If Max is with his former boss in being underwhelmed by the 2010 NSS, then I’m with Max. His comparison to Bush’s 2002 NSS is the first one that came to my mind: like it or loathe it, that NSS took the risk of actually saying something clear, bold, and controversial. Of course, Bush paid the price for that, which is why Obama — as every future administration will do — ensured that he fulfilled the legal requirement to produce an NSS in the most boring, committee-driven, toss-a-bone-to-everyone way.
Of course there is, to put it charitably, something a touch eccentric in the idea that we should publish our actual security strategy for enemy consumption. But the fashion is spreading. Britain, heaven help us, now produces an NSS too. And instead of updating it every four years, it is aiming for annual updates, which will turn an increasingly pointless quadrennial marathon into a continuous plod. The really painful thing is that Britain’s 2009 strategy is even more obviously an omnibus than Obama’s: it weighs in at 112 pages, almost double the size of its 2008 edition. A strategy of 60 pages is no strategy. A strategy of 112 is even less of one.
But I will disagree, just slightly, with Max’s take that this is Bush 2006 redux, said more nicely. There is more to it than that. First, this is the third major strategy document the administration has published in recent months: first there was the Quadrennial Defense Review, then the Nuclear Posture Review, and now the NSS. What stands out for me is that none of these documents did what it promised to do on the front cover. The QDR was crafted to justify policies that had already been selected before the review process concluded. The NPR was designed not as a serious assessment of the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy but rather as an essay in nonproliferation by public diplomacy.
And while the NSS may in substance have a lot in common with Bush 2006, it tries very hard to avoid admitting that, which means the strategy is ultimately at war with itself. Perhaps this is what we have to expect when an engagement- and soft-power-minded administration comes up against the realities of the world and the legal requirement to produce strategic reviews, but that does not make the results any more impressive.
Second, in its more forthright areas, the NSS has almost nothing to do with the administration’s actual policies. There is a promise of “seamless coordination among Federal, state, and local governments to prevent, protect against, and respond to threats and natural disasters.” Seamless coordination, meet the Gulf oil spill. There is the inevitable nod toward creating an international system where “nations have incentives to act responsibly, while facing consequences when they do not.” Consequences, meet Iran, Venezuela, Burma, and Sudan. And there is the “if it wasn’t so serious I’d be laughing” claim that “our commitment to deficit reduction will discipline us to make hard choices, and to avoid overreach.” Deficit reduction, meet President Obama.
And third — and to me most troubling — while the NSS lists a great many problems, it is a good deal less adept at explaining why they exist. Al-Qaeda “are not religious leaders, they are killers.” Fine: but Islamism is an ideology, and simply denying that it has any religious content at all achieves nothing. “For decades, the Islamic Republic of Iran has endangered the security of the region and the United States and failed to live up to its international responsibilities.” True: but this is not because its leaders are dense, or have had no opportunities to change their ways. It’s because they have both an ideology and an interest in preserving their regime. In Russia, “We support efforts … to promote the rule of law, accountable government, and universal values.” Great: but that has nothing at all to do with Vladimir Putin’s vision for Russia.
The fundamental problem with the NSS isn’t that it’s warmed-over Bush. It’s that at its core it has an incoherent model of the world, and especially of the state system and the international order built on it. For the NSS, problems exist, but they are not caused by ideologies. They are caused by governments that for some reason will not cooperate, or movements that mysteriously want to kill people, or global forces that for some reason have sprung into being. Indeed, the NSS’s only mention of ideology is to claim that it is an irrelevant, old-fashioned concept that no longer causes wars. This is ridiculous. Ideology — and the regime interests the hostile ideologies define — is what makes engagement a fallacy and the NSS’s vision of a renewed international order a non-starter: if every state really wanted the existing order to work, it would do so.
The NSS’s approach is, in the end, both solipsistic and contradictory: by claiming that everyone has moved beyond ideology, it ignores reality and presents a vision that is actually deeply ideological. And that makes it a pretty fair summary of the Obama administration’s approach to the world.