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The promise of national security, with a straight face

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By Michael Gerson
Thursday, June 3, 2010

American troops in Afghanistan spent their Memorial Day securing routes into Kandahar and engaging local tribal leaders in preparation for a major offensive. I spent part of my Memorial Day reading President Obama's recently released National Security Strategy (NSS) -- a document that concedes the importance of the military but emphasizes the security imperatives of "affordable health care" and "redeveloping our infrastructure."

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America, we are told, requires "a broad conception of what constitutes our national security," which happens to coincide with the administration's legislative priorities. Never forget: They also serve who pass health entitlements and distribute highway construction funding.

It is commonplace to assert that there are economic foundations of national power. It is shameless to use a national security document to advance a debatable domestic agenda that shows scant understanding of how economies actually grow stronger. And it is doubly shameless -- naked-on-a-downtown-bus shameless -- for this administration to assert "responsible management of our federal budget" as a national security priority.

In most areas, the 2010 NSS expresses unobjectionable continuity. America frowns on nuclear proliferation. America likes democracy. America will act along with its allies -- except when it needs to act alone. Portions of the document are admirable, especially its emphasis on the promotion of development and global health as instruments of national influence. But it is not surprising that nearly everyone can find something to like in the NSS, since it reads like a State of the Union without space constraints. "The United States is an Arctic nation," we are informed, "with broad and fundamental interests in the Arctic region."

Much that is old in the NSS is obvious. Much that is new is not actually new. The contention that health entitlements, infrastructure construction and education spending are really national security priorities is a repolished version of an argument made for decades on the isolationist left. "How many schools could we build for the price of an aircraft carrier?" has become the claim that domestic spending is the national security equivalent of building an aircraft carrier.

Another emphasis of the 2010 NSS is multilateralism. America must construct "a new international architecture," building "partnerships with new centers of influence," working in "multilateral fora," breaking down "old habits of suspicion," to "synchronize our actions" in "shaping an international order" that will "modernize the infrastructure for international cooperation."

It would be nice, of course, to have a United Nations Security Council that was not hobbled by Russian and Chinese vetoes; a U.N. Human Rights Council that was not an unfunny global joke; a NATO alliance that was not exhausted by minimal exertions; regional security arrangements in Africa and Asia capable of preventing genocide and mass atrocities. Effective, muscular multilateralism spreads burdens and increases legitimacy when action is required.

But how does the NSS propose to achieve such wonders? The administration claims credit for expanding the Group of Eight to the G-20 and paying up America's United Nations dues. In the future, America will "invest in strengthening the international system" and work "from inside international institutions," and build "frameworks to face their imperfections head on and to mobilize transnational cooperation" and "enhance international capacity" and facilitate "broad and effective global cooperation" and develop "integrated plans and approaches that leverage . . . capabilities." This type of writing is a net subtraction from public understanding.

Nearly all of the policy weight of the NSS rests on the project of creating a new international infrastructure to replace the current one, which is "buckling under the weight of new threats" such as nuclear proliferation. But the document provides no actual strategy in this area.

The cover of multilateralism also has been employed by the isolationist left. On issues such as proliferation and genocide, multilateralism can become a way to rationalize inaction. The most reluctant member of a coalition is granted a veto. This approach to multilateralism allows a government to express concern on everything while accepting responsibility for nothing.

The national security doctrine of a president is difficult to implement but often simple to state. Harry Truman would contain threats. Ronald Reagan would roll back threats. George W. Bush would preempt threats. Barack Obama will out-coordinate threats in multilateral fora.

In practice, Obama has been more resolute than this vision would indicate, especially in Afghanistan. And diplomacy often consists of deploying banalities with a straight face. But it is only the strength and bravery of its armed forces that allow America the luxury of such banality.

michaelgerson@washpost.com


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