Sep 202017

During his maiden speech to the UN General Assembly on 19 September, President Trump embraced a higher level of defense spending than his budget originally proposed.  The President said, “And it has just been announced that we will be spending almost $700 billion on our military and defense. Our military will soon be the strongest it has ever been”.


That funding level is in line with the work done by the House and Senate Armed Services Committees this year.  With overwhelming bipartisan support, the House authorized a defense budget of $631.5 billion for core military needs and an additional $64.6 billion for contingency operations.  Yesterday, the Senate acted overwhelmingly to authorize similar funding levels.



Following the President’s comments, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, made the following statement:



“A majority of Republicans, Democrats, and now the President of the United States agree that after six years of neglect, America’s military needs a substantial investment to restore its strength and protect the nation.  Consensus on this issue has eluded Congress and the Executive Branch in the past.  There are still a number of hurdles to overcome, but I am encouraged that with President Trump’s support, we will soon be able to get troops the resources, training, and equipment they need.”               


Following the Goldwater-Nichols act, the defense budget is supposed to be informed by the national security strategy, submitted each year along with the President’s budget proposal. However, eight months into the Trump administration, and four months after the date the report was due, the national security strategy is still being written.




 Posted by at 9:05 AM
Sep 042017

Peter Feaver recently published an interesting article on the Trump administration’s forthcoming National Security Strategy. As the principal author of the Bush administration’s National Security Strategy, his insights are not to be missed. In the article, he outlines the challenges that are faced by the Trump administration in writing the strategy.

But the team does have some advantages:

  1. A capable national security advisor who knows a thing or two about writing strategy;
  2. A capable NSC staff tasked with running the drafting process; and
  3. Fairly good relations among the Cabinet principals with equities most directly involved.

Among the challenges:

  1. Trump, as candidate and president, has produced far less “source text” (speeches, white papers, etc.) with thoroughly hashed-out stances on a wide variety of issues than any of his predecessors;
  2. What source text he has produced is rife with apparent contradictions (e.g., Is NATO obsolete or vital? Is China a threatening rival or a partner?); and
  3. An administration riven with fundamental divisions that will require either painful policy debates to resolve or artful prose to mask.

And of course, there is Russia. Feaver points to the Trump administration’s relationship with and approach to Russia as the greatest challenge. “You cannot write a credible National Security Strategy today that ignores one of the biggest ongoing current threats to American national security: Russia’s effort to undermine our democratic institutions and divide our nation both internally and from our allies. It would be like writing an NSS in the late 1940s and not addressing global communism. Or in the early 1990s and not discussing nuclear proliferation. Or in the early 2000s and not mentioning militant Islamist terrorist networks.”

He argues that the outcome could go one of two ways: “Perhaps the awkwardness of drafting language on this problem in the NSS will help spur the administration to confront the challenge,” proving the value of the legislative requirement for the National Security Strategy. If the administration does not tackle the Russia problem and talk through its differences, then “it will be painfully evident for all to read when the NSS is published.”

Sep 012017

On August 7, War on the Rocks released a podcast where several national security experts discussed the importance of the National Security Strategy (NSS), a document required by Congress for each new administration to outline its objectives. While the overall consensus is that, yes, the NSS matters, the podcast participants have varying opinions towards the extent of the document’s importance. The discussion includes commentary from several individuals who have been involved in the creation of past Strategies, providing insights that could only be achieved through firsthand experience.
The experts agree that the importance of the NSS lies in its purpose, which is to provide a framework for the issues and goals that the administration would like to focus on. Dr. Kori Schake of the Hoover Institution, who was part of the National Security Council during the creation of the 2002 NSS, believes that the document teaches the new administration what is important, provides a common purpose to be worked on, and allows congressional overseers, journalists, and the general public to hold the government accountable. Other podcast participants expand on the importance of the NSS, with Dr. Hal Brands of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies emphasizing that foreign governments pay closer attention to the document than Congress or any American entity; this forces the administration to address the entire world, rather than just the United States. Dr. Will Inboden of the Clements Center at the University of Texas, who worked on the NSS during the George W. Bush administration, provided an example of a foreign entity reading the NSS and harshly reacting to its content; following the release of the document, the Chinese Foreign Ministry released a statement denouncing the Strategy, stating that the authors of the document should be fired. While it is crucial that the NSS be comprehensive and pertinent enough for its vast audience, it is important to note that it is quite common for one Strategy of an administration to read differently than the next. According to Dr. Colin Kahl of Georgetown University, the first NSS tends to be more idealistic and ambitious while making a clear distinction from the policies of the new president’s predecessor, whereas the following Strategies tend to retreat with more caveats. Although the NSS is a dynamic document with content that may or may not be appreciated by every reader, it is important that the objectives of the current administration are accessible to anyone who desires to read them.
The podcast participants then engage in predictions about what the NSS of the Trump administration will consist of, with everyone agreeing that doing so will be more difficult than during previous presidencies. However, the group concurs it is likely that the Strategy will be similar to the content addressed in the May 2017 article written for The Wall Street Journal by H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn, President Trump’s National Security Advisor and National Economic Council Director, respectively. McMaster and Cohn emphasize Trump’s “America First” policy, yet also commit to strengthening cooperation between the United States and its allies. Their article adopts a more realist approach that describes the international arena as a competition between state and non-state actors for power rather than as a global community; they advocate for a focus on military, political, and economic strength in order to successfully compete. Dr. Kahl believes that not only will the NSS of the Trump administration define the United States as “being back”, but will also criticize the Obama administration and affirm that Trump’s presidency has more military might. Although the podcast participants accept that this will be the general tone of the Strategy, there remain many questions regarding specifics in the NSS, as well as how the Trump administration will go about implementing it. It is unclear whether the new NSS will make a commitment to an open global trading system, or how President Trump will grapple with advocating for a position of military might after he has publicly criticized American intervention in Iraq and Libya. Additionally, it remains ambiguous how his tumultuous relationships with Russia and China will manifest themselves in the NSS. The final concern expressed by those involved in the podcast was whether the NSS will have any bearing on the actions that President Trump will take throughout the remainder of his term, as he is notorious for being a “wild card” who changes his mind and contradicts previous statements and decisions. Although these concerns remain to be addressed, the consensus within the podcast participants was that, even with a “wild card” of a president, the National Security Strategy is a vital document for addressing the United States’ presence in the world.

