President Obama issued his vision of how best to protect American national security on Thursday, and the nation yawned. Despite the drum roll – the president's "curtain raiser" speech at West Point on the strategy's themes and priorities – the unveiling was drowned out, literally, by the sea of oil that threatens one third of America's wetlands and spells economic disaster for the nation's southern fisheries, Louisiana and virtually all the other Gulf states.
President Obama's moment of national security truth was, in fact, a sideshow. The White House delegated its delivery to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who sounded and looked as tired as she must have felt, having just stepped off an all-night flight from an overseas trip.
Even the president's press conference – the first in 10 months – did not contain the outrage so many Americans now feel over the administration's lethargic response to the impending ecological, socio-economic catastrophe in the Gulf. Americans weren't in the mood to plow through even a summary of the 52 page document that was billed as a sharp departure from the priorities of George W. Bush – which in some ways it was – but which was also an expression of continuity.
Yes, the president was brave Thursday in owning up to responsibility for the tragedy. "I was wrong," he said, expressing regret that he had believed BP's information about the size and enormity of the spill. He accepted "responsibility" for not having looked earlier and harder at the regulatory agencies that he now says were in the hands of the sectors they were supposed to regulate.
But there were huge disconnects in Thursday's belated performance. If this oil spill has had such burning priority for him and his administration, why didn't he know whether Elizabeth Birnbaum, his hapless head of the Minerals Management Service, a virtual arm of BP and the oil sector, had resigned or been fired? There was a "whole bunch of other stuff going on," Mr. Obama said, unconvincingly. Indeed. There was the fund-raiser he attended across the country for Barbara Boxer. There were those "must do" photo ops with sports teams, not to mention an interview on the White House basketball court with TNT's Marv Albert.
Either he didn't know whether Ms. Birnbaum had been, or should have been pushed out, in which case he appeared clueless, or he did know, and was misleading the public, or misspeaking -- or lying, in plain English. In a "fess up" and tell "nothing but the ugly truth" press conference, this was a huge misstep. It also raised questions about whether he was now on top of the disaster as he claimed.
The same disconnects and internal contradictions can be found in his national security strategy, artfully and evasively written by Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. The document says that there's more to foreign policy than war and counter-terrorism, and that America faces a future in which we will all face limits. Fair enough. It says that America must be economically strong to remain militarily powerful. No argument there. But it concludes that America's efforts to "counter violent extremism" – from militant Baptists and ecologists, no doubt – are only "one element of our strategic engagement with the world." Yet at the same time, the paper argues that "the gravest danger" Americans face comes from "weapons of mass destruction." What the paper doesn't say, but its predecessor did, is that such weapons are particularly dangerous in the hands of rogue, or irrational states like North Korea, or terrorist groups, err, make that "violent extremist" groups, like Al Qaeda and other Islamic militants.
The intellectual dots here are not connected. Instead, we read about other threats confronting our nation – cyberthreats, climate change, and American dependence on fossil fuels. It's fine to define security broadly, but the document lacks a sense of priority. And it implies that they can all be substantially reduced, if not eliminated, through engagement, a dubious proposition in many cases.
So far, those alleged benefits of diplomacy, the old-fashioned word for what Obama calls engagement, are proving stubbornly elusive. China and Russia resist tough sanctions to stop Iran from getting a bomb. North Korea blows up a South Korean ship despite Mr. Obama's outstretched hand. Europe increasingly resists its commitment in Afghanistan. Obama sends an ambassador back to Syria and is rewarded by that country's transfer of advanced missiles from Iran to Lebanon's Hezbollah. Yes, diplomacy must surely be tried before military force is used or even threatened. But we should not have illusions about what it is likely to produce with the world's hard cases.
The document suggests that we can't afford to fight two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also says that we must leave an Iraq that is sovereign, stable, secure, and provides no home to terrorists. That's a tough job while you're busy rushing to bring all those expensive troops home. It says that America must "maintain the military superiority that has secured our country, and underpinned global security, for decades," but doesn't say how we can do that with the costs of manpower and equipment soaring and other economic priorities demanding attention. It downgrades President Bush's goal of spreading democracy, but commits the administration to "supporting the development of institutions within fragile democracies."
Where are the hard choices and foreign policy trade-offs in this document? The national security strategy, mandated by Congress, is a list of goals, but nothing close to a strategy.
Even Democratic foreign policy wonks found the document wanting.
Les Gelb, the foreign policy expert who has become increasingly outspoken about Mr. Obama's strategic shortcomings, called the paper "an opportunity lost." The New York Times played it on page A-8. The Wall Street Journal didn't bother to cover it at all. Even Walter Shapiro, the veteran student of politics who once wrote speeches for a Democratic president, was disappointed. "Having run against the heedless excesses of the Bush administration in Iraq and in countenancing torture," he wrote in Politics Daily," Obama understandably is still repudiating the past and still peeking in that rear-view mirror. The question -- which the Obama National Security Strategy fails to answer -- is what comes next for America and the world."