Where is that National Security Strategy Report, Mr. President?

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nss06.jpgOne of General Anthony Zinni’s more tough criticisms of the Obama administration this past year was that it had not placed a high enough priority on issuing its “National Security Strategy” report.
The National Security Act requires the President to issue such a report within 150 days of the start of his or her administration.
Nothing yet.
But Duke University political science professor and Senior Adviser to the Director of Policy Planning at the State Department Bruce Jentleson is one of the people actively working on the project.
Jentleson is one of a few thousand folks now at the International Studies Association meeting taking place in New Orleans right now — and I hear from a number of other friends here that he is speaking with folks about the effort. That’s good news, and Jentleson is someone who has given quality thought to the challenge of shaping national security priorities during a time of significant flux.
But the administration really needs to get this out. In fact, strategy and an organizing framework for a government’s national security course really ought to precede the major, defining decisions that commit resources and personnel to foreign policy challenges.
But in this case, it appears that President Obama has been focused on responding to crises at the moment and choosing a course that is disconnected from a compelling strategic course.
It’s better to get a comprehensive, well thought out strategic plan done — rather than rushing it out.
But one wonders how many more major decisions President Obama will make in the foreign policy and national security arena without the discipline of the legally required National Security Strategy report.
— Steve Clemons

Comments

26 comments on “Where is that National Security Strategy Report, Mr. President?

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    Reply

  2. Jim says:

    How long did it take President Bush to issue NSS 2006? Maybe we need to be realistic on setting a timeline or maybe the report is too comprehensive.

    Reply

  3. Don Bacon says:

    Expecting Obama to have a strategy is like expecting a building built on sand to stay upright. He’s an opportunist to the core without core principles, and has admitted as much.

    Reply

  4. DavidT says:

    Thanks to Paul who I think put together a good summaryof
    the different perspectives and Sweetness for putting the tasks
    confronted by our president in perspective. I would like Ibama
    to act strategically and think he did and did so deftly for the
    most part while not nailing down the Kennedy seat which is
    frustrating and a bit hard to understand. He decided that
    health care reform was a priority above all others. Some of
    the specifics were not to everyone’s liking but passage of this
    plan would have marked his first year as a triumph. There are
    lots of things one can extrapolate from no longer having the
    necessary super-majority. Steve maintains and has gotten
    lots of press from proclaiming that the White House staff is
    keeping the president out of touch though doesn’t provide
    much evidence for this contention. That the president may be
    an empty suit is to me no more credible than the existence of
    Bigfoot. One may not like the choices he’s made but it would
    be nice to hear some genuine evidence that someone else is
    making choices for him. Given what he’s done no more
    makes him a neoconservative than Steve’s praise of David
    Frum suggests that he’s a neoconservative. I think any
    government should be open to criticism. What frustrates me
    is that I feel those who should know better are unwilling to
    grapple with the tradeoffs residents have tomake to achieve
    their goals. The president’s foreign policy strategy, which
    Steve is mostly loath to acknowledge is to reestablish some
    American moral authority in the world so we can stop feeding
    the anger of many potential al Qaeda recruits, building some
    trust in others so that for example a potential
    threat can be denounced in the American
    embassy without fear that that person will be tortured, and
    that it’s much harder for foreign governments to
    hide behind excuses like that it’s all the the U.S.’s fault that
    their people’s situation doesn’t look promising.
    This strategy will not pay off in the short term for those
    looking for explicit “accomplishments.”. You don’t build trust
    through specific checklists and destination targets. But
    without building such trust you’ll be permanently
    facing the hostile me vs. them worldview that now is on
    exhibit in the U.S. Congress.

    Reply

  5. questions says:

    Just as an afterthought….
    I wonder if having a “grand strategy” makes us feel we’re getting things done, even when we’re not. Sort of an absurdity of checking off tasks on a list as a substitute for being alive and involved in one’s activities.
    As long as, say, containment is our strategy, we stop wondering what we’re containing and why, what containment is a substitute for, what we lose in the process of doing all that containing.
    Note also, that if part of our strategy is, say, no negotiations with terrorists, and then we end up in a situation where negotiation actually seems sensible, well, then the document that lays out the strategy has done a disservice. Having a document can bind more than we should be bound, can force escalation when the opposite is a better thing.
    It’s a thought, at any rate.

