Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Brookings on May 27 to discuss the Obama administration’s new National Security Strategy. Experts from around the halls of Brookings discuss the new strategy and its implications for nuclear proliferation, terrorism and al Qaeda, the use of military force, development and diplomacy.


In this edition:

Clinton on the NSS: Confronting the New Global Reality
Bruce Jones, Director, Managing Global Insecurity

The Obama administration’s decision to preview its National Security Strategy at West Point highlighted its coverage of security crises from Afghanistan to North Korea. But back-to-back events at Brookings with Hillary Clinton and Samantha Power today showed that the core of the strategy is a deeper argument about the central challenge confronting America—the increased impact on our economy and security of a new global reality.

For two decades, the United States could take economic and security supremacy for granted. Three things have changed.

First, the global economic boom. Yes, boom—remember? Before the crash, there were two decades of uninterrupted growth in the global economy, global trade, and global financial activity. The U.S. profited, but so too did China, India, and Brazil, which grew into major economic players; so did several others, like Mexico, Indonesia and Turkey, which have emerged as the new middle powers.

Second, the Iraq war. Love or loathe U.S. policy in Iraq, it launched us into sustained expenditure of financial and military resources alongside another draining war in Afghanistan. In the minds of the Vulcans, decisive U.S. victory in Iraq was to assert global order by force of—well, force. The strategy backfired, and rising states from Ankara to Brasilia found few if any costs to opposing U.S. strategy in the Middle East—and domestic political points to be won. The Obama administration is feeling the consequences in its Iran policy.

Third, the global financial crisis. The bust, when it came, reaffirmed the centrality of the U.S. in the short term. But it also showcased the growing weight of the emerging economies, which now lead the global recovery. Before Lehman Brothers collapsed, other big players may have disliked our Middle East policy, but they banked—figuratively and literally—on our stewardship of the global financial system. Since then, doubts have crept in, and a new assertiveness to match.

The net result of rising global influence and solidifying regional power for China, India, and Brazil—less room for manouver for the U.S.

The administration will be criticized in predictable terms from predictable quarters for acknowledging any of this, even in tacit terms: for ‘giving ground’ to the emerging powers, for ‘ceding’ American supremacy, for forgetting to carry a big stick while talking softly. But that dog won’t hunt. The Bush administration had begun to adapt to these changed realities towards the end of its tenure, and the Obama administration deserves credit for putting the new global realities front forward in its assessment of U.S. national strategy. The core concepts of revitalizing international order, pressing others to take up their responsibilities, and working within not against multilateral arrangements are the right ones.

The tougher question is, will it work? Skeptics will point to Chinese heel-dragging and Brazilian gallivanting on Iran to say no. Optimists will point to Chinese cooperation on the financial crisis, and everybody’s cooperation on Somali piracy and counter-terrorism, to say yes.

The reality is, we don’t know. There’s a struggle in Beijing between betting on cooperation with the U.S., and those who seek sharper competition. A pro-U.S. strategy in India has the high ground for now, but divisions remain. The better angels in Brazil’s foreign ministry can’t quite hold back Lula’s dalliance with global populism—an October election there may tilt the balance.

But we know this much: if the U.S. doesn’t try, no-one will succeed. None of the emerging powers can underwrite stability, and none that are serious want the job. The emerging powers may not play ball, and if so, we’ll be in a lose-lose global game. But only U.S. strategy can pull us into win-win, and the Administration is right to try. Making this point to the American people won’t be popular; but reality is reality, and denial does not a strategy make.  

A Dilemma in Obama’s New Strategy
Michael E. O’Hanlon, Director of Research and Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy

The Obama administration’s National Security Strategy is a generally sound document. It is realistic in its assessment of most threats and the nature of the world in which we live. It is pragmatic in seeking new tools, institutions, and alliances to address them, while recognizing that the United States needs to reserve the option of acting alone or in small coalitions in extreme situations. It is right to discuss new types of threats such as cyberwar and climate change, to stay very attentive to current extremist regimes, and to watch carefully the evolution of states like China and Russia.

There is, however, one dilemma inherent to the new strategy, and this can be seen most closely in regard to Iran. The United States continues to keep a possible military option “on the table” in dealing with Iran. This is not our preference, of course, but it is seen as a possible last resort—or, at least, a useful diplomatic lever for convincing other countries to strengthen sanctions on Iran (the implication being that sanctions are preferable to military action, so others should swallow their reservations and accept the lesser of two evils).

Ironically, however, were such a military option ever exercised by the Obama administration, it would have uncanny echoes of the Bush administration’s use of force against Saddam. It would be an airstrike, not a ground invasion, but nonetheless the strategic and doctrinal parallels would be striking. Like Mr. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, it would probably not be approved by the UN Security Council, meaning that ultimately it would be unilateralist (even if done with a small coalition). It would probably not be in response to any direct or specific Iranian aggression either. As such, it would be a form of unilateralist preemptive action—the very concept that Obama critiqued so harshly in his presidential campaign, when trying to draw distinctions with the Bush administration.

The world is a complex place, and a National Security Strategy document can be excused for not fully anticipating every possible scenario that an administration might have to face. But possible contradictions are worthy of discussion. The potential paradoxes of Obama policy towards Iran are worth highlighting, as we try to understand what this new document does say—or may not not—say about future policy options in the Gulf.