 Posted by at 5:11 PM
Aug 252017

By Marissa Soltoff

War on the Rocks recently released a podcast discussing the importance of the National Security Strategy (NSS), a report that outlines what the current administration deems important and how it will address various national security issues. This report is significant since it forces the United States to address the entire world, outlines specific issues that would otherwise be unclear, and provides a framework for foreign governments, journalists, and the American public to hold the administration accountable for its actions. The group of national security experts participating in the podcast detailed how they believed the Trump administration’s NSS would differ from those of the past, as President Trump is more of a wild card whose stances on issues can change overnight; this can pose a problem if the actions of the administration differ greatly than what was agreed to in the NSS. It is unclear as to whether the NSS of the Trump administration will continue the pattern of an international order led by the United States, as well as the stance on committing to an open global trading system. This report is particularly important, as foreign governments will be paying close attention to this administration to try to make predictions from an unpredictable president.



Mar 282017

From War on the Rocks, an insightful look at an important critique of military leadership:

H.R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam (Harper Perennial, 1998).

Dereliction of Duty is a serious book. Thoroughly researched, carefully argued, it tackles a big subject: Who is responsible for the debacle that is the Vietnam War? McMaster concludes that everyone in political and military leadership was: Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, presidential military advisor Maxwell Taylor, the Congress and — especially — the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He’s not wrong, but this book by the man who recently became President Donald Trump’s national security advisor reveals an innocence about politics at the highest levels as well as some questionable judgments about civil-military relations in the United States.

Read more of the review here.

 Posted by at 11:46 AM
Jun 242012

Title: Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power
Author: Sanger, David

It is a common misconception that presidents that are consistently “pragmatic” do not simultaneously have a more general doctrine guiding their policy decisions. However, as is made amply clear in David Sanger’s new book, Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, pragmatism is more a matter of knowing when and how much to follow your principles, and when the needs of the moment must prevail.

In Confront and Conceal, Sanger follows up on his last book, The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power by  outlining the path that President Obama has followed in confronting the many  national security policy questions that a US president must face.

Typically characterized as following a pragmatict approach, the Obama administration actually does follow a very clear set of guidelines in all of its foreign policy. Indeed, the Obama Doctrine could be described as “don’t appear to act unilaterally.” That is, it generally attempts to use multilateral, diplomatic processes to achieve its foreign policy goals. When a threat arrises that appears to require the use of force, it therefore prefers to employ others in the international community, and aid them in the pursuit. This can be seen in its “leading from behind” in Libya and its generally hands-off approach in the rest of the Arab Spring. However, when it perceives a direct threat to US interests, it is not opposed to acting unilaterally and forcefully, as it has done in Pakistan, and generally prefers to keep the action as quiet as possible.

The most interesting example of this preference for unilateral action to remain secret is brought to light by Sanger’s chapter on the US operation known as Olympic Games, in which the US and Israel created and deployed a worm into the computers controlling Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. As noted in the New York Times, “This is an account that long will be consulted by anyone trying to understand not just Iran but warfare in the 21st century. It alone is worth the price of the book.”

