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May 28, 2010

Al-Qaeda and the NSS
Posted by Michael Wahid Hanna

My colleagues here have discussed many of the overarching themes of the National Security Strategy at length, but I am going to focus on one small portion of the document. I generally have a hard time taking these types of exercises particularly seriously because we kind of already knew what the NSS was going to say. In essence, the NSS seems like a cataloging and recapitulation of themes and arguments that we have heard for years now—first as a critique of the excesses of the Bush administration by then-candidate Obama, and then, more recently, as the operating principles of the administration’s foreign policy. I just don’t find anything particularly revelatory about it, and as a restatement, the NSS does not establish national strategy so much as reflect it, albeit in an aspirational sense.

Be that as it may, I wanted to take a closer look at one very small subsection of the document dealing with how the United States seeks to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat” al-Qaeda, namely, by contrasting al-Qaeda’s intent to destroy with our “constructive vision.” First off, I think we overestimate the current efficacy of using our “constructive vision” as a tool for changing minds in the region. The nature of Arab political grievance is deeply entrenched, and the lack of deliverables following President Obama’s Cairo speech has reinforced a robust skepticism of U.S. intentions and capacity. Of course, movement on issues of political salience would be a huge boost to U.S. credibility and would go a long way in blunting the effectiveness of transnational Islamist messaging, but, unfortunately, the prospects for any near-term wins look bleak.

But the broader and more important point is that, in many ways, we do not have to change minds; instead, we need to focus on reinforcing the existing distaste for al-Qaeda’s vision and tactics. This approach recognizes the crucial distinction between the huge appeal of narratives of resistance as propounded by groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah and the obscurantist and fringe views that are the bedrock of al-Qaeda’s ideology. This resistance narrative has wide resonance and al-Qaeda goes to great lengths to camouflage many of their far-reaching beliefs by employing popular rhetorical tropes that play upon existing political grievances. But their ideology goes much further and embraces takfiri thought and a promiscuous view of the legitimacy of the slaughter of innocents, who more often than not are, in fact, Muslims. Needless to say, there is not much of a constituency for such ideas. Of course, al-Qaeda does not need huge numbers of recruits, but even small steps to poison the well can be useful.

Many of the positions that these types of salafi jihadis have espoused have crossed into the realm of culture as they have sought to ban smoking, music, and even soccer—positions that are not likely to inspire adherents in the Arab world. Of course the unmitigated savagery of the movement, particularly as it pertains to the deaths of other Muslims, has served to distance the group even further from mainstream discourse. A movement such as the one led by Abu Musa’b al-Zarqawi in Iraq, which formally sought legitimacy from the umbrella of affiliation with al-Qaeda, reached a level of self-destructive nihilist violence that necessitated a stern warning from none other than ‘Ayman al-Zawahri. When al-Zawahri is telling you to dial things down, you probably have taken things a bit far.

Recognizing where al-Qaeda’s vision fits within the broader cultural and political ferment in the region offers a host of opportunities for further driving home the fundamental absurdity of al-Qaeda’s claims, starting with their very effectiveness as an organization. One of the initial reactions to the attacks of September 11 in the Arab world was one of disbelief among many Arabs that an Arab-led group could have undertaken and implemented such a complicated and sophisticated plot. This obviously also speaks to a larger point regarding the deep malaise in the region. Of course, our focusing on the group’s failures and weakness would require a certain degree of stoicism and calm in the face of the still real threats we face from such groups. And, unfortunately, such equanimity has often been lacking in our responses to terrorism and attempted attacks.

The nature of al-Qaeda’s tactics also offers a real opportunity to drive home the group’s extremism, and this is a space that our intelligence agencies should be more aggressive in filling. I recently read a series of stories that outlined various plots aimed at conducting operations at the upcoming World Cup in South Africa. I was happy to see these accounts, even if I have some suspicions regarding the provenance of the stories. But either way, this is a useful development. If the stories are in fact true, then we should take heart in the utter strategic stupidity of al-Qaeda. Having spent many a World Cup summer in Egypt, I can state with great certitude that targeting the World Cup would be about the most alienating action that the group could undertake. The other possibility is that this story was a form of information operations (perhaps devised by the Iraqis) and, if so, it was a solid effort. Al-Qaeda’s actions are often enough, but we should take advantage of how far outside the mainstream these groups actually are. I hope to soon see a story about al-Qaeda’s attempts to outlaw Um Kalthoum or to ban cigarettes—now those would be effective wedges in the Arab world. 

