June 3, 2010 | Scripps Howard News Service
Is it possible to defeat an enemy we don't understand? That is only one of the questions that ought to occur to anyone reading President Obama's new National Security Strategy (NSS). Administration officials and loyalists have been trying to put the best possible face on the congressionally mandated 52-page document. But anyone who glances at so much as a page will see that is rife with platitudes, wishful thinking and self-delusion. It requires a bit more effort to see how unserious and self-contradictory it is. But let me give that a go.
Start with this: Who do you think is to blame for the most deadly terrorist attack ever on American soil? According to the NSS, the answer is “globalization,” the current buzzword for integrated economies, networked transnational communications and the outrage of selling McDonalds hamburgers to Parisians. The NSS states: “The dark side of this globalized world came to the forefront for the American people on September 11, 2001.” Is it possible that policymakers in the White House sincerely believe that's what happened?
The NSS asserts: “To succeed, we must face the world as it is.” It then immediately goes on to claim: “Wars over ideology have given way to wars over religious, ethnic, and tribal identity.”
Are we to believe that al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Khomeinists, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood are without ideologies? And if the fight is over “religious, ethnic and tribal identity,” which religious, ethnic and tribal identity might that be? Presbyterianism, perhaps?
The NSS insists: “We are at war with a specific network, al-Qa'ida, and its terrorist affiliates who support efforts to attack the United States, our allies, and partners.” But what do members of the al-Qa'ida/al-Qaeda network believe? What are their goals? Who are their affiliates? And, since this is a strategy document, what strategy will be used to defeat them? The authors of the NSS steer clear of such questions. They think they have said all that needs to be said by labeling self-declared enemies of the West “violent extremists.”
The NSS rejects “the notion that al-Qa'ida represents any religious author ity. They are not religious leaders, they are killers; and neither Islam nor any other religion condones the slaughter of innocents.” Osama bin Laden probably would agree with that last premise. He'd add, however, that Americans, Israelis and other infidels are, by definition, not innocents.
The document recognizes that it imperative to defeat al-Qaeda, adding that the “frontline of this fight is Afghanistan and Pakistan.” That ignores the fact that the country in which American troops have killed more al-Qaeda combatants than anywhere else is Iraq. Though al-Qaeda in Iraq has been decimated, it has not yet been eliminated. In particular, its cells in and around Mosul have been responsible for most of the recent suicide bombings in Iraq. Would it not be useful for U.S. forces to finish them off before shipping out? And, conceptually, does it make sense to continue to assert, as the NSS does, that the U.S. is “fighting two wars,” one in Iraq, one in Afghanistan, rather than a single war with frontlines in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia as well as Times Square, Fort Hood, and Northwest Flight 253?
To strategize is to prioritize and to bet on a correlation between actions to be taken and outcomes to be expected. This NSS makes no attempt to do either. Promising to “deter aggression and prevent the proliferation of the world's most dangerous weapons” is one thing; formulating a strategy for achieving those goals is another.
Nor does the NSS demonstrate strategic thinking when it states that U.S will pursue its “interests within multilateral forums like the United Nations-not outside of them.” The fact is the U.N. General Assembly is now largely under the control of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, while Russia and China routinely use their veto power to thwart U.S. interests in the U.N. Security Council. If there's a strategy to change that, it's not in the NSS.
I suppose the White House advisers who produced this document would say that the roadmap for getting from where we are to where we want to be can be found in the “commitment to renew our economy, which serves as the wellspring of American power.” But if that were the case, would the administration be increasing the U.S. debt by trillions of dollars – more than the total debt accumulated since 1776? Does anyone seriously believe that Obama's health care plan is about economic power rather than its proponents' conception of fairness? Surely, no one can argue that “cap-and-trade” and similar measures intended to combat “global warming” will speed rather than slow economic growth.
Since coming to office a year and a half ago, President Obama has attempted to “engage” Iran. Oblivious to the outcome of that experiment, the NSS pledges to “pursue engagement with hostile nations to test their intentions, give their governments the opportunity to change course, reach out to their people, and mobilize international coalitions.”
Actually, Iran has mobilized an international coalition, one that includes Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Brazil and Turkey – all of which have shown themselves eager to undercut the United States. Our strategy to turn this around? Who knows? Certainly not the authors of the NSS who say: “Nations must have incentives to behave responsibly, or be isolated when they do not. … Credible and effective alternatives to military action-from sanctions to isolation-must be strong enough to change behavior…” Agreed. So when will there be a serious effort to isolate Iran? Why isn't Obama at least asking Congress to give him tough sanctions legislation as quickly as possible?
Commendably, the NSS does recognize that “the United States must now be prepared for asymmetric threats, such as those that target our reliance on space…” But the best way to prevent missiles from moving through space to reach their targets would be to deploy a space-based missile defense system – a project the Obama administration rejects.
Perhaps what is most troubling about the NSS is what it omits. The seminal role played by Iran since its 1979 revolution is never mentioned, much less explored. Such words as “Islamism,” “Jihadism,” “radical Islam,” and “Salafism” are never uttered.
Instead, we are warned that the “danger from climate change is real, urgent, and severe” even as it has become apparent that the science supporting those assertions is shaky — and leaving aside whether “climate change” is a national security issue. There are frequent evocations of “our most cherished values” with no attempt to say what those values are or what to do when they conflict. Such traditional values as freedom, democracy and human rights get short shrift.
“Renewing American leadership,” we are instructed, will require “calling upon what is best about America-our innovation and capacity; our openness and moral imagination.” Moral imagination? What does that even mean?
And, of course, there is this: “To deny violent extremists one of their most potent recruitment tools, we will close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.” Remind me: How is that strategy progressing?
Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism.
Read the Spanish translation here.