Of course, the book covers an array of other national security issues, ranging from the surge in Iraq, to Pakistan, to North Korea. It is a worthy book by any measure, but for those interested in the understanding the strategic approach of the president to national security issues, Confront and Conceal should be on the top of the must-read list.

Jun 102012

Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen recently wrote:

When Barack Obama hosts George W. Bush at the White House today for the unveiling of Bush’s presidential portrait, the 44th president will have to find something nice to say about the 43rd. Perhaps Obama could point out that the two men’s counterterrorism policies are virtually indistinguishable — except in the liberal reaction to them.

However, when reading through the details of his argument, it becomes clear that Thiessen’s facts are a bit fishy (as are his conceptions of the laws of war). He focuses most of his argument on the drone-warfare policies of the two Presidencies, but fails to note that while the drones were initially developed under Bush’s watch, very few of the drone strikes were carried out by him. He says:

Most conservatives support Obama’s drone strategy. And apparently so do most liberals. A Post poll earlier this year found that 77 percent of self-described liberals support drone strikes, and 55 percent approve even if the targets are American citizens. This may be the greatest bipartisan achievement of Obama’s presidency: He has secured broad liberal support for the key elements of the Bush doctrine. That is an accomplishment that was unthinkable when Bush was in office — and one I suspect Obama will leave out of his remarks at the White House today.

However, it is amply clear that drones played little if any part in the Bush Doctrine. Simply stated, this doctrine involved preemptive strikes to topple possible foes with little follow-through once the regime had fallen. Drones were used in each of the wars that Bush began under this doctrine, but were in no way integral to it. They are, however, indispensable to the Obama administration’s conduct of a remote war with al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan. Thus, Obama’s heavy reliance on drone operations reflects a significant departure from Bush-era policies.

Indeed, the two mens’ policies on Afghanistan and Iraq could not have been further apart: Bush ignored Afghanistan in favor of a war in Iraq, then under-resourced both; Obama has faithfully followed a surge and withdraw policy in both. Additionally, as Thiessen himself hints at, the two administrations approaches to interrogation and legal process are significantly at odds. Obama’s rejection of the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and his attempt (foiled by Republicans in Congress) to close Guantanamo and bring terrorist back under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice, need only be pointed out to persuade the reader that the two administrations differ remarkably in terms of their counterterrorism policies.

Jun 102012

In recent months and years, it seems that Congress has been taking an increasingly active role in setting US national security policy. Legislators are no longer satisfied with simple pronouncements on their foreign policy preferences, even in the form of House or Senate resolutions that indicate broad support for their position. Instead, Congress has been affirmatively exerting its power through all of the tools available to it, from requiring reports from the Pentagon and the Secretary of Defense to imposing (vice authorizing) sanctions.

This turn of events would be important even if it did not directly affect the national security of the United States. After all, it reflects a shifting balance of power between the branches of the federal government which seems to be largely unnoticed in the general press. Under the status quo ante, the Congress’s role has been to endow the President with certain policy tools and to review his use of those tools. If it is uncomfortable with his policy, it generally just complains bitterly. On extreme occasions, it will remove or place restrictions on some of those policy tools.

The current Congress’s actions go much further. The best example is the sanctions regime it has placed on Iran. Congress did not merely authorize President Obama to impose sanctions on Iran, its leaders, or those others who may interfere with the sanctions regime–instead it required him to do so. This, of course, limits his flexibility in coming to a negotiated settlement (see my previous post), which is exactly what is intended.

The 112th Congress is not one which is particularly interested in negotiated solutions in any case, but with regard to Iran, many legislators see negotiation as a dangerous distraction from the path to war. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) described the Obama policy as a “foolish embrace of yet another round of negotiations [that] will only embolden the regime.” While language has been added to the forthcoming Iran sanctions bill which makes clear that the act would not authorize the use of military force, this provision was itself a contested issue that had to be watered down in the Senate.

But perhaps the most worrying aspect of this sequence of events is not that Congress is taking the lead, nor that it is hell-bent on using military force, but instead that it is intent on doing so without taking into account the effects on the political and economic situation. Indeed, in the absence of a ground invasion, there is little hope that the nuclear program could be destroyed by military force since it is both hardened and dispersed. Additionally, any attack that did not completely wipe out the program would likely cause Iranians to “rally to the flag”–in this case the nuclear flag–a completely counterproductive outcome. Lastly, not only would any direct attack on Iran would throw the oil markets in particular into wild chaos, but invading Iran at this point, so shortly after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (but not North Korea), would force much of the world’s population to conclude that we are at war with Islam. And you can be sure that the Islamic world will not take that lying down. Until these issues are addressed, precipitous use of military force would be most unwise. Thankfully a few Republicans, such as Chuck Hagel, are making their concerns about these issues known and are calling for cooler heads to prevail.