I realize this is a rather small point to draw out of a sprawling document, but this subsection of the NSS provided a useful excuse to write about this issue. While I would hope that our collective positive example and our diplomatic efforts could construct a positive narrative about the role of the United States in the world and the region, in light of current political realities in the region, I also don’t see this as the most effective avenue for undermining al-Qaeda. In effect, they are their own worst enemy, and we should be engaged in helping them seal their own fate.

Is More Ambitious Foreign Policy A Good Thing?
Posted by Michael Cohen

Shadi asks a fair question, "is a less ambitious foreign policy a good thing?"

Let me flip the question around "Is a more ambitious foreign policy a good thing" . . . especially if we lack the capabilities, resources, influence and will to turn that ambition into reality?

The simple fact is that America's relative power IS in decline. We don't have the power we once had to shape world events (and in fact that ability was always wildly overstated - the possibility of civilization-ending nuclear war tended to focus attention a bit in the Cold War days). That's why a national security strategy for the 21st century should do a better job of setting priorities and weighing costs and benefits.

This NSS doesn't do that. It assumes that we can continue down the same road we've been taking for the past 20 years in American foreign policy; that there are few limits to our power and our capabilities -even if rhetorically we say otherwise. What we need is a national security strategy that is not only more prudent, but also reflective of actual US interests and threats (both of which are far smaller than this NSS would have Americans believe).

This whole process is like a botox injection or an expensive sports car at the age of 55. It might make you feel better or look better . . . but all you're doing is delaying the inevitable need to accept reality! (And with that I declare a moratorium on NSS-related analogies).

Is a Less Ambitious Foreign Policy a Good Thing?
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Michael Cohen has awoken me from blogging slumber, writing approvingly of Obama's National Security Strategy and its - I'm not sure if this is the right word - prudence. Each of his major points, on their own, are quite reasonable but, taken together, worry me. He writes:

Indeed, one of the more positive elements of this NSS is the focus on getting America's house in order... But at some point there has to be an actual, not rhetorical recognition that every global problem is not necessarily America's problem or requires an American solution.

This all sounds so eminently reasonable that I almost feel bad criticizing it. How could anyone, especially a liberal, argue with this? Such statements are great as long as they're meant to infuse American foreign policy with humility and a recognition of the limits of power. But I worry that they may lead - and, actually, already have led - us down a dangerous path. Political actors act not according to some objective reality but to how they perceive reality. If we believe that our relative power in the international arena is declining, then we will act as if it has declined. And, then, it will, well, have declined, irrespective of any actual decline in power. 

The animating feature of the Left has always been, at least for me, a very acute sense that injustice must be fought, that complicity is not an option, that as much power must be excercised with humility, it must be wielded for good, for the the good not just of ourselves but of others. That's why, while I was staunchly against the Iraq war, I could manage to respect those who supported it for the right reasons, out of a principled, and perhaps overwrought, hatred of autocracy.

So when we start talking about "getting our house in order," and our own problems rather than the problems of others, I think of what happened to Afghanistan in the late 1980s or when Bush the father betrayed the Iraqis uprising against Saddam in 1991, or how Bush the son turned his back on Arab democracy in 2006. These were betrayals - and they were done in the name of American interests, narrowly defined.

Along these lines, James Fallows writes approvingly of this section from Obama's recent West Point speech:

We understand change doesn't come quick. We understand that neither America nor any nation can dictate every outcome beyond its borders. We know that a world of mortal men and women will never be rid of oppression or evil.

Again, sounds pretty reasonable. But I also imagine it must be music to the ears of autocrats everywhere, waiting patiently for our decline. Yes, change doesn't come quick, at least not often. But why do we have to concede that when it's quite obvious that, for decades, the United States, at least in the developing world, has not been an agent of change but a dogged protector of the status quo? Why do we need a president to clarify, perhaps unwittingly, what is already so obvious to others - that we have consistently worked against  change in so many countries in the Middle East and Latin America that it's difficult to list them. 

And, by the way, sometimes, change does come quick. It certainly came quick during the democratic transitions of the 1980s and 1990s in Latin America and Eastern Europe. In fact, some changes almost invariably happen quickly and rapidly.

This seems like an odd time to narrow the scope of our ambition. It is possible to be ambitious, and to aspire to something great, bold, and risky, and to do it well, and to do it without imposition and with respect. If anything, it is our failure to act - say when our allies our repressing their own people - that signifies a contempt for the rights of others. I sense some false choices here. 

Obama's NSS - More of the Same?
Posted by Michael Cohen

David Shorr makes the very fair point that to argue Obama's NSS is a continuation of George W. Bush's NSS is to ignore some fairly large elephants in the room - like the fact that the Bush's second term NSS was a recognition that his first term had been a complete and unmitigated disaster.

