Friday, May 28, 2010

The 2010 National Security Strategy sucks, and I'm gonna tell you why

The 2010 National Security Strategy was published by the White House yesterday. I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but it sucks.

On the bright side, so has pretty much every other version of the NSS. The fundamental imperative for any strategic document, I think, can be summed up in the guidance my favorite sports-talk station gives to listeners before they call in: "have a take and don't suck." The problem with a document like this is that it's developed by consensus, by innumerable chops back and forth among a bunch of different stakeholders, so just about everyone with a "security" issue gets to wedge in his or her "priority." You end up with something that's comprehensive rather than assertive, and so the NSS is often more remarkable for what it chooses not to focus on than for what it includes. That's not to say that there needs to be some controversial core argument, but rather that the guidance should lay out some clearly-defined vision rather than cobbling together every possible "threat" and "challenge" imaginable in the future security environment.

Now on the other hand, this NSS sucks especially bad. And I'm going to argue that it sucks in ways that are not only disappointing, but actually sort of pernicious. But we'll get to that later. To start off with, let's talk about what's wrong:
1. It's a statement of principles, not a strategy.
It's no coincidence that the writer of the NSS is Ben Rhodes, previously the president's national security speechwriter, now Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications. Stuff like this is normally drafted by speechwriters, so it's not exactly a departure from the norm. But as others have already argued, this "strategy" reads more like a State of the Union than anything that would go by that name in the Pentagon. The document does a fantastic job of laying out just "what America is about," what we value, and how we'd like the world to be if we could draw it up from scratch, but without the connective tissue of prioritization and resource choices, none of that is really what strategy is about.
2. It doesn't know what it wants...
The "Overview" section at the beginning of the NSS tries to tell us what the whole thing is about:
Our national security strategy is, therefore, focused on renewing American leadership so that we can more effectively advance our interests in the 21st century.
"National security" is construed so broadly as to incorporate basically every element of American political, economic, and military strength. "American interests" are defined in such a way that they're nearly unintelligible. Here's what the NSS has to say on page 17:
To achieve the world we seek, the United States must apply our strategic approach in pursuit of four enduring national interests:
  • Security: The security of the United States, its citizens, and U.S. allies and partners.
  • Prosperity: A strong, innovative, and growing U.S. economy in an open international economic system that promotes opportunity and prosperity.
  • Values: Respect for universal values at home and around the world.
  • International Order: An international order advanced by U.S. leadership that promotes peace, security, and opportunity through stronger cooperation to meet global challenges.

But are these really our "enduring national interests"? If so, why? Is a stable international order actually a core national interest, or is it merely a means to ensure security, prosperity and respect for universal values? Is "security" really a desired endstate, or is it simply a means to ensure both liberty and prosperity?

One of the novel areas of focus in this version of the NSS is domestic economic strength.

At the center of our efforts is a commitment to renew our economy, which serves as the wellspring of American power. The American people are now emerging from the most devastating recession that we have faced since the Great Depression. As we continue to act to ensure that our recovery is broad and sustained, we are also laying the foundation for the long term growth of our economy and competitiveness of our citizens. The investments that we have made in recovery are a part of a broader effort that will contribute to our strength: by providing a quality education for our children; enhancing science and innovation; transforming our energy economy to power new jobs and industries; lowering the cost of health care for our people and businesses; and reducing the Federal deficit.

Each of these steps will sustain America's ability to lead in a world where economic power and individual opportunity are more diffuse.

And so there we are: back to the "ability to lead," and to global primacy. So our objective is "leadership," right? And we get leadership by... assuring our security? And enhancing and sustaining our economic prosperity? But wait, aren't those the interests that we're trying to advance through leadership? See how this gets circular? We need to be strong so that we can be secure so that we can lead so that we can advance our interests in being strong and secure and prosperous and... leading? It all ends up as a meaningless tautology.

3. ...And so it wants everything.

Political pressures and limitations mean that the truly important, defining questions that should inform American grand strategy are elided through a sort of assertive question-begging: the Obama administration, knowing that even to engage in a public consideration of whether American global "leadership" is still necessary or desirable -- whether the benefits of unipolarity are worth the costs -- would give rise to the sort of Democrats-as-defeatist criticisms to which they are already so vulnerable, simply ignores the question. The administration assumes, as has every other post-Cold War presidential administration, that the most appropriate remedy to a staggering array of global threats is simply to pursue or retain the power to do everything.

