Thursday, December 17, 2009

When President Obama announced his decision to deploy 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, he presented a clear argument for why he believes U.S. national security is threatened by violence and extremism in that country and in the region.

What was missing from the speech, however, was a sense of how and to what degree continued U.S. involvement in that region fits into the United States’ comprehensive national security agenda. That evaluation is the key to keeping U.S. foreign policy consistent and balanced, and should be based on the president’s national security strategy (NSS).

Almost one year has passed since Mr. Obama’s inauguration, and the White House has yet to issue that seminal document.

A new strategy is not only a practical requirement; it’s a legal obligation. Congress mandates that a new president issue an NSS within five months of taking office, and annually thereafter. Mr. Obama has passed the deadline without delivering, yet several Cabinet agencies are developing key tactical documents, such as the Defense, Homeland Security and State departments’ quadrennial reviews, which should be based on the White House’s overall strategy.

This process is entirely backward. Mr. Obama needs a new NSS to make sure the country, Cabinet agencies and, most important, the men and women in the field have clear and comprehensive guidance on their role within broader U.S. national security efforts.

The president and his Cabinet have begun to articulate some of the basic principles that will inform his first NSS. For example, in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Mr. Obama invoked former President John F. Kennedy in arguing that the United States must focus on a more practical and more attainable peace based on gradual evolution in human institutions. But the administration has yet to flesh out how the president intends to implement these principles to meet the full range of today’s challenges, and how the many components of the U.S. government can best contribute to that effort.

The administration’s first NSS should take as its core goals the need to protect the people, allies and interests of the United States and the necessity for this country to uphold the norms of a stable international system. Meeting these ambitious aspirations will require Mr. Obama to formulate a strategy that can deal effectively with a rapidly changing threat environment in which such violent extremists of global reach as al Qaeda, weak and failing states, and rising powers demand U.S. attention and strategies, while such emerging threats as climate-change-induced migration and instability demand increased resources and methodical future planning.

The NSS must also outline the means we should use to confront these varied challenges. In a time of complex threats, these goals cannot be achieved solely by the overmilitarized and essentially unilateral security policies of the George W. Bush administration. The U.S. misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan during Mr. Bush’s two terms in office are evidence of the pitfalls of that approach.

Mr. Obama must bring to bear the full weight of the U.S. government to confront the threats to our security. This means rebalancing and integrating U.S. military, diplomatic, development, homeland security, and intelligence capabilities for a whole of government approach.

The strongest mechanism to integrate these tools is a unified national security budget, an instrument the Obama administration thus far has resisted. This document would put the best interests of our national security above business as usual in the normal budget process and allow policymakers to compare resources, identify inefficiencies and correctly prioritize funding across agencies.

For example, a unified budget would highlight the fact that 87 percent of the administration’s fiscal 2010 budget request for security needs was allocated to the Defense Department and only 13 percent to Homeland Security and the State Department; it would also make clear that we spend more on a single program in the Defense Department, i.e., missile defense, than the entire Coast Guard. With this type of imbalance, it is little surprise that our diplomatic and development corps are not able to appropriately carry out their mandates overseas.

Mr. Obama faces many pressing national security decisions, the most urgent of which are likely to stem from our growing involvement in Afghanistan. But it would be a mistake to move forward on that and several other critical challenges without an overarching NSS to guide our actions. The interconnected nature and severity of the challenges we face demand that the administration offer a comprehensive, cost effective vision for how to achieve sustainable, lasting national security - not a set of piecemeal and reactionary approaches to emerging crises.

Lawrence J. Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, was assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. Sean Duggan and Laura Conley are researchers at the center. The three co-authored “Integrating Security: Preparing for the National Security Threats of the 21st Century” (Center for American Progress, 2009).

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