But, having said that, while there are very different areas of emphasis in this NSS (a focus on the domestic economy, a recognition that climate change, you know, exists) on the big ones there is a lot of overlap, particularly in its slavish adherence to the war on terrorism, its failure to prioritize and make tough choices, its platitudinous support for multilateral institutions, diplomacy, democracy promotion etc. Oh and then there is the yawning chasm between priorities and capabilities (see: war in Afghanistan for further reference).

In the end, this NSS seems like its built on the shaky foundation of Beltway conventional foreign policy wisdom about US primacy and our habitually broad post-Cold War definition of US interests.

I actually think David Rothkopf captured this sentiment well:

Want an innovative national security strategy? Start by living up to the promise of the president's earlier speeches rather than his recent penchant for slipping deadlines and dilutive compromises. Then recognize that we are going to have to narrow our ambitions, recognize the implications of our dwindling resources, move away from mid-century paradigms of American hegemony (or early 90s fantasies of same), find true partnerships with partners who are often rivals and often have values different from our own, establish principles wherein the use of force is not squandered on actions which have primarily domestic political goals but is available when needed, cut bureaucracy, cut duplication, recognize changing military paradigms. 

In fact (and I'd be curious if Heather agrees) much of Obama's NSS reminds me not of Bush but of second term Clinton foreign policy. That it's necessarily a bad thing; after all Clinton didn't plunge the nation into a disastrous war or alienate key allies, but it's not exactly "changing the mindset" either.

In an e-mail exchange earlier I was reminded of that scene in Risky Business where Tom Cruise meets with the college recruiter from Princeton, who looking over his record tells him there is some good work there, but it's not exactly Princeton good.

Of course, then Cruise gets the recruiter laid and everything works out for the best.

Ah, if only transforming American foreign policy was so easy!

George W. Bush, One-Term President
Posted by David Shorr

Like Heather, I'm scratching my head over the argument that Obama's strategy is basically the same as his predecessor's, which requires serious selective memory. I'm happy to stipulate that Bush 43 tacked back toward foreign policy reasonableness in his second term. So sure, there are similarities between the new National Security Strategy and the 2006 version (and even more with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's reports on transformational diplomacy). Alas, the GW Bush presidency didn't start in 2005; you'd have to have pretty severe amnesia to view the Bush administration's latter-day course correction as representative of its foreign policy. So I guess we have to remind ourselves of the first-term policies that weren't so easily corrected:

  • The Iraq War (and associated cost in blood, treasure, and reputation)
  • Enhanced interrogation, secret prisons (and associated theories about presidential authority as commander in chief)
  • Scrapping of the 30-year-old Anti-Balistic Missile Treaty (trading stable US-Russian deterrence for the fantasy of an unproven technology)
  • Witholding mil-mil cooperation with any nation that cooperated with the ICC (talk about heavy-handedness)
  • Climate change denial (as Heather and Michael remind us)
  • Push for next-generation nuclear weapons

Heck, the Bush Administration itself struggled internally as it tried to shift direction in the second term. Even if Vice President Cheney no longer enjoyed the same dominance, the effort to take a more pragmatic approach to North Korea and Iran, for instance, was resisted at every turn by John Bolton and other hard-liners.

I wouldn't argue that every aspect of Bush policy was wrongheaded. But when you try to draw a straight line between Bush and Obama, that's a stretch, to say the least.

May 27, 2010

Obama's NSS - Assessing Threats
Posted by Michael Cohen

The security section of the National Security Strategy is perhaps the most interesting and revelatory of the report.

First a quibble; "This Administration has no greater responsibility than protecting the American people." Actually, re-read the Inaugural Oath - the president's greatest responsibility is to uphold the Constitution. When you start believing that protecting the American people is more important than upholding the rule of law well then places like Gitmo start making a lot more sense.

But the larger issue is with the nature of the key "threats" to security that the paper argues the US must focused on - defeating al Qaeda and its extremist allies in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere; reversing the spread of nuclear and biological weapons; advancing peace and opportunity in the Middle East; building capacity in countries ripe for insecurity and protecting cyberspace.

Now I realize that I might get drummed out of the Very Serious Foreign Policy Community for saying this, but color me unconvinced that these are the most serious threats facing the country. Indeed, I think the biggest immediate threat - as the NSS correctly points out elsewhere - comes from the erosion in US economic competitiveness.

