Thursday, May 27, 2010

"National Security Strategy"—the View from Al Jazeera

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from the 9/11 attacks is that the national security of the United States has less to do with either our military or our economic might and more to do with our relations with those who do not see the world the same way we do. Our greatest liability in the wake of this catastrophe was the stubborn refusal of the Bush Administration to recognize that our worldview was neither the only one nor the "correct" one and that our system of values, whether those espoused or those actually practiced, were far from "globally universal." Thus, any analysis of the "National Security Strategy" document, released by the White House this morning, should account for the reactions of a diversity of points of view; and one of the most interesting sources is likely to be Al Jazeera, whose expansion into English-language journalism may be seen as one of the unanticipated consequences of the global reaction to 9/11, if not 9/11 itself. This morning's Al Jazeera English report on the release of this document is one of those items that is solely a product of its own staff, free from the influences of any of its wire services.

Thus, the first priority of this report concerns the extent to which the Obama Administration is departing significantly from the Bush Administration in its fundamental view of the nature of national security:

The document, updated every four years, sets priorities for America's military, law enforcement and foreign policy agencies. It drops some of the most controversial language from the Bush administration, like the phrase "global war on terror" and references to "Islamic extremism".

"The United States is waging a global campaign against al-Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates," the 52-page strategy document says.

"Yet this is not a global war against a tactic - terrorism, or a religion - Islam. We are at war with a specific network, al-Qaeda, and its terrorist affiliates."

This is followed by the acknowledgement that the scope of national security extends beyond the risks of further threats from al-Qaeda:

The strategy also calls for US engagement with "hostile nations," closer relations with China and India, and a focus on strengthening the US economy.

In other words we face two risks to our national security: the fragility of our economy and the possibility of further aggressive attacks. If there is an overall strategy in the new policy document, it is based on the premise that these risks may be mitigated through more effective communication that includes those who disagree with us rather than those in any "coalition of the willing." This is our most serious departure from Bush Administration policy, and it may also be the clearest statement to date of how Barack Obama is serious about bringing about change.

Another significant direction for change involves the need to move away from what I have previously called "that culture of fear that debilitated the entire country under the Bush Administration." As I reported in the wake of the failed terrorist attack on the Delta/Northwest airplane preparing to land in Detroit on Christmas Day, one of Obama's major "agents of change" is his advisor on counterterrorism, John Brennan; so it is no surprise that Brennan was one of those selected to preview today's report. Al Jazeera English quotes what I feel is the most important sentence from a speech Brennan gave yesterday:

As our enemy adapts and evolves their tactics, so must we constantly adapt and evolve ours, not in a mad rush driven by fear, but in a thoughtful and reasoned way.

I can think of no better way to reject Bush Administration thinking; and, presumably, this should be taken as a message to the world at large, rather than solely to our own citizens.

Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that "National Security Strategy," as it has been issued, is a statement of philosophy. Philosophy never translates easily into practice, particularly when its statement is issued by an Executive Branch of government bound by a system of checks and balances to a Legislative Branch and a Judicial Branch. Such a system imposes considerable inertia in the workings of our government, and Barack Obama is now intimately acquainted with that inertia. However, where George W. Bush turned to the agency of fear to "get things moving," Obama seems more disposed to persevere through that inertia; and his gift of perseverance may ultimately be the "secret sauce" to restoring our highly eroded sense of national security.

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