Obama's Pre-Emptive Doctrine

The formal paper will be released later today, but if the Obama Administration's actions to date are any guide, the President's National Security Strategy essentially comes down to these elements:

Kill the bad guys, as many of them as possible, adhering to international norms unless otherwise (secretly) authorized. Incentivize Islamic countries to help deradicalize their vulnerable populations. Project a different image of America abroad, one that focuses on common interests and rule-of-law principles, not on large military footprints and the projection of military power, per se. Treat all existential threats as national security concerns, which requires the fortification of America's educational, economic, technological and legal infrastructures.

It's a pre-emption strategy of sorts, but not one that relies on projecting overwhelming military force. Indeed, the belief inside the administration is that a strategy that starts out by bragging about the continued dominance of the U.S. military invites the sort of opposition that the declaration is intended to ward off.

A few weeks after Obama took office, he began to read through a bunch of memorandums prepared by the CIA about the political dynamics in Muslim countries. All of the memos had details about what complaints various demographic groups had with America. Obama's team sent the memos back to the CIA. Okay, they said, we know what it is that people do not like about America. But surely there must be something that they do like.

So the CIA tasked its operatives and analysts with trying to figure out what, say, an average Egyptian admired about America. Taking Egypt as our example, the analysts found that Egyptian young men with a bent towards science were quite envious of their friends who were able to obtain academic visas to the U.S. In Turkey and Indonesia, admiration was expressed for America's entpreneural spirit. Those conclusions led directly to administration initiatives, including the appointment of science envoys to several countries and a massive Muslim entrepreneurship summit that includes both concrete deliverables from the United States and promises of future summits.

These are tiny steps. But there are many, many of them. Obama's National Security Staff keeps tabs on them, and Obama has been known to peruse the dossier and ask questions. It's one part of one part of the national security strategy, but perhaps the sub-component that best reflects what Obama is trying to achieve.

The 51-page document spends quite a bit of time describing ways to build up and project America's sources of strength. Its economy must be competitive. Its education system must be world class. It must strike to be a world leader in innovative climate change solutions. It must create and sustain a legal framework for dealing with terror detainees that is transparent and reflect American values.

Building what one administration official said late yesterday was a "broader set of capabilities" allows the military to be used for, well, military purposes. There is no effort to downgrade the role of the military in Obama's non-zero-sum mind; it is merely to expand the toolkit used to keep America safe.

The strategy paper brings some coherence to Obama's foreign policy actions to date: in reformulating international institutions like the Group of 8 economic powers (not G 20), the realities of 2010 are now reflected in policy and strategy. There had been no international nuclear security regime; as of last month, Obama built one. Obama could try to persuade the Senate to ratify the Kyoto climate accords, but the reality is that no real solution to climate change will work without the inclusion of China, India and developing nations. The solution: work at them. To ease the burden on the U.S. to solve all the world's problems by itself, Obama has pursued a strategy of prudence with major powers like China and Russia; by showing them respect, by allowing them to stand beside the U.S. on the world stage (and not behind the U.S.), these countries are now publicly committed to making progress.

The phrase that perhaps best describes the worldview that underlies this document is that in 2010, "interests are aligned more than habits." Those bad habits were fed by a policy of exclusion and difference in the past administration.

Now, the document does not provide answers to many questions: how to expedite the progress of emptying the Guantanamo Bay prison? How to balance the traditional concerns of traditional allies with the different concerns of new allies? (Europe's frittering about missile defense is an example of this tension.) Do existing national security institutions need to be dramatically reformed?