Compliance to Plan: Grading US National Security Policy in 2015


What makes good national security policy?  What’s the best way to create a strategy and see it through the long term?  What happens if the policy–or the strategy behind it–is wrong?  How does the country know before it’s too late?

All these are good questions, about which there are lots of competing answers.  As I was reading articles debating these points (and more) at the excellent The Strategy Bridge, I had a thought.  Setting aside whether the US has a good national security policy and strategy (or one at all), how is the country doing compared to the goals it laid out at the beginning of 2015?

That is, to use an industry term, what is our compliance to plan?

That question turns out to be a lot easier than some of the others, since the White House is kind enough to lay out goals.  By looking at the goals the President laid out in February 2015, it should be easy to see whether we accomplished them, and to what degree.  All the bulleted text is quoted from the White House’s 2015 National Security Strategy Fact Sheet.

Let’s get started.

  • We will lead with purpose, guided by our enduring national interests and values and committed to advancing a balanced portfolio of priorities worthy of a great power.

I’ll call this one not accomplished–if only because it is so vauge as to be basically meaningless.  Committing the country to “lead with purpose” but then not defining where to makes it impossible to succeed.  Creating a “balanced portfolio of priorities” is language better suited for mutual fund managers than national security, and could be better said as “prioritizing US goals”–and then, you know, laying some goals out.  What is the purpose of US airstrikes in Syria?  What’s the endstate with regard to the Assad regime?  To what purpose do we continue to overfly new Chinese naval bases in the Pacific?  No one seems to know, so it’s hard to say the US is leading with purpose.

  • We will lead with strength, harnessing a resurgent economy, increased energy security, an unrivaled military, and the talent and diversity of the American people.

I’ll give this one partially accomplished because while the economy has gained ground and the US is a net energy exporter, Congress and the White House have been unable to come to terms with how to fund America’s “unrivaled military” and mandatory sequester cuts continue.  I’m not saying funding cuts aren’t needed or desirable, but since the sequester doesn’t let the cuts be targeted, they’re dumb cuts instead of smart cuts, and that hurts the US ability to “lead with strength.”

  • We will lead by example, upholding our values at home and our obligations abroad.

This gets a grudging accomplished from me, because while 2015 showed a US much more willing to use elements of national power to exert its will, it did so several years too late, particularly when it comes to Syria.  In Europe,  the US did lead by example by exerting pressure to get the EU to join in the third wave of anti-Russian sanctions over Russian actions in Ukraine.

  • We will lead with capable partners, mobilizing collective action and building partner capacity to address global challenges.

I grade this as not accomplished.  Our Iraqi and Afghan partners’ record in combat, by every meaningful metric, continues to be abysmal, and–far from leading–there is good evidence that the US lost ground in its military relationship with Iraq to both Iran and Russia.  In addition, our reluctance to fully back the Kurds in Northern Iraq meant KRG and YPG units performed significantly below where they could have.  Our failure to lead with capable partners–or build our partners toward capability–continued in Europe, where despite years of lobbying, the US has not moved the needle on getting NATO partners to increase or even meet the obligated 2% of GDP spending on defense.  With regard to the special relationship with the United Kingdom, a resurgent Labour party seems resolved to spend as little as possible, consequences to the US-UK alliance be damned.  We have hardly “built partner capacity to address global challenges.”  Not by a long shot.

  • We will lead with all instruments of U.S. power, leveraging our strategic advantages in diplomacy, development, defense, intelligence, science and technology, and more.

I give this partially accomplished.  We used diplomatic leverage to achieve some major accomplishments–beginning the normalization of relations with Cuba, the Iran nuclear deal, and the EU sanctions on Russia, but as laid out above, we have not translated that into increased partner capability, and we have been able to get absolutely nowhere with the Chinese in the South China Sea.

  • We will lead with a long-term perspective, influencing the trajectory of major shifts in the security landscape today in order to secure our national interests in the future.

This one I definitely grade as accomplished.  It is hard to think of a President since Nixon that has been willing to look more forward (in certain areas) than President Obama.  His willingness to look long term allowed the US to finally end its failed embargo of Cuba which opens up the best hope for moving Cuba into the US sphere of influence since the fall of Batista’s government and set the stage for a slow detente with Iran, which could prove to be the most meaningful foreign policy decision of his presidency.  How well some of these long term plans will come to fruition remains to be seen, but no one can doubt that the US was playing long ball in 2015.

We will advance the security of the United States, its citizens, and U.S. allies and partners by:

  • Maintaining a national defense that is the best trained, equipped, and led force in the world while honoring our promises to service members, veterans, and their families.
  • Working with Congress to end the draconian cuts imposed by sequestration that threaten the effectiveness of our military and other instruments of power.
  • Reinforcing our homeland security to keep the American people safe from terrorist attacks and natural hazards while strengthening our national resilience.
  • Transitioning to a sustainable global security posture that combines our decisive capabilities with local partners and keeps pressure on al-Qa’ida, ISIL, and their affiliates.
  • Striving for a world without nuclear weapons and ensuring nuclear materials do not fall into the hands of irresponsible states and violent non-state actors.
  • Developing a global capacity to prevent, detect, and rapidly respond to biological threats like Ebola through the Global Health Security Agenda.
  • Confronting the urgent crisis of climate change, including through national emissions reductions, international diplomacy, and our commitment to the Green Climate Fund.