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  6. Alan K says:

    I agree that he gets an ‘incomplete’ with respect to publishing a strategy. But more important, what has he accomplished internationally? It seems to me if I were his boss doing a performance review, I would have a hard time listing his 2009 accomplishments.

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  7. Alan K says:

    I agree that he gets an ‘incomplete’ with respect to publishing a strategy. But more important, what has he accomplished internationally? It seems to me if I were his boss doing a performance review, I would have a hard time listing his 2009 accomplishments.

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  8. questions says:

    I’m pretty sure I’ve posted about this before, but here goes again, for emphasis.
    Having a “strategy” is a strange thing in a world of independent actors. One can strategize all one wants, but it’s not like one can force others to behave as one would wish.
    The main strategic-like thing is probably to maintain enough of something like a reputation of strength that attacks by state-level actors are deterred. Ain’t nothing gonna stop a suicidal maniac from blowing up a building in New York, or in Austin, or from blowing up a plane in Detroit. Suicidal terror is its own thing. And there is no real strategy for dealing with this. Even Machiavelli, Mr. Strategy himself, had this one figured out several hundred years ago. for suicidal terror, a wing and a prayer and that’s about it.
    The problem seems to me that we structure our narratives in fairly useless ways so that we think we have “contained” the “enemy” or “stopped” them or whatever. We think we have identified actors and rationales when we haven’t. We think we can plan, figure, define, assume…all the stuff that goes into a grand strategy, when really we are always winging it, always banking on some kind of world trend or feeling in the air about how other people behave.
    (Note that the grand strategy of the Cold War seems to be a huge source of the problems we have now. We kept our eye on that ball and in the process, we neglected the horrific tyrants we were supporting.)
    The way we tell stories — that, say, there are rational actors who make plans based on a unified set of concerns and who, as they pursue those goals, act in utility-maximizing ways is a story. It leaves out much of what guides nations.
    The idea that ideology guides nations is just as incomplete, and so I’d toss out all that “clash of civilizations” stuff as well. The US doesn’t merely adopt plans and practices because they are inimical to non-US actors. We don’t “love our freedom” because others “hate our freedom” and others don’t “hate our freedom” because we “love our freedom.”
    Clashes of civilizations or simple power politics are simple narratives designed to communicate simple things to simple people. Plato, the master story teller, does this kind of thing repeatedly — he tells simple stories to simple people, slightly more complicated stories to slightly more complicated people, and he leaves the most abstract stuff to the few, the proud, the philosophers. (Remember that Plato was taken up by conservatives for this kind of structure. To the best of my knowledge, they actually seem to have believed that they were on the inside of some Platonic code or were privileged philosophers in Plato’s sense of the term.)
    Just as I have posted here repeatedly about the US Congress and the complicated factors that go into any single policy decision, so have I noted that IR issues have their own set of wild, chaotic, and difficult to predict complications. Internal politics, misperception, rhetoric, resources, geography, national myths, future discount, fear of loss that outweighs joy of gain, CYA behavior, misinformation, re-election concerns…all of this plays into how any one nation behaves in the presence of any other nation. The chances of predicting well, controlling one’s destiny, having a GRAND STRATEGY that is actually descriptive and helpful — in my estimate, null. For Machiavelli, maybe 50% of the time it works — if you are a man of virtu.
    So the Obama bash-fest, the emphasis on how he didn’t seize the reigns of history and run the horse his direction, how he’s really a neo-con or really a mush pile or really an empty suit or really anything else — well they really don’t hold up once you adopt a more complex view of history, events, and the possibility of controlling much of anything at all.
    IR gives us limited tools — trade, aid, invade, bomb, ignore, isolate, sanction, kill, colonize, talk, negotiate, give in, withdraw into ourselves, sign treaties, threaten, cozy up to power, and a few others. None of these combines potency, workability, humaneness, and the thriving of the nation with any level of absolute certainty. Once we pick a strategy to follow, adversarial nations can pick other strategies to counter ours. Probably better not to pick. And, again, our picking some course of action really doesn’t guarantee that some other country will do just what we want them to do. So any strategizing at all is going to be iffy.
    We bomb them, they run suicide missions. We ignore them, they mess around with allies we might need. We sign treaties, they ignore as they see fit…. We cannot guarantee any course of action will result in the fulfillment of our desires.
    If I were to suggest anything positive in the light of my sense of the impossibility of strategizing, the incoherence of realism, the foolishness of the neocon war/clash of civilizations (in which ideology takes over the same real estate as “rationality” and so becomes realism all over again), I would recommend having the IR people talk to the comparative people and the area studies people and recent historians and experts in the legislative structures of the countries involved…and I would suggest that they all try to come to understand domestic pressures, individual pressures (personality issues), electoral pressures…all the the things I’ve noted are important in the study of Congress in the US. After all, you can’t get a handle on US policy just by knowing something about Obama. Or just by knowing something about Exxon/Mobile or whatever.
    Forget grand strategy and think complexity, specificity, internal pressures, institutional structures, and so on. Complexify the narrative, don’t simplify the narrative.