Moreover, it's very odd to talk about threats to US security and not have number #1, #2 and #3 be climate change. From a long-term perspective none of the challenges above can hold a candle to global warming and yet it's referenced in the back of the report under the section header "Values." Protecting the environment isn't a value; it's a national priority.  And what about global health pandemics or the growing phenomenon of transnational criminal networks. These are serious challenges and they are given short shrift in the report. In fact, I'm really hard pressed to see advancing peace and security in the Middle East as a crucial national security goal or one that the US can easily achieve. And while curbing terrorism and nuclear proliferation are clearly important I wonder if the emphasis in the NSS only continues their outsized prominence in national security discussions.

When it comes to dealing with long-tern challenges, it seems to me that Obama's NSS is a bit too mired in short-term thinking.  

Increasing Our Security By Cutting Military Spending
Posted by Michael Cohen

This is a guest post from New America Foundation Senior Fellow, Bill Hartung

I agree with Patrick Barry that the emphasis on grounding our security in the strength of our economy is perhaps the most important element of the Obama Administration’s National Security Strategy.  As the president puts it in the letter that introduces the document, “Our strategy begins by recognizing that our strength and influence abroad begins with steps we take at home. We must grow our economy and reduce our deficit.”

But how do we grow our economy and reduce our deficit? A central element of any approach has to be cuts in military spending – not just slower growth, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has advocated, but real reductions.

At over $700 billion this year, total military spending rivals Social Security as the largest item in the federal budget. We are spending more than at any time since World War II, yet our principal enemy has no multi-million person army, no air force, no navy, no sophisticated anti-aircraft systems – in short, none of the kinds of weapons our arsenal is best designed to fight against. And of that $700 billion per year, the vast bulk – over $500 billion – goes towards the Pentagon’s base budget, not the wars in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.  A forthcoming report from the Sustainable Defense Task Force  – a group of defense and budget experts convened with the encouragement of Rep. Barney Frank – presents a menu of options for making cuts in the Pentagon budget without undermining our basic security. Look for details within the next two weeks.

There are plenty of savings to be had from eliminating unneeded weapons systems and cutting waste, fraud and abuse, but it is important to note that any substantial reduction in Pentagon spending will have to involve reducing U.S. global commitments. We can’t and shouldn’t continue to structure our forces as if they should be able to go anywhere and do anything. This is directly relevant to the new National Security Strategy. 

As Gordon Adams puts it in an analysis released today by the Budget Insight blog of the Stimson Center’s Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense project: “On the military side, no clear prioritization of missions. As in the QDR [Quadrennial Defense Review], the NSS provides no priorities among military missions, but repeats a long shopping list that could drive force structure and budget expectations even higher than they are now.”

As the NSS also notes, there are plenty of ways to engage that don’t involve military force, from diplomacy to development to cooperation in law enforcement and intelligence. There will be many circumstances in which these will be the preferred modes of action, not merely complements to force or the threat of the use of force. We should structure and finance our military accordingly.

The National Security Strategy: A Biased Content Analysis
Posted by David Shorr

The central strategic idea of the NSS can be found at the end of the preamble graf -- the need for the US to take leadersihp in shaping "an international order capable of overcoming the challenges of the 21st century." The importance of a strong international system is amplified by its inclusion as one of four "enduring national interests," and by the fact that it's invoked throughout the document. Basically this means building an international community worthy of the name. A political system in which nations come together and -- despite their diverse interests, perspectives, and preferences -- forge broadly acceptable solutions to problems that affect all of them. As I've said many times before, a failure to achieve this vision and overcome international political differences will lead to a very bleak future for the United States and everyone else.

For the fullest articulation of the idea, see page 12:

Our engagement will underpin a just and sustainable international order—just, because it advances mutual interests, protects the rights of all, and holds accountable those who refuse to meet their responsibilities; sustainable because it is based on broadly shared norms and fosters collective action to address common challenges.

This engagement will pursue an international order that recognizes the rights and responsibilities of all nations. As we did after World War II, we must pursue 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. The test of this international order must be the cooperation it facilitates and the results it generates—the ability of nations to come together to confront common challenges like violent extremism, nuclear proliferation, climate change, and a changing global economy.

By my own (unscientific) count, there are 37 paragraphs that refer to this concept of interdependence. That includes 17 grafs concentrated in three sections where the international order is the main focus (pp. 12-13, 40, and 46). 

