Obama's New Security Strategy To Stress Cooperation

President Obama gives the commencement speech at West Point, May 22. i i

hide captionPresident Obama delivers the commencement speech during graduation ceremonies at the United States Military Academy at West Point on May 22. During the speech, the president touched on key themes of his new national security goals — such as multilateralism and global outreach — to be unveiled Thursday.

Michael Nagle/Getty Images
President Obama gives the commencement speech at West Point, May 22.

President Obama delivers the commencement speech during graduation ceremonies at the United States Military Academy at West Point on May 22. During the speech, the president touched on key themes of his new national security goals — such as multilateralism and global outreach — to be unveiled Thursday.

Michael Nagle/Getty Images

The White House has spent the past year and a half developing an overarching National Security Strategy, which will be released Thursday. The themes of these security goals have been gradually emerging ever since President Obama took office.

He distilled the ideas of multilateralism, cooperation and global outreach in a commencement speech at West Point over the weekend.

"We have to shape an international order that can meet the challenges of our generation. We will be steadfast in strengthening those old alliances that have served us so well," Obama said.

It's a clear contrast to the administration of George W. Bush's philosophy of preventive war and unilateral action.

In a speech Wednesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan elaborated.

"This strategy aims to renew American leadership in the 21st century by rebuilding the fundamental sources of American strength, security, prosperity and influence in the world," Brennan said.

Brennan's description of the Obama national security doctrine never explicitly rebuked the Bush administration, which issued two national security strategies. But at times his criticism was strongly implied.

"Our enemy is not terrorism, because terrorism is but a tactic. Our enemy is not terror, because terror is a state of mind, and as Americans we refuse to live in fear. Nor do we describe our enemy as jihadists or Islamists, because jihad is a holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam," Brennan said.

He said we are at war with al-Qaida and its terrorist affiliates.

Breaking With Past, Looking Forward

Juan Zarate, a counterterrorism adviser to Bush, warned after Brennan's speech that the Obama administration might be trying too hard to break from the past.

"If we're talking about centrally a war on al-Qaida as our principal counterterrorism goal, then you can't ignore the fact that this is a group that attempts to use theology, the Quran, its influence in Muslim communities around the world, as part of its strength," Zarate said.

In some ways, the release of this national security document is not just a pivot from one administration to another.

Heather Hurlburt of the National Security Network describes it as a pivot within the Obama administration, "where they move from dealing with the business of the past to pointing the way forward."

"I think that what you heard Brennan doing today was really trying to signal both this is the progress we've made looking back on what we've inherited, and these are the principles we're going to use to go forward," says Hurlburt, who served in the Clinton administration.

Emphasis On Multilateral Approach

For the first time of any such document, the strategy includes mention of homegrown terrorism. Brennan listed the many plots within the United States that have been stopped in the last year.

"This is the new phase of the terrorist threat, no longer limited to coordinated, sophisticated 9/11-style attacks, but expanding to single individuals attempting to carry out relatively unsophisticated attacks," he said.

Al-Qaida wants to change the United States "by turning our great diversity from a source of division, by causing us to undermine our laws and values that have been a source of our strength and our influence throughout the world," Brennan said.

That sounded to Matthew Waxman, policy adviser to the State Department under Bush, like another swipe at the prior administration. "I do think it's fair criticism, though I would also note that during the Bush years you saw a significant evolution in United States government legal policy with regard to counterterrorism," he said.

Brennan talked about incorporating homeland security into part of a broader integrated national security strategy. He also called for a multilateral approach to global problems.

He said the U.S. needs to work with its allies, drawing a contrast with the more unilateralist approach of Bush.

More Than Change In Rhetoric

Ultimately, though, any national security policy will include some elements of multilateralism and some aspects of unilateralism. Any president will balance diplomacy and military strength.

As a result, the new national security strategy could be characterized as a change in style over substance.

But Hurlburt argues that style can affect substance.

She cites as examples the willingness of Russia and China to introduce a U.N. Security Council resolution on Iran and recent numbers that show the dramatic improvement in views of the U.S. worldwide.

"So there's an actual difference in result to go along with the difference in rhetoric," Hurlburt says.

The full national security strategy comes out Thursday, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will deliver a speech about the global diplomatic implications of the policy.

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