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  9. WigWag says:

    “So who is right here? Obama, who sees himself as a pragmatist? Steve Clemons, who claims that Obama lacks a well thought out strategy? Or WigWag, who says that Obama has converted to the neocon hardline camp, and continues a deliberate strategy that was formulated in the dining room of Kristol & Co, clumsily implemented by George W., and continued in a more quiet, intelligent and deliberate manner by Barack Obama?” (Paul Norheim)
    I think WigWag is right.

    Reply

  10. Don Bacon says:

    Working without a published National Security Strategy is tough? How tough is it, and why?
    Any such strategy document that comes from the Executive Branch is unconstitutional on its face since foreign policy (as domestic policy) ought, in a democracy, to be the purview of the people, acting through their representatives.
    But since the executors of USA foreign policy are allowed to also determine that policy, it doesn’t matter much what they write, does it. With the unconstitutional freedom given them they will simply do whatever they want to do, while the bobbing dolls in Congress offer their huzzahs.
    The US Congress has ceded its constitutional war powers to the President with the War Powers Act, has continually authorized military spending at a rate of two billion dollars per day and has been idle while the US conducts its military forays in whatever country interests the President, while rendition, torture and indefinite imprisonment without due process is accepted.
    There’s your National Security Strategy. They just don’t write it out for us.

    Reply

  11. DonS says:

    Paul,It really doesn’t matter who is ‘right’ in naming Obama’s behavior. Steve calls himself a realist. Wigwag apparently has some need to call Obama a neocon.
    What is significant is that Obama is governing in foreign affairs, with Iran being the most currently active example, in an increasingly confrontational manner. It would be hard to distinguish his rhetoric and actions from candidate Clinton. She’s running her portfolio, aggressive, confrontational, neo liberal, not what Obama led us to expect.
    I’m really not interested in parsing the nuances. The Obama behavior has continued to position the US as a unilateralist, exceptionalist nation — with an occasional throwaway line by Obama about the different world he is aspiring to.
    Here’s a brief review of Obama’s continuation of Bush disdain for the UN, as another example:
    http://seminal.firedoglake.com/diary/30516
    I’m pretty much finished with it; Obama has to show me some change. I have zero trust in his words or actions. I can see why neocons could be happy though, of course, they have the continued problem of painting him as a liberal, left wing demon. What a joke, all of them.
    [ps – I posted this in the incorrect thread above, also. Sorry]

    Reply

  12. Sweetness says:

    Paul, I say that Obama was confronted with more crises and large
    unsolvable problems than any president in living memory. The fact
    that things haven’t gone completely haywire is testimony to this
    man’s intelligence and desire to the do the right thing. As to all
    the rest…the jury is still way out.

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  13. Paul Norheim says:

