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Obama's national security strategy


Thomas Donnelly has some interesting thoughts on the Obama administration's national security strategy:

By contrast, I see a very deep divide between our current president and his predecessor, a fundamental difference of opinion about international politics and even human nature. Simply put, Barack Obama believes progress can be achieved through cooperation among nations through the realm of diplomacy while George Bush believes progress can be achieved despite conflict, which is the realm of armed strength. Both men profess the universality of American political principles, but have divergent views about how to carry American Exceptionalism abroad.

George Bush famously wanted to build â??a balance of power that favors freedom.â? As a conservative and realist, he understood international politics as a competition for power, as one would expect from creatures fallen from a state of grace. Like Jefferson, he wanted to create an â??empire for liberty,â? to employ power â?? paradoxically â?? to promote freedom.

In the NSS, Barack Obama claims that, â??power, in an interconnected world, is no longer a zero-sum game.â? Through collective action with other states â?? not â??great powersâ? but â??key centers of influenceâ? â?? we can achieve â??cooperative solutions.â? This method appeals in large degree because Obama has a more expansive understanding of â??securityâ? â?? beyond any particular political arrangement, he includes pandemic disease, prosperity and, above all, climate change. Obama wants to build a balance of influence that favors sustainable living.

I think the "balance of influence that favors sustainable living" sounds right. What doesn't is the notion that promoting liberty through armed strength was some kind of central principle of the Bush administration rather than a post-hoc justification for the war in Iraq. In no other country was American power truly leveraged to promote democracy (you can't really count the Palestinian territories because after the disastrous elections there, the Bush administration promptly set about trying to subvert the outcome).

Aside from that, the trouble with the Bush approach was that he had already inherited an international order with a balance that favored freedom. In 2000, the U.S. had no serious great power rival, let alone an ideological or revolutionary enemy capable of over-turning the prevailing international order, and we enjoyed a robust economy paired with a first rate military. In short, there was simply no reason to launch a crusade to "promote freedom" for the sake of American security.

But lets accept Donnelly's contention that the administration sought to promote freedom by employing American power. What were the results? Was America's economic and military power better or worse for the effort as of 2008? Global freedom contracted during the last three years of Bush's tenure, so on the grounds of basic efficacy, the freedom agenda did not produce the results it promised. The balance of freedom shifted (although it still remained favorable) and America's economic and military power were at their lowest ebb in a generation (to say nothing of our global reputation). Measured against such results, the pursuit of a more sustainable strategy strikes me as eminently reasonable.

(AP Photo)