On Democracy and Human Rights, a Realistic Vision
Ted Piccone, Senior Fellow and Deputy Director, Foreign Policy

After a rocky start, the Obama administration seems to have found a sweet spot on how to integrate longstanding bipartisan concern for supporting democracy and human rights abroad with other pressing national security priorities. With one major caveat, the White House has crafted a compelling vision and a sound strategy for this plank of its National Security Strategy. The document underscores the universal nature of the democratic values of human dignity and rule of law America seeks to spread. It accepts strong evidence that “nations that embrace these values for their citizens are ultimately more successful—and friendly to the United States—than those that do not.” And most importantly, it rightly proclaims that “we promote our values above all by living them at home.” And that’s precisely where the challenge, our national challenge, begins.

First, a word about the needed course correction this administration has taken on the controversial question of democracy promotion. Initially, in a sprint away from the Bush administration’s overreliance on the freedom agenda as a predominant national security priority, the Obama administration appeared to lean too far in the other direction. The notion of engagement with non-democratic regimes to defend other important national interests raised alarm bells among human rights advocates that they were being abandoned on the alter of realpolitik. While this concept is still very much part of the National Security Strategy it is qualified with the term “principled” engagement, meaning that “we will always seek in parallel to expand individual rights” by raising these issues and engaging civil society. When overtures are rebuffed, the United States is prepared to lead the international community through public and private diplomacy. This should, in principle, give some comfort to those who worried it had lost an important ally on this front.

The National Security Strategy has stepped back from the excesses of past approaches in other ways. It declares that “support for democracy must not be about support for specific candidates or movements” and that we will work with legitimately elected governments provided they govern with respect for human rights and international law. It crucially connects support for democracy to U.S. assistance to help new and fragile democracies deliver tangible improvements for their citizens. And, as Secretary Clinton explained in presenting the document at the Brookings Institution today, it highlights the importance of supporting the rights of women and girls as a key to peace and prosperity.

Now the caveat: has this administration demonstrated enough progress on its own record of democracy and human rights to give it the credibility it correctly acknowledges it needs to be an effective standard bearer of universal values? On this score, it remains an open though discouraging question. The strategy reiterates the unequivocal rejection of torture, the need to balance secrecy and transparency, the importance of protecting civil liberties, privacy and oversight, etc. But it waffles on the question of other counterterrorism tools like preventive detention that have undermined our legitimacy as a champion of universal rights. It suggests the need for “new arrangements to confront threats like terrorism” and defends prolonged detention as long as it is “carefully evaluated and justified.” This is potentially a slippery slope that would allow other governments to excuse their own questionable behavior on grounds they are merely following the example of the United States.

In the end, the Obama administration’s democracy and human rights agenda, cast as a defense of universal values and human dignity, including meeting basic needs of billions of people living in poverty, is a big step in the right direction. The test is whether the United States can truly live these values at home.

National Security Strategy and Counter Terrorism
Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Saban Center for Middle East Policy

The Obama administrations’ rollout of its new national security strategy began with the President’s speech last week in West Point. In his speech to the graduating class of cadets, President Obama rightly sought to put the current threat to the United States from al Qaeda and its allies in the global Islamic jihad movement in perspective. The President said al Qaeda is led by “small men on the wrong side of history.” He is right, Usama bin Laden and his gang has no real plan for the future. They do have an elaborate narrative that tries to justify murder but the only role model for a future caliphate they offer is the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Few Afghans and very few Muslims want to emulate Mullah Omar’s medieval hell that banned everything from kites to women’s education.

The President reminded Americans that while the threat of terror today is real and serious, al Qaeda is not an enemy on the scale of Nazi Germany or Stalin’s USSR. And while the war in Afghanistan is a grim and deadly battle, he noted it pales in comparison to the battlefields that Ulysses S. Grant faced in the civil war or Eisenhower in World War II. The international coalition in Afghanistan has lost 1,700 killed in eight years. At Cold Harbor in 1864 Grant lost 1,800 dead in one battle, most on one day.

Perspective is important because it means we should not succumb to the temptations to engage in Islam phobia in response to the very real dangers posed by al Qaeda. We do not need to ban burqas or harass American citizens of Pakistani or Somali descent. We need to reassure our fellow Muslim Americans that we know they are loyal citizens. The President’s top counter terrorist advisor John Brennan in another speech was clear: “we are at war against al Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates” not with terrorism or Islam. The National Security Strategy states this explicitly when it says “we are at war with a specific network, al Qaeda.” In fighting terror we do not need to panic and sacrifice our values.

This message is important today. Brennan referred to a “new phase” in al Qaeda’s tactics, smaller plots than 911 using American citizens recruited to al Qaeda and its allies. In the last year we have faced a rash of such terror plots conducted by a few disgruntled Muslim Americans from Fort Hood to Times Square. Not surprisingly Muslim American communities are fearful of a backlash. A Pakistani American community organization has urged its members to consult a lawyer immediately if questioned by the FBI.

The President and his team rightly are telling us to keep our heads. Good counter terrorism practices are not inconsistent with our civil liberties. We may well see a mass casualty attack in the USA this year, al Qaeda’s goal, but we need to respond with perspective and reason, not fear and torture.