Here are a few of the things the document suggests are "priorities:"

pursuit of a nonproliferation agenda/security weapons of mass destruction; disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al-Qaeda and Associated Movements; succeeding in the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan; denying extremists safe haven in Pakistan; transitioning full responsibility for Iraqi security to that nation's sovereign government; comprehensive peace settlement between Israel and tis neighbors (to include creation of a Palestinian state with contiguous territory); engagement with Muslim communities around the world; rebuilding American economic strength; pursuit of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements; support for individual opportunity and state capacity abroad; promotion of "universal values" (er, but just by example), to include global equality for women; the shaping of a just and stable international order "capable of addressing the problems of our time."

And no joke, all that's just [paraphrased] from the section entitled "Advancing Top National Security Priorities."

The thing about priorities is that if you have a whole bunch, you don't have any. What are these objectives and mission sets prioritized against? What else is the nation interested in accomplishing or effecting that does not constitute a "priority"?

4. Unfortunately, what's missing is any idea of how to get there from here... if we can even figure out where "there" is.

Strategy is fundamentally about prioritization and resourcing. The National Security Strategy is meant to provide the broad, overarching strategic concept for ensuring the nation's security, within which the Defense Department will nest its National Military Strategy and the QDR. While the DoD is obviously responsible for identifying which parts of the NSS require the application of military means, this particular NSS does nothing to suggest which mission sets or objectives are more important than the others. It does nothing to answer questions of how budgets and authorities should be balanced between various departments -- meaning that it's essentially silent on the question of resources, or means -- or how what the military would call the defense, diplomacy, and development Lines of Effort should be blended across the various ways available to us to effect our desired endstates.

When the QDR was published several months ago, you had a great many budget hawks saying things like "how can we write a QDR and plan defense budgets when we don't even know what missions the Defense Department will be asked to perform by the national leadership??!" Most of these folks were just bent out of shape that the SECDEF was going to cancel programs they deemed necessary, holding out hope that the President's NSS would show just exactly how necessary their big industrial pet project was to national defense. (To be fair, though, the QDR really should be about understanding the ways in which the Department is working and must work in the future to execute the National Military Strategy, which of course ought to be nested within the NSS.) Well, let me ask you this: do we have any better idea about that now? Did this publication shed any light on whether the Department is asking itself the right questions, or answering them the right way in the QDR? Is there a single program decision from either the QDR or the budget announcement that makes more or less sense on account of this NSS?

In short, the document completely fails to provide any strategic leadership. It's the same old laundry list of "priorities" and "requirements" that the DoD and the services are criticized for providing when asked about programming and budgets for the future.

Reforming our national security apparatus is a process that must be led from outside and above the departments. It can't be done by DoD, no matter how often Secretary Gates says we need a rebalancing of the instruments of national power, and no matter how many times Admiral Mullen speaks on the Hill to ask that the foreign assistance budget be fully funded. This is exactly the sort of thing that requires Presidential leadership. Because without a strategic vision that's articulated outside the Department, you'll continue to see our foreign and security policies be dominated by defense considerations.

If the White House or the National Security Staff were to really engage in the preparation of strategy, it would go like this:

  1. Identify enduring U.S. interests in a clear and comprehensive way
  2. Determine what strategic endstates would ensure the advancement and protection of those interests
  3. Develop the ways by which those endstates can be realized, how efforts must be channeled and directed, what levers and mechanisms must be manipulated
  4. Create or modify the means the government requires to influence the environment and enable its lines of effort, which is to say figure out what kind of tools you need beyond a hammer, and then figure out how to budget and program for them
That's how strategy's developed: working back from endstates through ways/LOEs to means/tools, and then enacting measures to use the tools you've created along the ways you've identified to achieve the endstates necessary for the advancement of your interests.

AND SO BUT WHY THIS IS ALL SO VERY SCREWED UP:

For one thing, the NSS's abdication of responsibility for true strategic leadership aggravates the tensions in civil-military relations that so many people have been lately bemoaning. With a lack of clear guidance about our true national priorities, the Defense Department is left to the only thing it knows how to do: advocating for the centrality of problems it knows how to solve, slinging that hammer over the shoulder and heading out in search of a nail. In other words, you're going to have generals and senior DoD civilians doing the sort of high-level strategic freelancing you don't want, determining United States foreign policy from the perspective of the U.S. military. (Note: this is not the way this country is meant to run.)