    As a Norwegian, I assume that I should be polite and just shut
    up, not getting involved in discussions about a lacking US
    National Security Strategy Report. But what the hell! US National
    Security Strategies are or should be everybody’s business on our
    tiny and fragile planet, so here we go!
    Of course Steve is not shouting hysterically about this because
    he is wonkish and obsessively pedantic – concerned about the
    150 days deadline per se. He is obviously worried about what in
    his view seems to be a dangerous US ad hoc response to foreign
    policy challenges and developments.
    WigWag sees this very differently (see his first and second
    comment in the Clemons/Frum thread below), and argues that
    recent developments in the Obama administration demonstrate
    that the neocon policies of George W. Bush are continued
    during Obama on a whole range of issues, and that former
    realists in the Republican Party (among them Steve Clemons),
    have been marginalized.
    In other words: Obama said nope to his inner Nixon, and yes to
    his inner Kristol.
    WigWag’s examples may or may not convince TWN readers and
    commenters: more troops in Afghanistan, a confrontational
    approach to Iran, giving up the settlement freeze demands in
    the I/P conflict, delaying decisions on Guantanamo, rejecting
    the Goldstone report, more hardline responses to China, etc.
    According to regular commenter WigWag, the unexperienced,
    caffe latte drinking empty suit has become a deliberate and
    thoughtful hawk, but nonetheless a hawk.
    I would like to see Steve respond to this claim.
    On the other hand, WigWag’s interpretation of the currently
    hottest issue, Iran – that Obama has painted himself into a
    corner – may show that Steve is right – that there is actually a
    lack of a broader strategy, and that in contrast to Bush re Iraq,
    Obama didn’t deliberately paint himself into a corner.
    The same goes for China. According to WigWag: neocon
    strategy; according to Steve Clemons: too soft in the beginning,
    and too hawkish when he tried to change his approach due to
    ad hoc considerations.
    Clemons and WitWag agree that Obama lacked a Plan B with
    regards to his “amateurish” demands in the I/P conflict. But they
    split after that: Clemons seems to say that Obama has no
    strategy after the failed attempt to freeze settlements, while
    WigWag claims that Obama turned to the right and ended in the
    neocon camp, like in all other important foreign affairs.
    Here a WigWag quote on another thread: “President Obama has
    one political instinct similar to George W. Bush; whenever he’s
    in political trouble, he lurches to the right.”
    And Obama himself? He would probably just say: “I am a
    pragmatist, not an ideologue.”
    So who is right here?
    Obama, who sees himself as a pragmatist?
    Steve Clemons, who claims that Obama lacks a well thought out
    strategy?
    Or WigWag, who says that Obama has converted to the neocon
    hardline camp, and continues a deliberate strategy that was
    formulated in the dining room of Kristol & Co, clumsily
    implemented by George W., and continued in a more quiet,
    intelligent and deliberate manner by Barack Obama?
    Or those who say that Obama still is nothing more than an
    empty suit, manipulated by powerful institutions, corporations,
    lobbies, and foreign powers?

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  14. anirprof says:

    More seriously, NO administration has ever met the 150 day deadline. Usually it has been around a year after taking office, and in 2002 it was 18 months since after 9/11 they had to redo it from scratch. Obama seems to be running a little slower than average, but no worse than that.
    As for how important the document is, it has been growing in importance. The first few (the requirement started in 1988) were pretty short and bland and didn’t receive a lot of use by their admins after publishing. There’s been a steady growth in their perceived importance and the degree to which other agencies try to align their activities and justify their spending in terms of whats in the NSS. In that sense, working without one is tough.
    On the other hand, it’s not likely to be all that surprising. An NSC person told me last fall that she doubted there’d be anything surprising in their eventual NSS if you’ve read Gates’ 2008 Foreign Affairs article and Clinton’s 2009 CFR speech. That staffer, and some others I’ve heard bits from, say that there’s a pretty broad agreement among Defense, State, and WH principals on grand strategy, certainly less division on basic worldviews than between the neocon camp and realist camp in Bush 41. Not that there aren’t big fights on specific issues, though.
    On the ivory tower point, there’s some of that, but mostly that was tounge-in-cheek; most academics will be more interested in the document than whether it was a Duke or Columbia prof who oversaw it.
    On that inside baseball stuff though, it does reflect the huge growth in Duke’s international relations / national security program — 20 years ago they were hardly on the map but are clearly a top place now, and unlike many programs they are plugged in to both Dem and GOP circles. I think overall Princeton was the biggest winner under Obama, though.

    Reply

  15. Carroll says:

    Posted by anirprof, Feb 18 2010, 11:23PM
    >>>>>>>>>>>>
    I would like to think it’s because Duke isn’t stuffed with neos.

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  16. Dan Kervick says:

    “Duke gets it *again*?!? First Feaver writes the 2006 NSS, and now Bruce is leading 2010? He’s a good guy but jeez, how’d they score two NSS leads in a row? I can think of several more deserving departments, not least, er, mine….”
    Is any more proof needed that this whole business of the NSS is largely an exercise in ivory tower masturbation for the foreign policy priesthood?

