The first speech of a new president - who by his own admission is fighting two wars simultaneously - must do two things. It must explicitly describe the enemy we are fighting and what strategy we will use to overcome them. Instead of providing a clear analysis of where we are today, who threatens us and how we will defeat them, President Obama spent his 6,500 words on three issues: torture, Guantamo Bay and the release of classified Bush-era memoranda. Of fifteen transcript pages nine were devoted solely to the first two issues.
Providing for the security of a nation is not an unscientific, wholly subjective affair. At its highest level, it is done through grand strategy. Grand strategy should not be a hostage to petty party rivalries or transient arguments over technicalities. It must be based upon the national interests of the country and describe how best those interests may be realized over the medium and long-term through the application of all the elements of national power. This includes everything from the use of force to the use of diplomacy, economic tools and information.
As the world waited to see how a Democratic White House would pick up the baton carried since 9/11 by the Bush administration, we were treated to glimpses of new thinking from within the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security. We were informed that The Global War on Terror (GWOT) had been discarded to be replaced by ‘Overseas Contingency Operations’ and that instead of terrorism we should instead refer to ‘man-caused disaster.’ Some charitably dismissed these as the false-starts of a new national security team. However the recent performances of President Barack Obama and National Security Adviser Jim Jones in their first substantive national security speeches confirm the fact that the new administration does not want to - or cannot? - do grand strategy.
While we cannot question the fact that the status of Camp Delta and it inmates are both a matter of national security, neither can be reasonably represented as matters of grand strategy. Whatever happens to these individuals, where they are held and how they are processed, such decisions will not help us define the current threat to the US and how to defeat it. As the ancient strategist Sun Tsu warned us: in any conflict the first priority is to know one’s self and then to know the enemy. To this the Prussian mastermind Carl von Clausewitz added another prerequisite: to know the nature of the conflict one is waging. A debate on whether or not to waterboard, or the respective merits of military tribunals versus the federal court system, answers none of these crucial questions.
Beyond ignoring the fundamental mechanics of grand strategy, surprisingly the President’s speech was also rhetorically empty. Despite using the word “values” or “truths” almost a dozen times as a way to critique the policies of his predecessor, the president did not tell America what his values are. This is a very serious omission given the fact that we clearly face a foe who has an ideology, albeit a religious one.
The Salafist/Jihadist ideology of al Qaeda and associated movements can only be adequately countered if we take Sun Tsu’s advice and define who we are in terms of our own ideology. What do we stand for? What are the explicit values that we wish to promote in the face of a group that would see all of us live in a global Caliphate reminiscent of the Taliban (or instead kill us)? How easily we have forgotten the last ideological war we fought. Remember the Cold War was won without one shot being fired across the Iron Curtain of a divided Europe. It was won because our shining ideology of liberty and democracy vanquished the decrepit and obscene ideology of Communism. What does the America of 2009 under President Obama stand for? Not waterboarding detainees arrested on a battlefield may be a laudatory decision. It is not an ideology that will win over the hearts of souls of those who are fence-sitters or who quietly acquiesce to the violence that is al Qaeda, the Taliban, or any other killer of innocents.
There are those that have pointed to the fact that President Obama’s lack of experience in national security issues is the reason he chose retired Supreme Allied Commander Jim Jones as his National Security Adviser, a man with over thirty years in uniform who has served in numerous international positions. And perhaps that was his motivation. However the potential vacuum in the president’s expertise has yet to be substantively filled. Last week NSA Jones gave his first speech which was expected to clarify how the National Security Council sees the world. Unfortunately, instead of giving us his threat assessment and the road map describing how his team will defeat the enemy, it was clear that he had been asked by the President to defuse the criticism former Vice-President Dick Cheney had recently heaped upon the administration. Instead of discussing his operational suggestions and reforms of American national security mechanisms, NSA Jones spent thirty minutes attempting to reassure us that contrary to what Dick Cheney says, Americans are “safe.” Grand strategy had been replaced with public relations.
My father was imprisoned for life by the Communists in return for his love of democracy; nevertheless, for the first time in my life, as I awaited the first pronouncements of the new President and his national security team, I felt the desire for a touch of (conceptual) radicalism. Yes, we have defeated the numerous attempts by al Qaeda to attack the US since 9/11. We have replaced the evil totalitarian regimes of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, but Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are still out there, as Madrid, Bali, Amman and London bloodily attest. As a result I found myself thirsty for proactive and energetic - even iconoclastic - solutions to our situation, a situation in which one side of the fight is dedicated to our destruction or enslavement. Before one can have a new thought, one has to know what one wishes to achieve and why. I know what America means to me and my family, but I still do not know what it means to the current Administration.
In his speech, President Obama called Guantanamo Bay the “rallying cry for our enemies.” I wish to know what our rallying cry is. He went on to say that he “will never hide the truth because it’s uncomfortable” but I fear that is exactly what has happened. We are facing a religious totalitarianism of global reach with explicit aspirations to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction against us, yet our government is most vexed by the question of how to process people arrested on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. We need a national security response of Cold War magnitude and brilliance if we are to be victorious. But perhaps first we need to remind ourselves what grand strategy really means.
Sebastian L. v. Gorka Ph.D. is founding director of the Institute for Democracy and International Security and associate fellow of the Joint Special Operations University. An internationally recognized expert on matters of national security and democratic transition, he advises and briefs at the highest levels to NATO, SOUTHCOM and SOCOM. His new weekly column: On Defending Democracy, with the Hudson Institute New York, will focus on stories and issues that the mainstream media do not cover. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org .