Call this not accomplished.  The US did not end sequester cuts, despite repeated warnings from the service chiefs, failed to prevent terrorist attacks in the homeland–a goal I would argue is impossible as long as major regions of the world remain in turmoil–and, as covered above, failed to build foreign capacity.  It is hard to see how a Congress and President accidentally-but-still-on-purpose imposing across the board defense cuts, a mass shooting in California, and billions in wasted aid to Iraq that wound up in ISIS hands “advances the security of the United States.”  The lone bright spot here is the Paris Climate Summit, but that’s pretty much it.

We will advance a strong, innovative, and growing U.S. economy in an open international economic system that promotes opportunity and prosperity by:

  • Strengthening American energy security and increasing global access to reliable and affordable energy to bolster economic growth and development worldwide.
  • Opening markets for U.S. goods, services, and investment and leveling the playing field for American workers and businesses to boost our economic competitiveness.
  • Advancing a trade agenda – including the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – that creates good American jobs and shared prosperity.
  • Leading efforts to reduce extreme poverty, food insecurity, and preventable deaths with initiatives such as Feed the Future and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.
  • Proving new sustainable development models like the President’s Power Africa Initiative.

First, the successes.  The US definitely improved energy security and–with a little help from OPEC–improved access to affordable energy.  (I doubt having the bottom drop out of the oil market part of the plan, though.)  The President’s Power Africa Initiative has increased African power generation by 4,100 MW, which puts it well on pace to hit its target of 30,000 MW of new capacity by 2030.  Opening Cuba up for business counts as a success and US actions against Chinese tire manufacturers did help level the playing field in at least one industry, but plenty of frustration remains about the way China manipulates the yuan’s value.  Plus, one of the major goals laid out above is no closer to happening now than it was at the start of last year–The President did not get the Trans-Pacific Partnership through Congress and it appears increasingly unlikely that it will happen while Obama is in office, if at all.  Call this partially accomplished.

We will advance respect for universal values at home and around the world by:

  • Holding ourselves to the highest possible standard by living our values at home even as we do what is necessary to keep our people safe and our allies secure.
  • Promoting and defending democracy, human rights, and equality while supporting countries such as Tunisia and Burma that are transitioning from authoritarianism.
  • Empowering future leaders of government, business, and civil society around the world, including through the President’s young leaders initiatives.
  • Leading the way in confronting the corruption by promoting adherence to standards of accountable and transparent governance.
  • Leading the international community to prevent and respond to human rights abuses and mass atrocities as well as gender-based violence and discrimination against LGBT persons.

Call me cynical, but I see this as not accomplished.  The US did make large strides itself in LGBT rights and definitely helped promote democracy in Tunisia and Burma, but it has done very little to stop the slaughter in Syria, nor taken any meaningful steps to try to curb abuses in Yemen. In fact, by failing to lead more firmly, we inadvertantly invited the Russians to weigh in on the side of one of the region’s nastiest tyrants and cause even more civilian deaths.  Meanwhile Daesh continues its bloody campaign of death by crucifixion, burning, firing squad, and defenstration relatively unabated.  By any standard, the US has failed spectacularly to “prevent and respond to human rights abuses and mass atrocities.”  The recent uproar about the NSA’s backdoors into commercial encryption and telecommunications, while not surprising, seem to belie claims of “accountable and transparent governance.”

We will advance an international order that promotes peace, security, and oppor­tunity through stronger cooperation to meet global challenges by:

  • Working with partners to reinforce and update the rules of the road, norms, and institutions that are foundational to peace, prosperity, and human dignity in the 21st century.
  • Strengthening and growing our global alliances and partnerships, forging diverse coalitions, and leading at the United Nations and other multilateral organizations.
  • Rebalancing to Asia and the Pacific through increased diplomacy, stronger alliances and partnerships, expanded trade and investment, and a diverse security posture.
  • Strengthening our enduring commitment to a free and peaceful Europe by countering aggression and modernizing the NATO alliance to meet emerging threats.
  • Pursuing a stable Middle East and North Africa by countering terrorism, preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and reducing the underlying sources of conflict.
  • Building upon the success of the U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit by investing in Africa’s economic, agricultural, health, governance, and security capacity.
  • Promoting a prosperous, secure, and democratic Western Hemisphere by expanding integration and leveraging a new opening to Cuba to expand our engagement.

This is another partially accomplished goal–and I’m being generous.  On the one hand, the Iran nuclear deal, normalizing relations with Cuba, getting EU to get in step with US sanction policy vis a vis Iran and Russia all count as big successes.  On the other hand, there are some pretty serious failures as well.  Russia seems to have no fear of flaunting the international order whether in Ukraine or Syria, NATO partners still aren’t spending enough on their own security, and the idea that the US has been successful at “rebalancing to Asia and the Pacific” is laughable.  Look no further than the our inability–despite the backing of literally every other country in the region–to deter or dissuade China from building new bases in the South China Sea for proof that the “pivot to Asia” has been a better concept than it has a reality.

So what’s the grade?

Two accomplished, four partially accomplished, and four not accomplished.  Not a spectacular result.  I haven’t formally weighted any one goal higher than another, but it would be unlikely to help:  two of the not accomplished grades went to arguably the most critical issues (“leading with purpose” and “advancing US national security”).

It would be hard to give US national security strategy a passing grade–even as defined by the country’s own goals.

Let’s hope things look better next year.



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