White House to unveil ‘grand strategy’ on national security

John Brennan has a tough rhetorical job ahead of him Wednesday morning. Speaking to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Brennan, President Obama’s most influential terrorism and intelligence adviser, will attempt to reconcile the harder edges of Obama’s escalation in Afghanistan and his enthusiastic embrace of drone-enabled assassinations of terrorists with the broader approach to grand strategy that the White House will finally unveil this week. Some wonder if that reconciliation is even possible.

Assistant to the President for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security John Brennan (EPA/ZUMApress.com)

That grand strategy, previewed by Obama in his Saturday speech to West Point Army cadets, presents the world with a U.S. eager to uphold and sustain the rules of the international order, rejecting the Bush administration’s asserted right to take preventive military action against hostile foreign states. The U.S.’s leadership role within that global system, Obama contended, is to direct “the currents of cooperation… in the direction of liberty and justice,” for positive-sum international action on global concerns like economic security, climate change, nuclear disarmament, pandemic disease and weak or failing states. Those efforts and that approach will be the centerpiece of his forthcoming National Security Strategy, a defining document of U.S. grand strategy that the administration has labored for months to complete.

The National Security Strategy will be formally unveiled on Thursday. And Brennan won’t be the only senior official previewing it and amplifying its themes. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, just back from a wide-ranging trip to China, will present it to the Brookings Institution. Vice President Biden will do the same on Friday, to the graduating class of Navy midshipmen at Annapolis. Jim Jones, Obama’s national security adviser, has said that the “defining feature of our foreign policy” is that the U.S. is “willing to commit to a new era of engagement based on mutual interests and mutual respect.” He’s finalizing the details of his own National Security Strategy-related speech.

Most of the administration’s foreign agenda fits within that framework. “Resetting” relations with Russia. Using the G-20 as its preferred venue for global economic dialogue as opposed to the more-exclusive G-8. Taking steps for bilateral nuclear disarmament with Russia and pursuing global anti-proliferation and nuclear security. Recommitting the U.S. to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Sanctioning Iran at the U.N. Security Council for its illicit uranium enrichment. Drawing tens of thousands of U.S. troops from Iraq ahead of full withdrawal in December 2011.
But all those speeches — and, of course the document itself — will have to harmonize the rules-based multilateralism the administration seeks with the escalated war and unilateral right to assassinate terrorists around the world that it has also pursued.

Brennan tried this once before — at CSIS, in fact, last August. But back then, Brennan was more interested in articulating discontinuities with the Bush administration in how Obama handled terrorism, such as eschewing a war-centric construct for viewing the conflict and taking it away from Islam. One senior administration official, Dan Benjamin, the State Department’s counterterrorism chief, has urged an expansion of that critique, arguing last June that U.S. strategy needs to “shift away from a foreign and security policy that makes counterterrorism the prism through which everything is evaluated and decided.” The National Security Strategy is supposed to be that prism, but it remains to be seen how the administration’s counterterrorism efforts can be viewed through it.

Marc Lynch, a professor at George Washington University and a non-resident scholar at the Center for a New American Security, grapples with that reconciliation in a forthcoming paper for the influential think tank, and doesn’t come away with particularly easy answers. “The problem they face is they make a series of pragmatic decisions, each on its own terms, and you can see the logic behind any of them,” Lynch said. “But add it all up, and you see the implementation is clearly at odds with the philosophy.”

At West Point, Obama argued that al-Qaeda’s “small men on the wrong side of history” ought not to “scare us” into “discard[ing] our freedoms.” But Obama’s first 18 months in office have featured a series of civil-libertarian compromises, from retaining the military commissions for terrorist trials he opposed as a senator to embracing a framework for indefinite detention without charge for terrorism detainees even beyond those at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility he has yet to convince Congress to close. He has expanded the previous administration’s use of remotely-piloted aircraft to launch missiles at terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan to places like Yemen, where a new al-Qaeda affiliate has trained operatives to attack the U.S. homeland, and even claimed the right to kill an American citizen suspected of involvement with al-Qaeda without due process. The drones once targeted the seniormost extremists, but anecdotal evidence suggests the administration is using them on a lower echelon of terrorist as well.