BUT REALLY WHAT SEEMS LIKE ALMOST DEFINITELY THE MOST PERNICIOUS AND DESTRUCTIVE AND JUST REALLY NOT-COOL PART OF ALL THIS:

By writing a National SECURITY Strategy that completely fails to explain to people exactly what is meant by "security," and by pursuing a circular strength-means-leadership-means-security-means strength strategic logic, and by thus determining that essentially every political, cultural, social, and economic aspect of American life helps to define just exactly how "secure" we Americans are, this administration has cannily and basically without objection used rhetoric to establish every single one of its domestic political priorities -- "complete and competitive education for every American; a transformation of the way that we produce and use energy; ... access to quality, affordable health care; ... the responsible management of our federal budget; ... comprehensive immigration reform"; [you forgot "fat kids"!]; etc. -- as germane to national security.

And I'll just leave the interpretation of that part up to you.

14 comments:

  1. "... as others have already argued [at SWJ], this 'strategy' reads more like a State of the Union than anything that would go by that name in the Pentagon."

    I think Zen Pundit gets credit for that observation.

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  2. My bad. Not trying to deny anyone credit.

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  3. No harm done, this is an outstanding dissection! All I read was the transcript of the WH talking points and I thought the NSS reeked of sucking just from those alone. Sorry to hear that it only gets worse when you read the actual document

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  4. "...pursuit of a nonproliferation agenda/security weapons of mass destruction; disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al-Qaeda and Associated Movements; succeeding in the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan; denying extremists safe haven in Pakistan; transitioning full responsibility for Iraqi security to that nation's sovereign government; comprehensive peace settlement between Israel and tis neighbors (to include creation of a Palestinian state with contiguous territory); engagement with Muslim communities around the world; rebuilding American economic strength; pursuit of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements; support for individual opportunity and state capacity abroad; promotion of "universal values" (er, but just by example), to include global equality for women; the shaping of a just and stable international order "capable of addressing the problems of our time."

    That list of priorities sounds like a Patrick Bateman quote.

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  5. It should have been a three page document - cover, one page that says in giant Helvetica "WHAT ROBERT GATES SAYS." and a back cover.

    But, to be fair, has any NSS ever been, y'know, useful?

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  6. But, to be fair, has any NSS ever been, y'know, useful?

    But that's what's so annoying! There are a lot of important questions to be answered about our interests and priorities, about our future security outlook, about how we view our place in the world, about our grand strategy. What better place to address these things than here?

    What better place than here to tell the departments how burdens will be shared, who will have responsibility for what sort of actions, how the national security apparatus must be reformed to address challenges and advance our interests? What the president needs and wants from his secretaries of State and Defense? What role the National Security Staff has in the process?

    Do we need blue-ribbon panels and non-governmental reviews and bottom-up reviews and advocacy from the departments and services? Shouldn't there be some top-down direction from the White House, the national EXECUTIVE?

    WHY DON'T we use this opportunity better than we have? Honestly, it took a year and a half in office to come up with THIS?

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  7. Damn right. Ditto Shlok's first sentence.

    Gates 3:16

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  8. But what about the fat kids?

    SNLII

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  9. Fat kids? Go be fat someplace else.

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  10. Unfortunately, fat kids are a major geo-strategic problem. It takes a fat village to raise a fat kid and blah blah blah.

    National security issue blah blah blah.

    SNLII

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  11. Minor note, an esteemed colleague of mine noted that the NSS is not a "grand strategy," that would be the national strategy document. The NSS is just about the security aspects of the national strategy (not to be self-evident). But I have to echo zenpundit, excellent analysis, and yeah, did this really require a year and a half to release? Drivel.

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  12. Minor note, an esteemed colleague of mine noted that the NSS is not a "grand strategy," that would be the national strategy document. The NSS is just about the security aspects of the national strategy (not to be self-evident).

    This is true on its face, but it highlights one of the major problems with this document: the "security" aspects of basically everything that public policy touches are included, and so it's nearly impossible to draw any distinction between "grand strategy" and "security strategy." This is underlined when you take a look at what's identified as constituting "American interests": is "prosperity" a security interest, or a grand strategic one?

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  13. I understand your point. The administration doesn't know what it wants its NSS to be. Concur.

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  14. Finally read it and I agree with you.

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