It's also striking how the NSS uses this as a conceptual touchstone for so many different issues. In the section on sustainable development and climate change, it says the US will "shape the international architecture and work with our global partners" on transitioning to low-carbon economic growth, supporting those most affected by global warming, and boosting food security (p. 34). The rule of law is portrayed as "fundamental to our efforts to build an international order..." (p. 37). US-China relations are framed similarly on page 43: 

We welcome a China that takes on a responsible leadership role in working with the United States and the international community to advance priorities like economic recovery, confronting climate change, and nonproliferation.

And then there's the immediate test of shared interests and the upholding of international norms: the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs. For these controversial stand-offs, the NSS says

This is not about singling out nations -- it is about the responsibilities of all nations and the success of the nonproliferation regime.

I happen to think they've got this right, on the merits, though for reasons James Traub explains quite well, the US hasn't been able to make the sale. As I say, I don't see an alternative to the notion of mutual interests and responsibilities to uphold a rules-based order, but I do accept that this is a core challenge for US foreign policy. Our success does indeed hinge on convincing others that American preoccupations aren't as self-serving as they look, that many of the causes that the US pushes actually have stakes for broader international stability.

National Security Strategy: What's Different
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

I've now been asked by a number of reporters whether the new Obama National Security Strategy "isn't basically the same as the Bush Administration's."  Let's be clear:  the right pushes this to try to take credit for anything it can; for those of us on the left it's a tempting organizing meme for "we thought we were getting more."  So when I had the chance to ask senior White House folks questions about the strategy, that is what I asked.  Here's the answer -- which I thought was a pretty good one:

- Strategy's emphasis on tending the sources of our strength.

- Strategy's emphasis on promoting our values by living them at home.

- Strategy reduces reliance on military to solve our problems.

- Strategy narrows definition of enemy.

- Strategy of engagement "recognizes the world as it is and focuses on shaping it, not resisting it."

- Strategy embeds war on Al Qaeda in a wider strategic vision.  First sentence of 2006 strategy:  "we are at war."

- Strategy incorporates issues such as climate change whose importance Bush Admin rejected.



Strength through Prosperity
Posted by Patrick Barry

Despite all the attention paid to the terrorism-related elements of the Obama administration’s new grand-strategy document, the portions of it I find most interesting deal with the idea of a strong, dynamic economy as the basis for a sound foreign policy. 

“In the long run, the welfare of the American people will determine America’s strength in the world, particularly at a time when our own economy is inextricably linked to the global economy. Our prosperity serves as a wellspring for our power. It pays for our military, underwrites our diplomacy and development efforts, and serves as a leading source of our influence in the more. Moreover, our trade and investment supports millions of American jobs, forges links among countries, spurs global development, and contributes to a stable and peaceful political and economic environment.”

To me, this is more than just a talking point for White House officials who would prefer to pivot from security to bread and butter issues.  It reflects the historic reality that instances of intense foreign policy activity have generally coincided with periods of sustained economic success and increasing well-being. The era immediately following WWII, which saw dramatic American accomplishments on the world stage, including the founding of the United Nations and NATO and the expansion of the Bretton Woods Institutions, coincided with a period of economic growth and rising prosperity within the United States. At the end of the Cold War American global influence again expanded dramatically, partially because the collapse of the Soviet Union made the U.S. a power without peer, but also because of a vibrant domestic economy with deepening international linkages. 

The need for the U.S. to doggedly adhere to the 'prosperity first' philosophy laid out in the NSS is compounded by the fates of those countries that have done the opposite.  As I pointed out a few weeks ago, things did not turn out so well for countries that pursued military dominance without first attending to their economic security. This is why it's deeply ironic for conservatives to invoke the legacies of WWII and the Cold War to argue for  seeking “peace through strength” when in both those cases, the United States was triumphant in large part because its adversaries pursued a variation of that doomed strategy. Clearly, this is something the Obama administration wants to avoid.

Whether it can is still unknown.  Beyond the intense pressure emmanating from certain circles to maintain a costly, military-centric foreign policy oriented around terrorism, America is still struggling to recover from economic catastrophe. Despite renewed signs of vitality in the stock market, and the fact that the economy has begun to add jobs once more, unemployment remains high and there's a consensus that the recovery is not moving as fast as most would like.  

Looking at the medium to long-term, even greater challenges loom. In the years ahead, the U.S. will have to take meaningful steps aimed at controlling persistent government deficits (fueled by two wars and reluctance to raise revenues); scaling back the U.S.' dependence on borrowing to fuel growth; raising equality so that more Americans can share in the country's prosperity; and more. This is an example of why strategy exercises can be so difficult - its hard for the rhetorical promise to square with the much tougher realities. Its an ambitious agenda.  But I'm satisifed with where the White House has decided to start implementing it.

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