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Obama NSS To Drop Preemption


The Gates' Pentagon will make significant changes to the language used in its National Security Strategy, dropping: the controversial concept of preemptive attack, also known as preventive force; the idea of a "war" on terror; and the identification of Islamists as the root of terror. An NSS is always one of the most important defense policy documents of any administration is its National Security Strategy. While it may not guide every action, an NSS -- required by the Goldwater-Nichols law -- serves as a template, a broad statement of how and why an administration will go to war and what it will do once the fighting starts. The Obama administration is to issue its first NSS soon so we asked Abraham Sofaer at Sanford University's Hoover Institution to offer a glimpse of what the differences are likely to be from the Bush administration and just how important they will be in guiding the administration's actions. Sofaer concludes that the Gates' Pentagon will make significant changes to the language used. Read on to find out if he thinks the Obama administration's actions will change much.

The Obama Administration will soon issue its first National Security Strategy (“NSS”). How will it compare with those issued in 2002 and 2006 by the Bush Administration?

The most fundamental US national security objectives are well established and bipartisan. The highest priority is always to keep America and its allies safe. This requires maintaining a strong military capacity; effective alliances; and policies that enhance economic and social well being at home and abroad. We encourage the spread of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law throughout the world. We strive to defeat terrorism and to stop the spread of WMD.

The Obama team will reconfirm all these objectives, but in different terms than those used by the Bush Administration.

• “Leader” not Hegemon. The 2002 Bush NSS proclaimed America’s “unparalleled” power, eager to use alliances but able if required to act alone. Obama’s NSS will promise America shall remain strong, but describe its role as “leader” of like-minded states and incapable of ensuring even its own security without the help of others.

• No more “War” on terror. The Bush strategy statements proclaim that the US is in a worldwide “war” against terror. The Obama NSS will avoid using the “war” word, pleasing those who believe terrorism should be treated as criminal activity. But it will call for “defeating terrorism” worldwide.

• Dropping the “Preventive Force” Doctrine. The most notorious aspect of the Bush strategy was the view that attacks of terrorist groups cannot be deterred and must be prevented, through force if necessary, and soon enough to stop threats before they are realized. The Obama NSS will drop this declaration and stress the need to prevent attacks through diplomacy and preparation. But it will continue to use force preventively when necessary to kill known enemies.

• Adopting a “Multilateralist” Tone. The Bush strategy promised to act through existing multilateral institutions, including the UN, when possible; but it stressed its willingness to “act alone” if required. Obama’s strategy will emphasize the importance of acting through the UN and alliances. But it will preserve the right to act alone, as NATO does, by affirming that the Security Council has “primary” (though not exclusive) responsibility for international security.

• “Islamic Fundamentalists” become “Violent Extremists.” The Bush Administration described the current terrorist threat as having been caused by Islamic Fundamentalists, while crediting Islam as one of the world’s great religions. Obama will describe all terrorists as “violent extremists,” or with some such religiously neutral phrase. But his targeted killings have all been of Muslims.

• Tyranny vs. Human Rights. The Bush plans promised an assault on tyranny, and saw democracy as the ultimate key to security. It intervened in Iraq, however, because it saw Saddam as a threat to the US and its allies, and never used force otherwise to advance freedom. Obama’s plans will extol democracy far less emphatically, but will formally commit to protecting human rights. It, too, seems unlikely, though, to support the use of force to protect victims of even the most egregious violations.

So, does this mean that the differences between Bush and Obama will be largely rhetorical? Not necessarily. That will depend, not on what Bush said or on what Obama says regarding national security, but rather on what Obama actually does that differs from what Bush did. Some real differences exist. While Obama will use force, for example, as often as Bush did in defending against enemies who have attacked Americans, he will not even pretend to support using force against “growing threats” or “tyrants.” He will launch preventive strikes, but not a preventive war. He will not claim the right as Commander in Chief to override legislation, or to use methods widely regarded as inconsistent with the Torture Convention. He will focus more resources and effort than Bush on defensive measures, such as protecting borders, ports, and infrastructure. He will work harder than Bush did to secure international agreements he believes would enhance security by reducing nuclear weapons, dealing with global warming, punishing international crimes, and protecting cyber space, among other things. And he will be prepared to make compromises that Bush would have rejected to secure such agreements.

Will what Obama is likely to do differ from what Bush actually did, and will it lead to differences in outcome? Yes, insofar as Bush actually launched a preventive war in Iraq that Obama would not have launched. But otherwise these differences will marginal effects. Obama would have invaded Afghanistan, and may have more difficulty securing an acceptable outcome there than in Iraq. While Obama is unlikely to use force to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, Bush also failed to do so, and his focus on building missile defenses implied he had no intention to act. As for Obama’s efforts to secure international agreements, he is quickly learning why Bush and his team expected so little, especially from multilateral engagement. Differences, yes, but in the message more than the outcome.

Abraham D. Sofaer is the George P. Shultz Distinguished Scholar at Sanford University's Hoover Institution. He was legal adviser to the State Department from 1985 to 1990.

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