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The Key Focus of Obama’s Security Strategy: What Sustains American Power?

Despite the easy media and think-tank cynicism about the irrelevance of National Security Strategies — quick, what did George H.W. Bush say? — presidents reveal themselves through the document’s animating focus. For George W. Bush, the question was: how ought the United States respond to terrorism? For Barack Obama, it’s about a theory of how to sustain American power over the long haul.

There’s a certain caricature of Obama on the right that holds he only accepts American exceptionalism — the view that America has an outsize role to play in global affairs — in the sense that he finds America exceptionally blameworthy. The responsible exercise of U.S. foreign policy for Obama, goes this view, is to restrain it until it withers away. Charles Krauthammer offered that thesis. Mitt Romney put it in hardcover. Sarah Palin put it on Facebook. And it won’t go away with the National Security Strategy, because it was never tethered to reality. But the National Security Strategy demonstrates how it’s the exact opposite of what the Obama presidency is about.

Every single focus outlined in the National Security Strategy is about the maintenance of American power on the international stage in an era when the international order is less tethered to the traditional power of big alliances of states than ever, thanks to global financial destabilization, super-empowered individual extremists or proliferating nuclear weapons. American power, Obama argues, rests on insolvent foundations if it doesn’t invest in domestic priorities, principally “the long term growth of our economy and competitiveness of our citizens.” It won’t rally global actors to a common purpose if it doesn’t pursue “comprehensive engagement” with the world, predicated on the international institutions that represent and reflect the world’s forums for expression of consensus standards of behavior. And it won’t possess credibility if it violates “respect for universal values at home and around the world.”

That creates an interlocking series of obligations for implementing the strategy. “National security draws on the strength and resilience of our citizens, communities, and economy,” Obama argues, so that requires the maintenance and integration of not only military, diplomatic, development, intelligence and economic power, but also of domestic prosperity and justice. This is a blueprint for investing in health and education as much as it is a blueprint for investing in the military. When you think about it, how can you really separate the two? The military is worried about the security implications of the obesity epidemic, after all. This is a broad expansion of a military concept known as “interdependent capabilities,” where the assets within one service or branch or department can support and magnify those of others — applied across the government, and across governments.

Second, it requires a “a rules-based international system that can advance our own interests by serving mutual interests. International institutions must be more effective and representative of the diffusion of influence in the 21st century. Nations must have incentives to behave responsibly, or be isolated when they do not.” International power isn’t a “zero-sum game,” Obama argues — a central refutation of Bush’s insistence that the U.S. ought to never allow a new superpower to develop — with one major conceptual exception. Isolated nations and actors really do face zero-sum situations against an international community united around common norms. And that’s how Obama argues American leadership can marshal institutions for common objectives over the long term.

Those nations that refuse to meet their responsibilities will forsake the opportunities that come with international cooperation. Credible and effective alternatives to military action—from sanctions to isolation—must be strong enough to change behavior, just as we must reinforce our alliances and our military capabilities. And if nations challenge or undermine an international order that is based upon rights and responsibilities, they must find themselves isolated.

The logic here requires a recognition that such a thing applies to American power as well. The National Security Strategy ties that recognition to the broader theme of avoiding insolvency. “When we overuse our military might, or fail to invest in or deploy complementary tools, or act without partners, then our military is overstretched, Americans bear a greater burden, and our leadership around the world is too narrowly identified with military force,” the document reads. “And we know that our enemies aim to overextend our Armed Forces and to drive wedges between us and those who share our interests.”

Obama’s opponents might argue that means he’s got an insufficient appreciation for American military power. But this the exact same recognition contained in the Army and Marine Corps’ Counterinsurgency Field Manual. The manual’s chapter on paradoxes observes, “Sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it is” and that the more successful a strategy is, “the less force can be used and the more risk must be accepted.” There are sections in the National Security Strategy that clearly drink from the same well as the counterinsurgency field manual, which ought not to be surprising when considering the administration’s embrace of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

So overreaction contributes to the insolvency of power. When it comes to terrorism, the document states, “If we respond with fear, we allow violent extremists to succeed far beyond the initial impact of their attacks, or attempted attacks—altering our society and enlarging the standing of al-Qa’ida and its terrorist affiliates far beyond its actual reach.” John Brennan spoke about that yesterday. But the document doesn’t rule out what civil libertarian critics consider to be fear-based responses: military commissions and indefinite detentions without charge. Nor does it consider their impact on the rules-based order that the document seeks to bolster. After all, if the preservation of American power is based on the expansion of such an order, won’t insolvency occur if the U.S. keeps granting itself exceptions to that order?

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