I was not as disappointed by the National Security Strategy the White House released last week as were a great many critics on the right and in the center. But I was dismayed to see that the document was larded with quotations from Chairman Obama. The report is obviously intended as a repudiation of George W. Bush's alarmist and bellicose 2002 National Security Strategy, but it was the Bush administration that first adopted this boosterish and hero-worshiping format. ("We fight, as we always fight, for a just peace" -President Bush, West Point. "We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense." -President Obama, Inaugural Address.)
These quadrennial documents now come surrounded with such a dense carapace of hokum that the reader can barely discern an actual meaning. They are, after all, public documents, and therefore occupy the realm of public relations rather than analysis. Compare either Bush 2002 or Obama 2010 to NSC-68, written in 1950 by a team of State and Defense department officials working under the Cold War intellectual Paul Nitze (and kept secret for the next 25 years). NSC-68 advanced a specific geopolitical claim: Given Soviet ambitions for world domination, "a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere." It constituted a rebuff to George Kennan's proposal for a more modest and less costly form of containment, as first outlined in his famous "Long Telegram" of 1947. And NSC-68 laid out a strategy to achieve the desired goals: a major increase in spending on defense and diplomacy enabled by a government-sponsored boost to economic capacity. NSC-68 may have been too sweeping -- President Eisenhower ultimately abandoned its costly prescriptions -- but the authors presented their case with great force and clarity. Them were the days.
In the category of wrong-headed-but-forceful, we should probably give Bush 2002 some credit, since in the course of arguing for a new set of criteria for pre-emptive attack, the authors explain that new adversaries and new capacities have rendered the old criteria irrelevant. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks, of course, potential critics of an aggressive policy had been largely cowed into silence, thus granting the Bush administration all the political latitude it needed. Obama does not have this luxury, and his strategy report, chiefly written by Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor, is careful not to needlessly alienate the not-already-convinced. The rejected dogmas of the past are alluded to rather than openly refuted, as when the Obama NSS notes that "over the years, some methods employed in pursuit of our security have compromised our fidelity to the values that we promote, and our leadership on their behalf." No points awarded for guessing the methods, or who employed them.
The Obama National Security Strategy reads, in short, like an Obama speech. It summons us to put aside zero-sum choices and leaves everyone feeling that their concerns have been heard and addressed. Its tone is hortatory, its sentiments lofty, its directions vague. The NSS does not tell the reader what the administration will do in this or that part of the world, or under this or that set of circumstances. Rather, it seeks to explain why the president is doing what he's doing. Its great strength and virtue is that, like an Obama speech, it offers an alternative way of understanding the world -- a worldview.
The author Robert Kagan has said that Americans understand -- as Europeans do not -- that we live in a Hobbesian world in which chaos must be held in check by power -- albeit power shaped and limited by principle. For all the tough-minded invocation of "the world as it is" as opposed to the way we would wish it to be, Obama's National Security Strategy owes far more to John Locke, with his faith in the power of contract, and of contracting parties, than to Thomas Hobbes; it wishes to be read as an alternative to the ominous Hobbesian vision of Bush 2002. One section even bears the heading: "Resist Fear and Overreaction." The single-minded emphasis on danger itself endangers us. And Hobbesian methods employed in pursuit of U.S. security -- whether torture or rhetorical saber-rattling -- have made the world less secure rather than more so. (It's worth noting that by 2006 the Bush administration had been sufficiently chastened by failures in Iraq and elsewhere that its second NSS dwells more on political than on military responses to the problems of tyranny and extremism. Still, the Bush folks could never shake the image established by the 2002 report.)