President Obama today announced the administration’s new national security strategy, and you should read the whole fifty-two pages, not just the commentary and reporting, to draw your own conclusions.


Yes, as some liberals and progressives point out, the new strategy shows that Obama is not President Bush. Brian Katulis, an expert at the Center for American Progress, wrote yesterday in Politico that “the plan is grounded in core progressive foreign policy principles that stand in sharp contrast to mainstream conservative doctrine,” and he added:


Though some progressives clearly have deep misgivings about Obama’s policy choices — whether involving Afghanistan, drone strikes in Pakistan or the handling of terrorist detainees in Guantanamo and elsewhere — they should embrace and defend his overall national security vision.


But not so fast. Especially in the wake of the revelation, in Monday’s New York Times, that the administration has approved a vast expansion of covert operations by the U.S. military in the Middle East and Central Asia, it isn’t clear whether Obama’s effort to separate himself from President Bush’s policy of unilateral interventionism, regime change, and the Global War on Terrorism is rhetorical or real. And the examples that Katulis points out – Afghanistan, drone strikes, and Guantanamo – aren’t just blips that can be overlooked.


In his introduction to the new strategy, Obama unfortunately proclaims, as did Bush, that America is “at war” with an amorphous network of terrorists. “For nearly a decade, our nation has been at war with a far-reaching network of violence and hatred,” says Obama. And he falls into the old, shop-worn rhetoric about American’s greatness and the need to maintain military superiority, “We will maintain the military superiority that has secured our country, and underpinned global security, for decades. … We must pursue a strategy of national renewal and global leadership, a strategy that rebuilds the foundations of American strength and influence.”


That’s the nub of the issue. Unlike Bush, who eschewed alliances and believed that American military power could roll over enemies and allies alike, and whose use of unilateral force in invading Iraq outraged European and Asian allies, Obama seeks the same goals – military superiority and expanded global influence – through alliances, such as NATO. Perhaps multilateralism is a good thing, when it’s compared to unilateralism (especially the sort employed by Bush, which mixed ignorance and arrogance in equally lethal doses), but Obama still insists that American must arrogate to itself a worldwide leadership role, backed by overwhelming military power.


The best thing about Obama’s new strategy is that the president recognizes that national security starts at home, and he stresses the importance of a strong economy, education, technological innovation, and the search for clean energy as key to American power in the new century. Does that mean that he’s ready to launch an industrial policy that aims at creating high-paying skilled jobs at home, to vastly increase government funding of research and development, job training, and rebuilding American’s crumbling infrastructure? It isn’t clear. Sadly, in talking about new sources of energy, Obama emphasizes that doing so will reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, which is not the primary goal of clean energy technology, and he says little about the importance of that new energy technology as a good in itself. And he continually emphasizes reducing the deficit, which seems to rule out needed huge new expenditures for R&D, training, job creation, and infrastructure building. Still, it’s a good sign when the president puts rebuilding American at home at the “center” of his national security strategy.


In the key passage on the use of force, the new strategy says:


While the use of force is sometimes necessary, we will exhaust other options before war whenever we can, and carefully weigh the costs and risks of action against the costs and risks of inaction. When force is necessary, we will continue to do so in a way that reflects our values and strengthens our legitimacy, and we will seek broad international support, working with such institutions as NATO and the U.N. Security Council. The United States must reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend our nation and our interests, yet we will also seek to adhere to standards that govern the use of force.


Yes, that’s an improvement over Bush’s declarations that might makes right, even when it’s employed recklessly and unilaterally. But it still allows Obama a lot of wiggle room. And when U.S. military covert operators and U.S. Special Forces are reportedly operating inside Iran, making contacts with dissident groups and gathering targeting information for a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, then what’s the difference?