President Obama has recommitted his administration to the security strategy he outlined five years ago, placing economic strength, international alliances, American values and rule of law on par with military muscle in advancing U.S. interests and protecting the country from harm.
“The question is never whether America should lead, but how we lead,” Obama said in the introduction to the second National Security Strategy of his administration, a 29-page document delivered Friday to Congress.
The strategy document comes as critics have accused the administration of lacking coherent and workable strategies to address a range of security challenges, from Ukraine and the Islamic State to nonproliferation and cyberthreats.
But even as he pledged continued focus on those issues, and called for an end to restrictions on military spending, Obama emphasized the broad strokes of a strategy he said provided “a vision for strengthening and sustaining American leadership in this still young century.”
While indispensable, American leadership “does not mean we can or should attempt to dictate the trajectory of all unfolding events around the world. As powerful as we are and will remain, our resources are not infinite,” he wrote in an introduction to the document.
“And in a complex world, many of the security problems we face do not lend themselves to quick and easy fixes. . . . We have to make hard choices among many competing priorities, and we must always resist the over-reach that comes when we make decisions based on fear.”
National security adviser Susan E. Rice, in remarks on the strategy at the Brookings Institution, acknowledged the tension between crises that require short-term action, such as Syria, and the need to maintain a wider vision.
“All too often, what’s missing here in Washington is a sense of perspective,” Rice said. “Yes, there is a lot going on. Still, while the dangers we face may be more numerous and varied, they are not of the existential nature we confronted during World War II or during the Cold War.”
“We cannot afford to be buffeted by alarmism in a nearly instantaneous news cycle,” she said. What she called a “multidimensional strategy . . . recognizes, in short, that we have to walk and chew gum at the same time. We’ve got to deal with immediate crises and threats, and at the same time have a long view and be prepared to seize opportunities.”
In what Obama calls “an ambitious agenda” for the future, he recommits himself in the remaining two years of his presidency to continued work on energy security, trade agreements with Asia and Europe, and arresting climate change and international poverty. “Not everything will be completed during my presidency,” he writes.
A familiar list of administration achievements in the new document begins with the economic recovery, as well as combat withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, strengthened ties and involvements with Asia, the opening to Cuba and deepening investments in Africa and Latin America.
It also describes recognition of sexual identity rights as a national security issue. “Advancing equality is both morally right and smart strategy,” Rice said. “If we reduce disparities, which can lead to instability and violence, we increase our shared security.”
The document also emphasizes the need for coordination between the White House and Congress, and calls for an end to limits on the defense budget caused by sequestration.
In broader terms, it echoes Obama’s last iteration of his security strategy, issued in 2010, under a law that requires the president to present Congress with an annual strategic statement. Most administrations have only sporadically adhered to the requirement; while Bill Clinton submitted seven during his eight years in office, George W. Bush issued only two.
The 2010 document was issued at a time when al-Qaeda was perceived to be the principal U.S. enemy on the terrorism front. Along with its affiliates in Yemen and Somalia, it had embarked on what the White House called “untraditional attacks” such as the failed Christmas Day airliner bomb attack on a plane approaching Detroit in 2009.
It was released nearly a year before the beginning of the Arab Spring, which gave rise to the militant upheavals across the Middle East and North Africa that are now the focus of U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
It outlined nonproliferation goals that did not anticipate the rising conflict with Russia that has all but stopped plans for joint nuclear weapons reductions. It did not predict Ebola or Edward Snowden and revelations about global surveillance.
At the time, the document represented a clear break with the unilateral military approach advocated by the Bush administration after the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks. Obama posited a far broader definition of national security, including bolstered international institutions and an emphasis on global partnerships, that his administration has largely adhered to despite changing and expanding threats.