New U.S. Strategy Focuses on Managing Threats

By David E. Sanger and Peter Baker


President Obama’s first formal national security strategy describes a coming era in which the United States will have to learn to live within its limits — a world in which two wars cannot be sustained for much longer and the rising powers inevitably begin to erode some elements of American influence around the globe.

Mr. Obama argues that the United States is confident enough to live with that reality and that after nearly a decade of organizing its national security policy around counterterrorism, it must return to a broader agenda. “The burdens of a young century cannot fall on American shoulders alone,” Mr. Obama says in the introduction of the strategy released on Thursday. “Indeed, our adversaries would like to see America sap our strength by overextending our power.”

But this document, required by Congress, is also bound to reignite the argument over the way Mr. Obama has redirected American foreign policy over the past 16 months. His critics — inclined to portray him as too eager to apologize for America’s failings and too willing to surrender the nation’s role as the single, indispensable superpower — are likely to extract elements of the new document to bolster their case.

But to Mr. Obama’s team, it is a document that recognizes the world as it is and ends a era of illusion in which Washington confused projecting power with achieving results. “We are no less powerful,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday at the Brookings Institution. “We are shifting from mostly direct application and exercise of American power,” she said, to one of indirection, that requires patience and partners, and gets results more slowly.

“In a world like this, American leadership isn’t needed less,” she said. “It is needed more. And the simple fact is that no global problem can be solved without us.”

The 52-page document tries to blend the idealism of Mr. Obama’s campaign promises with the realities of his confrontations with a fractious and threatening world. It describes an America “hardened by war” and “disciplined by a devastating economic crisis,” and it concludes that the United States cannot sustain extended wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan while fulfilling other commitments.

That line is just one of many subtle slaps at former President George W. Bush. While Mr. Bush’s 2002 document explicitly said the United States would never allow the rise of a rival superpower, Mr. Obama argues that America faces no real military competitor but that global power is increasingly diffuse.

Both Mrs. Clinton and the principal author of the report, Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, argued that Mr. Obama recognized that reality when he pressed the Group of 8 nations — the largest industrialized economies and Russia — to cede more power to the Group of 20, which includes fast-emerging powers like China, India and Brazil.

Although Mr. Obama has put a renewed focus on the Afghan war and increased C.I.A. drone strikes against militants in Pakistan, the strategy rejects Mr. Bush’s focus on counterterrorism as the organizing principle of security policy. Those efforts “to counter violent extremism” — Mr. Obama avoids the word Islamic — “are only one element of our strategic environment and cannot define America’s engagement with the world.”

He goes on to argue that “the gravest danger to the American people and global security continues to come from weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons.” But he also dwells on cyberthreats, climate change and America’s dependence on fossil fuels as fundamental national security issues, issues that received little or no attention in Mr. Bush’s document, although Mr. Bush focused on them more in his second term.

“It is a rather dramatic departure from the most recent prior national security strategy,” said Susan E. Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations.

The differences are clearest in a section on the use of force, which makes no mention of pre-emptive attacks against countries or nonstate actors who may pose a threat, as Mr. Bush did in 2002. But Mr. Obama does not explicitly rule out striking first.

“While the use of force is sometimes necessary, we will exhaust other options before war whenever we can, and carefully weigh the costs and risks of action against the costs and risks of inaction,” he says. When it is necessary, he adds, “we will seek broad international support.”

Mr. Bush’s aides had said they would not seek a “permission slip” for such actions. Mr. Obama phrases that idea more softly, saying “the United States must reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend our nation and our interests, yet we will also seek to adhere to standards that govern the use of force.”

Mr. Obama also defines security more broadly than his predecessor did, making the case, for example, that reducing the budget deficit is critical to sustaining American power. Mrs. Clinton focused much of her Brookings presentation on that theme, arguing that American commanders and diplomats see the long-term national debt as one of the largest threats to American influence and to the country’s ability to project power abroad.

Still, for all its self-conscious rejection of the Bush era, the document reflects elements of continuity. For example, it does not disavow using the state secrets act to withhold information from courts in terrorism cases, although it argues for prudent and limited use. It also insists that “we will maintain the military superiority that has secured our country, and underpinned global security, for decades.”

It does not make the spread of democracy the priority that Mr. Bush did, but it embraces the goal more robustly than is typical for Mr. Obama, a reflection of a struggle in his administration about how to handle a topic so associated with Mr. Bush. Mr. Obama commits to “welcoming all peaceful democratic movements” and to “supporting the development of institutions within fragile democracies.”
Neil MacFarquhar contributed reporting from the United Nations.
The New York Times