    Reply

  17. anirprof says:

    Duke gets it *again*?!? First Feaver writes the 2006 NSS, and now Bruce is leading 2010? He’s a good guy but jeez, how’d they score two NSS leads in a row? I can think of several more deserving departments, not least, er, mine….

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  18. JohnH says:

    BETTER QUESTIONS:
    – How many wars will President Obama start without seeking Congressional approval?
    – How long will Congress permit DOD to go without passing an audit?
    Those questions are a tad more important the getting a National Security Strategy done. Why aren’t those questions being asked?

    Reply

  19. WigWag says:

    “The National Security Act requires the President to issue such a report within 150 days of the start of his or her administration. What are the consequences if any should the President fail to meet the requirement? Does anyone know?” (Alan K)
    Yes, according to The National Security Act of 1947 (Pub. L. No. 235, 80 Cong., 61 Stat. 496, 50 U.S.C. ch.15)any duly elected President of the United States who fails to publish such report in the Federal Register within 150 days of his/her inauguration shall be sentenced to not more than one year in the Federal detention facility located in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
    The Act goes on to stipulate that Private Lynndie England born in Ashland, Kentucky and formerly of the 372 Military Police Company shall serve as warden for the duration of the President’s confinement in said facility.

    Reply

  20. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Whats the problem?
    Now that we can openly assasinate whomever we please, wherever we please…..
    Well, its a “strategy”, ain’t it???

    Reply

  21. Dan Kervick says:

    “What are the consequences if any should the President fail to meet the requirement?”
    He gets a “term paper incomplete” comment on his mid-semester progress report.

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  22. Alan K says:

    “The National Security Act requires the President to issue such a report within 150 days of the start of his or her administration.”
    What are the consequences if any should the President fail to meet the requirement?
    Does anyone know?

    Reply

  23. Carroll says:

    “But one wonders how many more major decisions President Obama will make in the foreign policy and national security arena without the discipline of the legally required National Security Strategy report.”
    You must think Obama is in charge of something. Listen, his job ended when he got elected.
    Now it’s up to his Shadow Elites, same Elites as always, to make policy.

    Reply

  24. Don Bacon says:

    The US Security State needs its paperwork to justify all the military expenditures. The required documents include: The National Security Strategy, The National Defense Strategy, The Quadrennial Defense Review (due this year), the annual defense budget, and probably others. Except for the budget, they don’t amount to a hill of beans.

    Reply

  25. Dan Kervick says:

    I don’t know if the delayed delivery of the report is by design or not. But a few relevant things to consider:
    The Bush National Security Strategy report came out in September 0f 2002, eighteen months into the administration.
    When it did come out, it was a lighting rod for political criticism. I know: I remember endless discussions of NSS report on the lefty blogs. Once the Obama plan comes out, there will be a lot of debate about it – a good thing for the public. But the debate might not be politically useful to the administration, since it will require them to make clear declarations on subjects about which they might find it more politically convenient to remain publicly ambivalent.
    It sounds great to say you should have a clear strategic plan in place before you move ahead with operations and policies. But I suspect that, in practice, most presidents and leaders would prefer just to do a number of real world things first, with the freedom to deliberate about the big questions and improvise as they learn over their initial months what the world looks like from the President’s desk chair, and without being bound by an overly prescriptive, theoretical and publicly articulated doctrine.
    The fact that the administration’s foreign policy strategy has has not written up, edited, printed, bound between covers and distributed to the whole reading world for their perusal and delectation does not mean that their is no foreign policy strategy. There is something to be said for the strategy of “keep ’em guessing.”

    Reply

  26. DavidT says:

    Steve,
    What’s so important about this document? Can you give us some background? Was it the foundation for any previous president’s foreign policy? If yes, which ones? If no why are you making a big deal about it? Also, why do you not
    express criticism of the two most prominent foreign policy decisionmakers in this administration, secretary of State Clinton and Vice President Biden? Do you feel that they
    simply have been unable to persuade the president of the misdirection they’ve taken or are you averse to mentioning certain key actors when you like them (if Rahm Emanuel were Secretary of State I suspect we would hear vastly more
    criticisms in The Washington Note of the State Department’s head than we do now 🙂 ).
    Accidentally posted this to the previous posting (and yes, indeed, it is quite nice in Berkeley today).

    Reply

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