The National Security Strategy: Then and Now

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By Paul Evancoe

Containing communist expansion, while providing a creditable nuclear deterrent, monopolized U.S. foreign policy and military spending for the 40 years preceding the 1992 end of the Cold War. The standoff between the Western allies and massive Soviet forces across the East-West divide bolstered by hundreds of Soviet missiles targeted on the United States is gone. Even as the U.S. remains the last superpower, a new world order has developed. Although this may provide some comfort, today’s security environment is laced with troubling new uncertainties while other clear threats persist.

Deceptively complex, not all security risks are military in nature. Transitional phenomena such as Islamic terrorism, narcotics trafficking, environmental degradation, rapid population growth and refugee flows all have security implications for both present and long term U.S. policy. In addition, new multi-lateral fiscal strains involving entitlement issues are, with increasing regularity, affecting international stability and will likely continue to present new challenges to U.S. global strategy.

In July of 1994 the U.S. Government Printing Office published President Clinton’s “National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement.” This strategy document, required by Section 603 of the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Department Reorganization Act of 1986, addressed the Clinton administration’s national strategy and foreign policy goals for dealing with both new threats and new opportunities. The document, which remains the backbone of U.S. foreign policy, promulgated three central goals: To credibly sustain our security with military forces that are ready to fight; To bolster America’s economic revitalization and; To promote democracy abroad.

The Clinton strategy was built upon the assumption that, in today’s world, the line that previously existed between U.S. domestic and foreign policy, is now diaphanous. The strategy embraced the premise that the national goals of enhancing security while bolstering economic prosperity and promoting democracy abroad are mutually supportive. It postulated that “Secure nations are more likely to support free trade and maintain democratic structures (and that) nations with growing economies and strong trade ties are more likely to feel secure and to work toward freedom.” The strategy went on to proclaim that “the more that democracy and political and economic liberalization take hold in the world, particularly in countries of geostrategic importance to (U.S. national interests), the safer our nation is likely to be and the more our people are likely to prosper.” Thus, our national security strategy was “based on enlarging the community of market democracies while deterring and containing a range of threats to the U.S., its allies and interests.”

The strategy called for the development and deployment of American military forces in the United States and abroad capable of rapidly responding to key dangers such as those posed by weapons of mass destruction, regional aggression and threats to the stability of states. Recognizing that there may be competing demands for U.S. involvement, as well as the need to marshal scarce resources, the strategy suggested that the means and extent of U.S. involvement must be carefully appraised to meet emergent challenges. Areas that could most affect U.S. national interests, for example, might involve a sizeable economic interest such as Mexico, commitments to NATO allies and areas like the Caribbean where there is a potential to generate substantial refugee flows into the U.S., or other nations allied with the U.S.

The strategy described how United States interests might be advanced through engagement and enlargement by placing stable political relations and open trade as the goals. Recognizing that the U.S. cannot and should not police the world, the strategy aimed to exercise a global leadership role while selectively engaging challenges, either unilaterally or multilaterally, that were most relevant to U.S. long-term interests. The U.S., as the last remaining superpower and self proclaimed premier practitioner of democratic values, categorically defined long term strategic interests as “physical defense and economic well being.”

By promoting prosperity at home and democracy abroad, the strategy intended to provide overarching security stability. This singular point accounted for the basis of many of the Clinton administration’s and those that followed, fiscal decisions involving familiar issues such as sanctions against Japan and China in retaliation for unfair trade practices or bolstering Mexico’s faltering peso. In U.S. foreign policy it accounts for the focus in preserving the democratic process in countries like Panama and Haiti, and encouraging it in key new democratic states like Russia and many of the other states comprising the former Soviet Union. Its premise, for example, extends more recently into Libya, Egypt, Iraq and Afghanistan. Although the strategy meandered through a myriad of convoluted and sometimes ambiguous paragraphs, its purpose was to provide a blueprint for the enhancement of U.S. security. The strategy succinctly stated that “whether the problem is nuclear proliferation, regional instability, the reversal of reform in the former Soviet empire, or unfair trade practices, the threats and challenges (the U.S.) faces demand cooperative, multi-national solutions.” The strategy is reiterated in today’s policy in the theme that no matter how powerful the U.S. is, the U.S. cannot succeed in today’s world unilaterally.

Maintaining a traditionally strong military is certainly a requirement to countering regional aggression, but today it may in itself not be enough. In view of the tremendous cost of the Iraq and Afghan Wars in terms of both money and people, a leaner and more flexible military force is now a necessity to credibly underwrite U.S. commitments. The maintenance of a highly mobile “two war” force remains a requirement to cope with the unpredictable, but Special Operations Forces (SOF) have emerged as a force of choice for many of these emerging threats. It is also necessary for SOF to cover the myriad of today’s contingency operations that have been added to the DOD mission either formally, or in most cases informally, as a result of this strategy.

There is no divergence in the Clinton strategy that reduces the requirement for the military to provide a credible overseas presence. But a shrinking military budget and force size has reduced U.S. presence overseas and to a less obvious degree, U.S. strategic mobility, equipment readiness and operations sustainment capability. Contributing to multilateral peace operations through peacekeeping or peace enforcement, remains very costly to an already over committed defense budget.

