How Obama's latest national security strategy is more forest, less trees

A national security strategy that refuses to allow the challenges of the day to obscure the larger global issues that will determine America’s prosperity was laid out in a speech Friday by National Security Adviser Susan Rice.

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President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Department of Homeland Security on his FY2016 budget proposal on Monday in Washington. Obama warned congressional Republicans Monday that he won't accept a spending plan that boosts national security at the expense of domestic programs for the middle class.

The national security strategy that the White House released Friday might be summed up as the “more forest, less trees” blueprint for how President Obama envisions conducting his foreign policy for his final two years in office.

Essentially the document says this: Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and the threats posed by a violent and barbaric terrorist group in Iraq and Syria may be the headline-grabbers of the day, and the United States will certainly address those, largely through building and empowering coalitions of partners.

But at the same time, the document warns, the US cannot afford to lose sight of – and indeed must focus more of its efforts and resources on – a set of broader and ultimately more dangerous national security challenges as it leads the world to a safer and more prosperous 21st century.

Those larger threats, which will require a toolbox supplied with more than the US military and a major dose of “strategic patience,” range from nuclear proliferation and cybersecurity to climate change, energy security, and the weakening of an international order based on universally accepted norms.

A national security strategy that refuses to allow the challenges of the day to obscure the larger global issues that will determine America’s long-term security and prosperity was laid out in a speech by National Security Adviser Susan Rice at Washington’s Brookings Institution Friday afternoon.

“Yes, there’s a lot going on” in the world, Ms. Rice said, but America “cannot afford to be buffeted by alarmism” if it is to lead “in a complex and rapidly evolving world.”

Questions like “when we should have started arming the Syrian rebels” and “whether to arm Ukraine” with lethal weaponry are indeed indicative of the kinds of issues the administration deals with every day, she said. But Rice described Mr. Obama as a president who insists on “seeing beyond the crises of the day,” and she said the new strategy offers a pathway to “a much larger role for America in shaping the world.”

Turning more colloquial in the question-and-answer segment of her Brookings appearance, Rice said, “This is a multidimensional strategy: We have to walk and chew gum at the same time.”  

Friday’s document was the second national security strategy from Obama, following one he issued in 2010. Under a 1986 law, the president is supposed to issue an annual strategy to Congress, but presidents have not followed the law to the letter.

President George W. Bush issued two strategies – one in 2002 that, pre-Iraq invasion, made the case for preemptive war, and one in 2006 leading memorably with the phrase, “America is at war.”

In contrast, Obama emphasizes the many forms of power that the US employs in pursing security and shaping global events. He states in the document that a “smart national security strategy does not rely solely on military power.”

Rice repeatedly stressed that orientation in her speech, at one point saying that the US will continue “to lead the effort to reduce instability” in the Middle East, but that it will do this by deploying “all our assets – not just our military.”

In some respects Obama’s new strategy – and Rice’s speech – offer a rebuttal to the president’s critics, including some who not long ago were inside the administration and who say his strategic vision is too light on the use of force. Obama has been too slow to endorse some form of a military option to address crises, some critics say, while others lament that his brand of multilateralism has left America lagging rather than leading, or at best “leading from behind.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has made clear that she favored arming Syria’s moderate rebels and argued for such a step to a reluctant president, while former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was dismayed by Obama’s decision not to launch airstrikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after he used chemical weapons against his own civilian population.

But Rice presented a string of examples of how the US under Obama has led the international community in addressing major global security challenges using tools other than the US military. Her examples ranged from leading on imposing sanctions regimes on Iran over its nuclear program and on Russia over its violation of international norms in Ukraine, to spearheading the international response to Ebola in West Africa and securing a groundbreaking carbon emissions accord with China to address climate change.

Rice indicated a decision would be coming from Obama in the coming days on whether the US will provide the Ukrainian military with lethal military assistance. But the overall tone of her speech suggested that, even as the president makes those kinds of daily decisions, his national security focus will continue to be more on the forest than on the trees.

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