All of which are unilateral actions that have met with significant opposition overseas. None easily fit within the framework of “a new era of engagement based on mutual interests and mutual respect.” A senior Republican congressional aide agreed that that framework was the “essence” of Obama’s foreign policy. “There are norms and there are laws and ways of doing things in the world that we in the U.S. have in large part put into place, and sustain,” summarized the aide, who declined to speak for attribution. “Those laws, norms and ideas are above every nation and every nation has a responsibility to uphold them. So we need to do better at meeting our responsibilities and so too, incidentally, does the Iranian government.”

But in practice, the drone strikes, are “more exemplary of what the president wants his foreign policy to be” than than the war in Afghanistan, the aide continued. That’s ironic: Obama ran for president vowing to escalate the war in Afghanistan and said nothing about the drones. But “I think way he views the war on terrorism is more drone strikes — lets not talk about it, let’s not put lot of focus on it, but when dangerous people pop their heads up, we’re going blow them off and we’re going to do it quietly and effectively,” the aide said. “The rest is just Muslim-world outreach.” On that reading of Obama, the drones remain a general exception to strategy, despite the frequency with which they occur.

Obama’s approach to Afghanistan might not be such an anomaly, even if the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize inherited the war he has escalated. That’s because even though Obama has nearly tripled the number of troops in Afghanistan, by July 2011 the so-called “extended surge” will begin to give way to more of a supporting role for U.S. forces. What’s more, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s visit to Washington two weeks ago highlighted, Obama has recast relations with both Afghanistan and Pakistan in terms of long-term diplomatic, economic and security cooperation, beyond just counterterrorism. What’s more, not only is military action in Afghanistan a multinational affair operated by NATO and not the U.S. alone, it is specifically legally authorized by the U.N. Security Council. Lynch, a former Obama campaign adviser and a critic of the Afghanistan war, observed, “Afghanistan is a big hole in the strategy in all kinds of ways of ways that matter, but not in a conceptual way.”

Several administration officials in conversation over the past several months have distinguished between what they have called “triage” efforts during 2009 to reverse some of the downward geopolitical trajectory they inherited from the Bush administration, like an unraveling situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan and a moribund relationship with Russia, and the general direction of rules-based multilateralism they actively pursue. And in every major foreign-policy speech and every major strategy effort, Obama has dealt extensively with terrorism as a central challenge for U.S. national security, even if counterterrorism’s place in grand strategy remains unclear.

Heather Hurlburt, an administration ally at the progressive National Security Network, said that the problem is indicative of an inherent tension between a rules-based international order and the prerogatives of a superpower. “What any administration says is the strategy and what the national-security apparatus does on a day-to-day basis are not necessarily the same thing, especially early on,” Hurlburt observed. The role of a National Security Strategy isn’t necessarily to eliminate those tensions, but rather to bring the military and the intelligence services into rough alignment with the broader vision. “It’s a very powerful signaling mechanism across the government and outside of it, to say ‘We’re serious about this rules-based multilateralism, this human rights stuff, this non-proliferation stuff, and you can’t outlast it.’”

Administration officials like CIA Director Leon Panetta, whose agency principally operates the drones in Pakistan and Yemen, have defended the drone strikes by claiming them to be a far more effective counterterrorist tool than officials anticipated. And at West Point, Obama hinted that the pressure from the drones forces al-Qaeda “to rely on terrorists with less time and space to train,” resulting in the failed attempted attacks on Christmas and in Times Square.

But if the administration keeps granting itself exceptions to following the international order for the exigencies of terrorist emergencies, Lynch said, it will be left without the intellectual underpinnings — and, accordingly, the public support — for an appropriate response if a terrorist attack ultimately succeeds. “What i’m afraid of is that as soon as you get turbulence — like an actual terrorist attack — there’s going to be a big backlash and you can’t hold the overall structure in place,” Lynch said. “Right now, Obama’s got the rhetoric, but they’ve done precious little to institutionalize it and put on durable legal foundations.”

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