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Next US Strategy Carries Heavy Expectations

Dec. 11, 2013 - 04:05PM   |  
By PAUL McLEARY and JOHN T. BENNETT   |   Comments
3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry
US soldiers provide security in Logar province, Afghanistan, in May. The next national security strategy will be written as the US and other countries exit Afghanistan. (US Defense Department)
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WASHINGTON — The new national security strategy document that the White House plans to release in 2014 is shaping up to be key to laying out the administration’s thinking on everything from diplomatic engagement to counterterrorism to training and advising allies, a host of national security experts say.

But how it should do that is a matter of debate.

The broad outline of what the document will contain has been expressed in speeches by President Barack Obama and administration officials over the past several years: a push for nuclear disarmament, a rebalance of diplomatic and military attention to the Asia-Pacific region, helping build economic stability in emerging regions, and a continuing focus on the global counterterrorism mission.

The administration’s first national security strategy was released in 2010, a little more than a year after Obama entered the White House and as the US was still engaged in Iraq, preparing to surge more troops into Afghanistan, and still firmly in the grips of a crippling global economic crisis.

Four years on, with the economy stronger, Osama bin Laden dead, as much as $1 trillion in government spending to be slashed over the next decade, and American troops out of Iraq and heading for the exits in Afghanistan, the landscape has changed.

Most notably, there has been a shift from the Defense Department to the State Department taking the lead as the face of American foreign policy, with the jet set diplomacy of Secretary of State John Kerry dominating the headlines as he brokers deals with Syria, Iran and Libya, while preparing to set his sights on the Israel-Palestine peace process.

As for specific recommendations for how the administration can use the document to help shape the way it uses both diplomatic and military power until the end of Obama’s presidency in 2016, Rachel Kleinfeld, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Truman Foundation, said the strategy must address the Arab Spring and subsequent political changes in the Middle East and North Africa.

“The Arab revolutions show an urgent need to weigh more heavily in our security calculus the risk factors that could create a sudden state collapse in allies and strategic states,” Kleinfeld said. “That means greater weight to acute corruption and population unrest in our security strategy — and developing the tools to help allies alter gradually rather than fail catastrophically.”

What’s more, with the Afghanistan war winding down and al-Qaida more globally dispersed than when the wars began, the US needs “a new strategy to fight terrorism,” Kleinfeld said.

The issue here is the contentious debate over the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which many on Capitol Hill want rewritten to clip some of the broad powers that it has granted the White House to use the military.

“This document will have to catch up to the shift from stability operations to a more limited train, advise and assist mission, and hopefully fill in the blanks on what the civilian agencies provide in that realm,” said Kathleen Hicks, who served as principal deputy defense undersecretary for policy from 2012 to 2013, and is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

When it comes to the global counterterrorism mission, “I don’t think we really have a strategy right now for that,” Hicks added. “At the tactical and operational levels, there’s a lot of good work going on, but I don’t think we’ve articulated the problem at a strategic level. This is an opportunity for that.”

One former government official said the AUMF will have to be addressed in the document, predicting that “I would expect to see a legal framework that’s very much tied to al-Qaida and what this means in terms of how the US conducts itself going forward.”

Related to the AUMF issue are the lingering questions over the targeted killing program the Obama administration has employed, largely by using armed drones.

Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official now with the Center for American Progress, expects the strategy will include “something about the use of drones and covert action.” Korb also said he thinks the strategy will stress that “diplomatic solutions should always be our first option.”

Diplomacy also plays a major role in writing such a sweeping, high-profile document. Aides and senior officials spend months changing words and entire sections, worried a friend or potential foe will react poorly.

“The strategy can’t send a signal to the Middle East that we don’t care anymore, or make China think we’re going to go to war with them,” Korb said.

Speaking to the Asia Society in March, Obama’s then-National Security Adviser Tom Donilon outlined a vision for the administration’s regional policy that will likely be reflected in the upcoming strategy document.

The United States is focused on “strengthening alliances; deepening partnerships with emerging powers; building a stable, productive and constructive relationship with China; empowering regional institutions; and helping to build a regional economic architecture that can sustain shared prosperity.”

Some Obama critics have low expectations, however.

“This president’s strategy has been retreat. Iraq: Retreat. Afghanistan: Retreat. Total disengagement from the world,” said Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute. “Some signal of a more robust American profile on the global stage would be a good thing.

“There is not one part of this administration’s foreign policy that I want to see this strategy codify,” Pletka said. “Whether it’s remote-control assassinations or cozying up to terrorists.”

Asked which terrorists she thinks Obama has embraced, Pletka pointed to Iran, saying the recent deal it struck with the UN Security Council should have included text that dubbed Tehran “a state sponsor of terrorism.”

Kleinfeld hit a similar — but less extreme — tone saying the strategy needs to reassure frustrated allies and make the case for and against isolationism to a war-weary American populace.

While the document will likely spend less time on economic issues than its 2010 predecessor did, the $500 billion in total sequestration cuts looming will have to play a role.

The United States will have to adjust its military ambitions to reflect the cuts the Pentagon will have to make, said Frank Hoffman, a former Pentagon official and now senior research fellow at the National Defense University.

“It’s going to be very hard for the administration — in a public document — to calibrate our interests and our appetites in such a way that’s its clear to everybody what we believe our most core and vital interests are,” he said.

There is little doubt that the American military will remain the most powerful military force in the world, he said. “You’re coming from a position of very dominant overmatch. Now it’s retaining overmatch and focusing on the things that are really important to you, and that’s what the [Asia-Pacific] rebalance is all about, maintaining overmatch.” ■

Email: pmcleary@defensenews.com; jbennett@defensenews.com.

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