Back in April I gave some initial grades to the Obama Administration’s management of national security issues. Of particular concern to me was the absence of any grand strategy:

National Security Strategy: Incomplete, and my sense is the due date on this assignment is not far off. I suspect that Gen. Jones is laboring mightily on one, but excessive delays may send a message that global security problems are something to be reacted to and not planned for. You can’t shape the world if you don’t have any blueprints from which to work.

Now, the broader policy community is starting to notice and making the same arguments.

When President Obama announced his decision to deploy 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, he presented a clear argument for why he believes U.S. national security is threatened by violence and extremism in that country and in the region.

What was missing from the speech, however, was a sense of how and to what degree continued U.S. involvement in that region fits into the United States’ comprehensive national security agenda. That evaluation is the key to keeping U.S. foreign policy consistent and balanced, and should be based on the president’s national security strategy (NSS).

Almost one year has passed since Mr. Obama’s inauguration, and the White House has yet to issue that seminal document.

A new strategy is not only a practical requirement; it’s a legal obligation. Congress mandates that a new president issue an NSS within five months of taking office, and annually thereafter. Mr. Obama has passed the deadline without delivering, yet several Cabinet agencies are developing key tactical documents, such as the Defense, Homeland Security and State departments’ quadrennial reviews, which should be based on the White House’s overall strategy.

This process is entirely backward. Mr. Obama needs a new NSS to make sure the country, Cabinet agencies and, most important, the men and women in the field have clear and comprehensive guidance on their role within broader U.S. national security efforts.

Personnally, my observations make me wonder whether there’s a vision behind this administration’s policies. I get no sense they are trying to shape the world; it seems like they’re merely trying to shape the processes and are ambivalent about the results. So, I have two questions for the group:

1) Is the National Security Strategy an essential component in the big picture or just a formality, and;

2) From your perspective, does this administration have a coherent grand strategy?

Posted by Chris van Avery in Foreign Policy, Strategy

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

  • Jay

    Answer (and some background) on 1. —

    Some quick “googling” found this: “The legislation requires that a strategy report be submitted to Congress annually,
    on the date the President submits the budget for the following fiscal year. In addition to the regular report for that year, a newly elected President is required to submit a strategy report not less than 150 days after taking office.”

    And this: “In practice, since the Goldwater-Nichols Act, administrations have submitted national security strategies fairly regularly although not always precisely on schedule.
    The Reagan Administration submitted two (1987, 1988); the first Bush Administration submitted three (1990, 1991, and 1993); and the Clinton Administration submitted seven (1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000). The current Bush Administration has twice submitted a document entitled National Security Strategy of the United States of America, in September 2002 and March 2006.”

    My thoughts: “not precisely on schedule?” Understatement of the century. Looks like Pres G.H.W. Bush and Pres Clinton both did a decent job with complying.

    You might think that the “great thoughts/ideas” of a campaign would translate somewhat easily into a NSS — especially since it has to be submitted annually — however — in carrying out that task, it appears that it isn’t an easy or rapid task at all.

    The issue in the DoD is that many documents “flow down from” the NSS, so if an administration chooses to not publish one — problems wrt program guidance arise.

    More thoughts on your question 2 later. Have to shovel some snow now. 🙂

  • SwitchBlade

    This is an example of Congress issuing a requirement for which they have no enforcement capabilities. If there are no consequences for missing the deadline – there is in fact no deadline.

    However, on the broader issue of should there be one – of course there should! If you don’t know where you’re going; you’re not only unlikely to get there, but your likely to go places you don’t necessarily want to be.

    WRT question 2 – I don’t believe the administration has a coherent grand strategy. Or any other kind of strategy. It’s impossible to have a strategy, a plan to influence world events in the favor of the United States when Obama’s fundamental beliefs (as I interpret his speeches on foreign policy) indicate that he essentially believes that many of the problems the United States has are our fault due to our actions in the past. Therefore, to prevent this in the future he doesn’t plan to ACT to influence events – just react.

    His actions to increase troop levels in Afghanistan do not change this opinion since this is a situation he inherited. Everything else he has done has been to pull back from confrontation or to attempt to obligate the US to our own detriment, such as with the climate change conference.

