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Obama in the Land of the Blind

Last Friday the White House released its 2015 National Security Strategy, outlining President Obama’s vision for the future of national defense. It’s no surprise that there’s a lot of fluff in there. (“Our economy is the largest, most open, and most innovative in the world,” etcetera.) But it’s a much-needed addendum to last month’s State of the Union Address, which focused predominantly on the President’s domestic legacy.

Think of the 2015 National Security Strategy as Obama’s famous bumper sticker foreign policy dictum, “Don’t do stupid shit,” extended into a Kindle Single. It’s a wonderful, if modest, deviation from the usual calls for unbridled militarism, and it has no chance whatsoever of becoming a defense posture that outlasts the current administration.

The most entertaining way to learn what the Security Strategy proposes (the document itself is lifeless, tedious—read it at your own peril) is to listen to how exactly its critics feel threatened by it. Retired general Michael Flynn complained on Fox News Sunday, “We need a much broader strategy that recognizes that we’re facing not just this tactical problem of ISIS in Iraq and Syria…. We’re facing a growing, expanding threat around the world.” Okay, so it’s too focused on strategic minutiae.

But then senator Lindsey Graham, Palmetto State dandy/presidential hopeful, made the opposite criticism, that the White House was too much focused on the big picture, the long game. Graham tweeted, “I doubt ISIL, the Iranian mullahs, or Vladimir Putin will be intimidated by President Obama’s strategy of ‘Strategic Patience.’” OK, so the Security Strategy is overly vague. It ignores the “crises of the day,” as national security advisor Susan Rice called the objects of our frenzied attentions during a Brookings Institute talk.

Like Chesterton said, if some people complain that you’re too tall, and others complain that you’re too short, you might be the perfect height. The Security Strategy is getting criticism from both ends—too particular, too vague—and both complaints seem pretty rich, considering the critics who are making them.

Sen. Graham, for instance, said last weekend at the Munich security conference, “I don’t know how this will end if you give [Ukraine] defensive capability, but I know this: I will feel better because when my nation was needed to stand up to the garbage and to stand by freedom I stood by freedom.” That’s pretty much the depth of his analysis, the entirety of his plan: give people weapons and stand up for freedom. It would just feel better. This is representative of the simplistic sentiment of all the interventionists who bristle at Obama’s relatively benign position.

Here I strongly emphasize the word relatively; it’s only in relation to the thoughtless, arrogant, “credibility” obsessed hawks that Obama’s position appears benign. We still have a military stretched across the globe, troops in Afghanistan and Africa, sorties being flown over Iraq, major pivots of attention to the South China Sea, and hundreds of billions of dollars being spent to maintain the ability to overreact to anything we perceive as a threat. Obama merely proposes that we pause and think before we commit weapons to Ukraine, or more troops to Iraq. But he’s not proposing that America turn in its badge and gun and relinquish its role as World Policeman. To drive that point home, the word “leadership,” or variants of it, are used 100 times in the National Security Strategy’s twenty-nine pages.

Zack Beauchamp pointed out in Vox that the most important sentence in the Security Strategy is this one: “In an interconnected world, there are no global problems that can be solved without the United States, and few that con be solved by the United States alone.” So it’s still an arrogant posture, it’s just a tad bit more diplomatic.

Paroxysms from retired generals and Republican senators are the usual reactions to anything Obama says, but his new national security strategy probably isn’t something that, say, Hillary Clinton would continue, if she became commander in chief. Hillary Clinton will be just as bloodthirsty in the 2016 campaign as she was in 2008. As James Oliphant wrote for Defense One,

Where she’s been able to, Clinton has subtly—and not necessarily effectively—tried to keep some distance from Obama’s foreign policy…. The administration may not be doing her any favors in embracing a national security approach, as described by Rice, that de-emphasizes America’s military role, encourages the use of the tools of ‘soft power,’ such as diplomacy and social media, and plays up coalition-building over going it alone.

The field of 2016 presidential hopefuls is a crowded one (specifically the Republican bench), but something that they all seem to agree on is a sycophantic attachment to a cynical, violent, Kissinger-style pseudo-realism. Our next president, whoever he or she is, will likely continue to advocate for military intervention as a first response. Obama’s National Security Strategy may not be perfect, but it might be something that we look back on wistfully as President TBA deploys American troops in response to whatever “crises of the day” might present themselves in 2017.