The general failure to take such considerations into account displays a lack of strategic thinking. In setting policy, especially in cases dealing with nuclear proliferation among our enemies and the decision to resort to military action, where the national security is so directly impacted, decision-makers (whoever they are) must take into account not only the odds of success or failure of the policy objective at hand but also the secondary and tertiary effects, as well as the relative likelihood of each possible outcome. Not doing so risks creating more problems than are solved–and that appears to be the road we are now being steered down.

Jun 042012

Over the course of the last week or so, several events in North Korea have occurred which shed light on the nature of the regime and thus its role in the strategic environment.
The typical view of North Korea is as a “communist dictatorship,” or less charitably, as an ideologically driven state with a child (or, formerly, a wingnut) at the helm. Alternatively, the DPRK is seen as a totalitarian monolith. However, there is more to the state than this. As is more fully discussed in David C. Kang’s article in International Security, there are actually several competing elements at the sub-national level, each vying for control of the state’s foreign policy, namely the party, the military, and the cabinet.

The recent constitutional amendment declaring the DPRK a “nuclear armed state” or “nuclear power,” depending on the translation, bring this into particularly stark relief. In a dictatorship, constitutional amendments are little more than publicity stunts, since the dictator can by definition do as he pleases. This means that negotiations with dictatorships, regardless of any applicable constitutional provisions are one-level games. This is of course one of the reasons that they are popular as allies in difficult regions: they are more manageable.

Democratic and bureaucratic states, on the other hand, have to play the same game on two levels: the international and the national. That is, in addition to pleasing the negotiating partner, the negotiator must not offend the constituents at home. Such two-level games cause obvious difficulties, but also benefits. After all, the negotiator can fall back on the inability to garner public support at home (true or not) as a reason to reject a proposal he dislikes, increasing his leverage in the negotiations.

An example of this could be seen in President Obama’s recent remarks to Russian President Medvedev that he will have “more flexibility” regarding the anti-ballistic missile shield after his reelection. This was not intended to be heard at home, but to convey a firmness in present negotiations that was out of his control. This increases Obama’s negotiating power: Medvedev cannot expect a result that Obama cannot produce. However, because it was caught by a “hot mic,” the gambit actually did have second-level effects, negatively affecting public support and weakening his negotiating power. This illustrates the simultaneous constraint and empowerment of the democratic negotiator’s two-level game.

Similarly, in an ideological state with competing factions, such constitutional provisions can become significant roadblocks to negotiation. Just as a US negotiator would face certain reprimand for attempting to negotiate away 2nd Amendment rights, a North Korean negotiator would now be in severe trouble if he committed the constitutional crime of agreeing to give up the nukes. The DPRK has thus created significant leverage in nuclear negotiations by constraining their negotiators.

Interestingly, the sub-national actors are not the only ones that North Korea must please (or avoid offending too badly). North Korea is heavily dependent on China for aid and international support. China is therefor another constituent whose views must be taken into consideration in negotiations with the West. According to Nightwatch, a party official recently told the South Korean media that “North Korea is prepared to attempt a second space launch but is concerned about Chinese and Russian reaction as well as the prospect of another failure.” While the DPRK sometimes asserts its independence by defying Chinas wishes, it will be hesitant to launch another missile or test another nuclear device for fear of going too far and risking its status as client state.

This adds a second dimension to the two-level game (now a three-level game?) which may be exploited by the West. If the US can convince China that it is in China’s interest to not only limit proliferation on the Korean peninsula, but to reverse the progress the DPRK has already made, it will effectively be changing the conditions within the DPRK’s constituency. This will increase the pressure on the North dramatically, forcing a change of policy.


Jun 012012

Daniel W. Drezner recently challenged his twitter followers to submit the YouTube clip that best represented U.S. Grand Strategy. All are worthwhile and illustrative of current or recent American grand strategy and its results. Of particular note is a late entry by  Diana Wueger, “Like a BUS!,” which portrays beautifully the benefits and dangers of hegemonic power.

According to Daniel:

Like most of these seemingly short clips, Wueger’s submission works on two levels.  On the one hand, it demonstrates the ways in which hegemonic power allows some actors to be able to pursue policies that small actors simply cannot.  In this comparison, this clip reminds the viewer of the many global public goods that a hegemonic actor might feel obligated to provide.  Compare Bus 62 with the U.S. Navy after the 2004 tsunami, for example.  On the other hand, hegemonic power can also have unanticipated negative externalities.  Sure, Bus 62 simply plows through the barrier.  However, it does so without helping the other people stuck in traffic, and, like a boss, nearly plows over the person in the way.  A cautionary tale about the uses and possible abuses of power.