  • Jay

    I did some searching — haven’t found a “grand strategy” — and if there is one, it hasnt’ been articulated very well. Here is State’s Mission statement (there are so many tabs on the site — which shows just how complicated tying them all together would be — if that is even possible): “Advance freedom for the benefit of the American people and the international community by helping to build and sustain a more democratic, secure, and prosperous world composed of well-governed states that respond to the needs of their people, reduce widespread poverty, and act responsibly within the international system.”

  • Tarl

    The NSS is just useless, committee-generated, lowest-common-denominator pablum. If we never did another one, it wouldn’t make the slightest difference to national security.

  • The NSS is just useless, committee-generated, lowest-common-denominator pablum.

    Isn’t this a choice the President makes? Presidents Reagan and GWB took theirs pretty seriously.

  • LAGrant CDR (ret)

    1) You’ve got to have a map. Tarl is probably correct about the publication as others have suggested, but someone in high places needs to establish goals and decide how much it’s worth paying to achieve them.

    2) No.

  • jim

    Obama cares about one thing – passing his health care takeover which he believes will structurally alter the nature of American government – permanently increasing the size and scope of government and pushing America strongly leftward towards a more socialist future.

    His defense policy choices are designed primarily to avoid political heat that would distract from his domestic goals.

    The strategy is to strengthen govt control and increase the % of Americans dependent on govt handouts and assistance. Everything flows from that overarching mission.

  • Jay

    Jim — What nonsense. Back to shoveling…

  • RickWilmes

    Jim is NOT speaking nonsense. As another example,  Dr. John Lewis shows and argues against Obama’s leftist strategy at

    “As the leader of the Democrats—the party that carries an historical reputation for expanding government power, higher taxes, and limitless spending—Obama reasserted and rejuvenated his party’s traditional commitment to the statist course. This commitment permeates his speeches. He regards businessmen not as valuable producers, but as conniving parasites who must be placed under comprehensive government controls, including a “czar” to approve executive pay. He expressed this desire in an angry rant against financial managers who received contracted bonuses.8 Obama regards doctors not as lifesavers, but as predators willing to sacrifice their patients to needless operations in order to get money.9 He regards the police who respond to reports of a burglary as cops who act “stupidly,” before the relevant facts are clear. He regards overseas regimes that have pledged to continue to attack the United States as deserving of apology. Meanwhile, he wants to prosecute American intelligence officers who used “harsh” interrogation techniques against enemies who have killed Americans. Obama and his administration are overtly and publicly committed to an ideologically radical leftist agenda.”

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Jay, in a discussion/debate it is customary to actually refute points made by someone if you disagree. Simply declaring something you don’t agree with to be “nonsense” and stomping away is a little short of that mark.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Hey Jay,

    Maybe you would be taken more seriously defending BHO against charges of being a communist pushing a far-left agenda if we didn’t have this kind of thing happening constantly:

  • James

    Or maybe we can stay on topic. This is about the NSS, not health care.

    I don’t see how anyone can be surprised by Obama’s foreign policy. The Democrats are committed internationalists who believe that global institutions are the heart of global stability. This or that battle might be lost, but the results are rarely catastrophic. The breakdown of America’s alliances would be.

    With that in mind, the Democrats regard Afghanistan as more important than Somalia or Yemen simply because NATO and the UN made a commitment there. It’s not an open-ended commitment, but one that requires the US make a good-faith attempt to carry it out, the more so since the commitment was made at the urging of the US in the first place. This is what underlies the new strategy. I don’t happen to agree with that; I think Afghanistan deserves a sharper analysis made in isolation from geopolitics, but I’m not really surprised at the policy that Obama came around to. Republicans like to go on about America’s “credibility,” but the Democrats have a more clearly defined theory of what that credibility is worth and what they intend to do with it.

    In short, the Democrats believe in consensus in international relations and that sometimes means letting others lead and moderating America’s opinions in favor of gaining broader political support. I don’t think the electorate was deceived on this point. They knew what they were voting for and they got what they wanted.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    The much-discussed “alternative world view” that is a part of the collective security “consensus” approach has never proven successful in the slightest. The impression on the electorate, however, becomes increasingly bad with such incidents as I enumerate, and those of administration appointees espousing the virtues of Communism and Chairman Mao from the podium. So the point is not as off topic as you make it seem.

    The lack of a NSS in such an instance is seen, rightly or wrongly, as a sign of indecision and weakness on the part of the administration in the national security/foreign policy arena. Which bears watching, as this was perceived by the voters, our allies, our enemies, and potential adversaries as the area in which this administration had the most to prove.