Obama's national security strategy: A little George Bush, lots of Bill Clinton

By Samuel R. Berger
Sunday, May 30, 2010

President Obama's national security strategy released by the White House on Thursday, tackles a delicate but unavoidable question: How do we respond to security challenges in an era of financial distress at home and reordering of political power abroad?

For some time now, it has been clear that U.S. national security strategy needs rethinking. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the global economic crisis, cyber-terror threats and even the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico underscore that the challenges America faces in 2010 have changed, even from just a decade ago.

And while U.S. military supremacy is certainly not at risk, new international arrangements -- such as the shift in focus from the G-8 club of powerful nations to the G-20, which incorporates emerging countries such as China and Brazil -- are needed so that the costs and benefits of a stable international order are shared. The United States cannot solve most global threats without help, nor should we bear the burden alone.

Enter the national security strategy. These congressionally mandated documents can easily become laborious and impenetrable, or mere compendiums of bureaucratic pleading from various parts of the government. (Make sure you do right by Japan! Don't step on the Pentagon!) The challenge, which President Bill Clinton impressed upon me and his other advisers, is to provide a strategic framework that clarifies our stance to the rest of the world and informs administration decision-makers up and down the line. It's not a blueprint for action but a means to convey the president's principles and priorities.

In Obama's case, his sober and comprehensive 52-page strategy incorporates the new realities and breaks with past strategies in several key respects. But it also reflects an understanding that we face enduring challenges -- nuclear proliferation, terrorism and regional conflicts -- for which the best response is a return to fundamentals.

One such fundamental is economic strength. At a time when the financial crisis and the fiscal burden of two long wars have raised fears of an overextended America, the administration makes a case for economic and technological renewal as a crucial underpinning of U.S. security. Obama also argued this point in a West Point speech last weekend. "At no time in human history," he said, "has a nation of diminished economic vitality maintained its military and political primacy."

Another fundamental challenge is arms control and nuclear proliferation. By seeking strategic arms cuts with Russia, the president has returned to a long bipartisan tradition that languished during the prior administration. And by convening an international summit on securing nuclear material this spring, Obama has given new urgency and global purchase to the effort started in 1991 when Sens. Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar initiated a program to lock down nuclear materials.

On terrorism, the strategy builds on the past but breaks with it where necessary. Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama each have deployed many of America's tools: military power, homeland defense, law enforcement, sanctions, intelligence and vigorous efforts to cut off terrorist financing. But the critical difference in the Obama strategy is its rejection of the "global war on terror" lens through which the prior administration viewed the challenge. "This is not a global war against a tactic -- terrorism -- or a religion -- Islam," the new strategy says. "We are at war with a specific network, al-Qaeda, and its terrorist affiliates."

This sharper focus avoids alienating many in the Muslim world, ensures the support of key allies who never accepted the broader construct and prevents the overreactions that led us to forsake the fight against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and turn our efforts to the unrelated threat from Saddam Hussein.

In perhaps the most dramatic departure from the strategy of its predecessor, the Obama administration has restored a less provocative policy on the use of military force. In the 2002 national security strategy, Bush articulated the rationale for preemptive war just weeks before seeking a U.N. resolution to invade Iraq. The new strategy endorses the principles that have guided administrations for decades: The use of force should be a last resort, should weigh all the costs and benefits and should have as much international support as possible. The administration reserves the right to act unilaterally -- against al-Qaeda and its allies, for example -- but resurrects the principle that Clinton described as "together when possible, alone when necessary."

Obama's critics have focused on his diplomatic engagement with hostile states such as Iran and North Korea. In the strategy, the president sets forth his rationale: to "create opportunities to resolve differences, strengthen the international community's support for our actions, learn about the intentions and nature of closed regimes, and plainly demonstrate to the publics within those nations that their governments are to blame for their isolation."

In the case of Iran, Washington's outstretched hand has not resulted in compliance. But attempts to engage have helped ensure that the world's attention is focused on Iran's intransigence rather than Washington's refusal to negotiate.

Without a doubt, there are gaps between principle and practice. Despite the administration's goal of doubling exports in the next five years, it has not put its muscle behind trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. And its call to respect human rights has at times been muted in the face of tough realities. Sixteen months into this administration, there has been much progress, but many of the true tests of this strategy lie ahead.

In the strategy's conclusions, the administration invokes an even earlier era, calling for both political parties to restore the cooperation and common purpose so crucial to our success during the dark days of the Cold War. Despite the intense debates at the time over nuclear arms control, Central America and detente, nearly all Americans supported the containment of communism.

In that same spirit, the administration's framework deserves bipartisan support. We can and should argue our differences over the detention of prisoners, methods to disarm dangerous states, how hard to push for democratic rights and the costs of climate-change legislation. But at the same time, we can rally around the overriding foreign policy goals spelled out in the strategy: renewing our economy at home to ensure leadership abroad, defeating al-Qaeda, succeeding in Afghanistan, preventing nuclear proliferation, curbing climate change and promoting an international order of enlightened self-interest, economic prosperity and the fundamental values upon which America is based.

Samuel R. Berger, chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategy firm, served as national security adviser to President Bill Clinton from 1997 to 2001.

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