The Obama administration sent to Congress last week its second report on national security strategy. These updates are mainly a dry inventory of our aspirations, what’s happening in the world and what the United States can do in response, rather than a true strategy. That was the case for this one as well, but bits of it reveal much about how President Obama views the world. Combined with his recent interview by Fareed Zakaria on CNN, hisState of the Union address last month and his speech last May at West Point, we can glean a good summary of the president’s basic principles for security policy. Unfortunately, that summary is troubling.
Although Obama’s goals are consistent with mainstream U.S. foreign policy since the onset of the Cold War, his dismissive approach to military force represents a clear departure from that consensus. But that’s nothing new. What’s new is that Obama is strongly reaffirming this approach despite 12 months dominated by military threats to global security order — from Russia, the Islamic State, Iran and China. Yet the two-page summary of major global developments in the introduction of the national security strategy (NSS) included only a brief mention of Russia’s threat and nothing on the others. Rather than highlight these new threats, the president consistently repeated four interrelated security themes:
First, those who use military force are destined for the ash heap of history because force is inherently counterproductive. In the Zakaria interview, Obama kept returning to this theme, on the Islamic State (“Ultimately these terrorist organizations will be defeated because they don’t have a vision that appeals to ordinary people”) and Russia (“The days in which conquest of land somehow was a formula for great-nation status is over.”).
Second, if the United States acts militarily, it inevitably runs a serious risk of overcommitment and disaster. The NSS: “Many of the security problems we face do not lend themselves to quick and easy fixes.” The Zakaria interview: “We don’t approach this with a strategy of sending out occupying armies and playing whack-a-mole wherever a terrorist group appears.” The State of the Union: “When the first response to a challenge is to send in our military, then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts.” And the West Point speech: “Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences.”
Third, there is “no military solution” to anything. No statement is reiterated by this administration more frequently whenever a crisis emerges, presented as an immutable law that applies not just to us but also to the tyrants and terrorists. Although it does not appear in the NSS, its spirit is there: In a 12-line section on the Islamic State, the military is cited only in passing. While the administration laudably has deployed ground troops to NATO’s eastern borders in response to the Ukraine crisis, this action is not explicitly mentioned.
Fourth, when required, and absent the most compelling security need, military action should be employed through coalitions and after applying diplomatic, economic and other tools, with legality and legitimacy as the guiding principles. According to the NSS, this means “appreciation for the risk to our mission, our global responsibilities, and the opportunity costs at home and abroad.” These are not unreasonable considerations, as long as the traditional principles of military force — decisive action, clear objectives, unity of command and, above all, a commitment to victory — have priority. But the idea of having the military actually accomplish anything, beyond adhering to “process,” is absent.
These themes are internally consistent. If military action is self-defeating even for our foes, there is no need for a countervailing — and possibly disastrous — military response to aggression, since history will eventually cast aside those aggressors who cannot deliver basic governance. Thus, “no military solution.”
But are they correct? This is the important question — because we are betting international peace and our security on them.
The first theme violates a precept that all diplomats must learn: Don’t project your worldview onto others. Assumptions that military force is self-defeating have tragically been proved wrong time and again the world over.
Equally open to question are the linked themes of “no military solution” and “escalation into a morass.” The United States has used or threatened military force frequently since the 1940s. Only three times did we fail with significant costs: in North Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. Those conflicts demonstrated the folly of regime change and social engineering under fire but not the folly of military action per se. Most U.S. military operations during that time were successful, and completed at low cost, from Berlin to the Cuban embargo, the first Gulf War, Kosovo and Bosnia. Obama’s incessant warnings notwithstanding, the United States has generally been able to achieve its military aims without getting bogged down in costly conflicts.
Finally, “no military solution” is simply empty rhetoric. It’s true that any military action ultimately must adhere to political logic. But military action can reinforce political objectives in multiple ways. Its mere threat has political effects on friends and foes, and the impact of combat operations — inflicting pain, seizing territory, threatening to disarm an opponent — also generates political outcomes. This has been made clear recently with Iran on nuclear proliferation and with the Islamic State in Iraq, but the president glosses over the effective use of U.S. military strength even under his own leadership. In this world, the military does solve problems.
The big news of the moment is not the national security strategy’s laundry list of U.S. security goals but the way the use or threat of force by some pretty potent actors is undercutting a 70-year-old global security system. The president might respond, as he said at West Point, that not every problem is a nail susceptible to solution with a military hammer, and that a strong economy and diplomacy are also important to security.
He’s right, but some problems are indeed nails. Almost certainly the next administration, whoever leads it, won’t miss this point. But it is a long time until 2017.