New Security Strategy Addresses Homegrown Terrorism

The country's National Security Strategy was released this past week. It emphasizes international cooperation over preemptive military strikes and, for the first time, pointedly addresses the threat of homegrown terrorism. Host Guy Raz speaks with Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, the principal author of the National Security Strategy.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Now Afghanistan is a big part of the new U.S. National Security Strategy released this past week by the Obama administration. Ben Rhodes wrote it. He is the deputy national security adviser for strategic communication.

And while many foreign policy experts noted the similarities with the Bush administration strategy, Rhodes says this document de-emphasizes that so-called doctrine of pre-emption.

Mr. BEN RHODES (White House Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications): Pre-emption, in many ways, is a matter of judgment. I don't think any administration would take anything off the table as it relates to actions that might need to be taken to security of the United States. However, the Bush doctrine - and so far as it related to pre-emption - had to do with the war in Iraq. And I think it's very well known, of course, that then-Senator Obama - or not even then-Senator Obama - strongly objected to the use of force in Iraq. He then feel that it met the threshold for pre-emptive military action. So we believe that there need to be other means of resolving disputes beyond simply over relying on military force.

RAZ: Now there are many similarities between this document and the last national security strategy that was laid out by President Bush in 2006. Is this all that different from what the previous administration laid out?

Mr. RHODES: Oh, absolutely, I think it's quite different. We place far more emphasis on the importance of our economy to our national security. There's a great focus in this document on climate change, which, of course, is a departure from the previous administration. There's a narrow definition of who we're at war with. We say we're at war with al-Qaida and its affiliates, rather than taking a broader definition of a war against terrorism, a tactic, or certainly a war that would suggest that we're at war with Islam, a religion. And similarly, you know, we, of course, have embedded in here our commitment to end the war in Iraq, drawdown our forces, again as we'd shift that focus more precisely to al-Qaida.

So, you know, there are specific priorities and issues that this administration has pursued different policies than the previous one. And there are different points of emphasis as it relates to our strategic approach.

RAZ: The document says: The United States rejects the false choice between the narrow pursuit of our interests and an endless campaign to impose our values.

President Bush believed it was in America's vital national security interest to promote democracy overseas. Does this new strategy essentially reject that?

Mr. RHODES: No, it doesn't. I think the specific line there is rejecting the notion that there is a binary choice between a kind of realist agenda and an idealistic agenda. I think that what this document does as it relates to democracy promotion is that the United States is not going to impose immediate democratic transformations abroad. We're not going to invade countries and impose democracy, for instance.

What we need to do is steadily promote our values in every way that we can; above all, by living them and setting a positive democratic example, by investing in the institutions of emerging democracies so that you not just have elections, but you have strong police forces and independent judiciaries, engaging civil society in those countries that are not yet democratic, but that we recognize that we need to be patient in some respects, because sometimes democratic transformations will unfold over years rather than weeks and months.

RAZ: Given that the relationship between the United States and the United Nations was, at best, strained over the past 10 years, is this document, in a sense, a call for a renewal of the relationship and maybe even partnership between the United States and the United Nations and other international institutions?

Mr. RHODES: Yes, absolutely. I think what we've seen happen is we have an international architecture that was largely built with the leadership of the United States in the 20th century. However, there are new threats and new challenges in the 21st century that that international architecture wasn't designed for, whether it's climate change, terrorism, nuclear proliferation and other issues.

And what we can do face with those challenges is say, we're going to abandon this international architecture. Step outside of it. Essentially deal with these challenges ourselves. Or we are going to invest American leadership, our strengthen influences and trying to make those institutions work better. And I think that's what this document is about.

RAZ: But doesn't that constrain American power to some extent when you work within that order?

Mr. RHODES: No. Quite on the contrary, it amplifies American power. When we step outside of the international order, we bear all the burden. Just to take one example: there's no way that the United States could dismantle every terrorist safe haven around the world if we wanted to. It's simply not possible with an organization like al-Qaida that metastasizes to other countries. We certainly can't deal with an issue like climate change, which is inherently global in nature by ourselves.

So the only way to amplify our power to deal with challenges that are borderless in the 21st century is to make these institutions work better and to invest American time and effort in doing so.

RAZ: Ben Rhodes, for the first time, the National Security Strategy pointedly discusses homegrown terror. What are the worries here in the policy prescriptions?

Mr. RHODES: Yes. Well, the worries are very much that al-Qaida has shifted tactics to try to inspire other individuals who they may not even be in direct contact with to engage in terrorist activity, and that specifically includes American citizens. So I think what it's going to take is a strategy that, on the one hand, has effective security measures to ensure that we're able to detect those individuals who may get into contact with al-Qaida, may even try to travel to these regions to get them to contact with them, but also they were working with communities across the country to try to ensure that individuals don't go through that radicalization process.

RAZ: That's Ben Rhodes. He is the White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communications and the primary author of the new National Security Strategy.

Ben Rhodes, thanks.

Mr. RHODES: Thanks very much.

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