to one of the four “pillars” Obama highlighted in the speech – rebuilding America’s international leadership through a stronger America at home – Mr. Clemons says he expects the new strategy will underscore that “there is no way that the US can presume global leadership when its home front is deteriorating and in poor shape.”


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