Non-combat operations involving nation assistance, humanitarian and disaster relief, non-combatant evacuation, counter-narcotics, etc. have become commonplace, often demanding budget priority over war fighting readiness. The strategy clearly states that the United States views peace operations as a means to support the national strategy, not as a strategy unto itself. This policy position, when compared to recent operations, may be open to debate. Nonetheless, it is politically correct and therefore unbiased.

Countering weapons of mass destruction and Islamic terrorism are directly related because they both commonly involve the same radical supporters. Although the Clinton strategy pointed to putting greater emphasis on stemming the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery means, the programs currently in place today either are marginally successful or dysfunctional failures. These exceedingly expensive non-proliferation programs may be in concert with the letter of the strategy, but are in actuality, disjointed and competing. As a result they provide the illusion of progress but generally contribute little to the substantial enhancement of U.S. security.

The solution could be to first recognize that there is a difference in program composition and purpose between non-proliferation and counterproliferation. Non-proliferation programs are primarily intelligence-oriented proactive programs focusing on prevention while counterproliferation programs are operationally-oriented focusing on response to an incident that has occurred or is clearly threatening. Current thinking places these programs under the same umbrella as a solution. This has never effectively worked and probably will never work, but it makes the bean counting easy.

Logic dictates that for all the non-proliferation successes involving the detection and intercept of illicit materials there is probably at least a number of unsuccessful detections. Certainly detection success is not perfect. It must be assumed that illicit materials have already slipped through and may already be in the hands of rogue nations or terrorist groups who would build malevolent nuclear devices for use against the U.S. – and this simple assumption should serve to increase the importance of counterproliferation operations, not diminish it.

The need to detect and prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction by terrorists is addressed in the Clinton strategy as a priority. Most analysts believe the greatest threat involves use of an improvised chemical weapon or a low tech radiological dispersal device. The employment of either will be devastating and will catch those targeted completely unprepared. The strategy makes clear that an attack of this nature will be perceived by the U.S. as an unacceptable escalation to the level of violence – a red line that has been crossed – which could drive significant military retaliation if state complicity is associated. Iran is a state supporter of Hamas and Hezbollah who have proven themselves barbarous enough to attempt an attack of this nature without regard to the consequences.

We know the key requirement for successful counterproliferation and counterterrorism is good intelligence. Although improving U.S. intelligence capabilities is elaborated upon in today’s strategy, it falls short of recognizing the significant role that solid intelligence plays in both policy and operations. The U.S. intelligence community, composed of several agencies and departments, not just the CIA as many believe, is itself still competing, compartmented and inept. As evidenced in the recent Benghazi incident and all those preceding it, there is no “big picture” as Hollywood depicts in its movie scripts. Intelligence needs to be disseminated, not harbored. The inter-agency assets involved in countering the wide variety of threats posed have the appropriate level of clearance and a need to know, but most often they are excluded or do not have access to the information they need. Significant improvement of this one area would result in measurable success not only in countering proliferation, terrorism and drug trafficking, but in deciding when and how to employ U.S. forces.

Environmental concerns were also included in the Clinton strategy. The strategy focused on “the range of environmental risks serious enough to jeopardize international stability (that) extends to massive population flight from man-made or natural catastrophes, such as Chernobyl or the East African drought, and to large scale ecosystem damage caused by industrial pollution, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, ozone depletion, and ultimately climate change.” The sheer magnitude of these environmental concerns requires a long-term strategy built upon partnerships between nations, regional coalitions formed by businesses and governments, and an international leadership role by the U.S. to provide the emphasis, technical support and conforming example.

The strategy reveals the environmental aspects of ill-designed economic growth and relates environmental damage to ultimately hindering economic growth. Global issues such as rapid urbanization, continuing poverty, widespread hunger, extensive illiteracy and new diseases are all derivatives of environmental degradation. The realities continue to be addressed in U.S. strategy with solutions aimed at having continuity of focus no matter which party is in power. The high road must be followed to assure future security and prosperity.

The strategy itself may not make the world a safer place – we get that. Today’s trouble spots will probably continue their historical roller coaster ride of violence. Long standing trends reflect that the overall level of violence resulting from terrorism can be expected to remain on the upswing as the level of weapon sophistication they use continues to grow. This has, in large part, resulted from the rapid growth of the information pipeline encouraged by numerous U.S. administrations and the resulting easy availability of previously difficult or non-accessible information. Central and South America will likely see the drug cartels increasingly use terrorist tactics to counter more effective drug enforcement, while terrorists will deal in drugs to finance their campaigns as the State supporters lose ground to the sanctions imposed upon them by coalition nations.

To many Americans, national security is a transparent and somewhat abstract function left for the government to execute. Promulgated through the national security policy, the President is responsible for calculating the appropriate level and direction of national security investment based on the threat, while remaining within budgetary constraints set by Congress. For most citizens and especially the media, evaluating the success of security policies only becomes easy when security fails. Unfortunately, then it is too late and almost always costly. The Clinton administration’s National Security Policy for Engagement and Enlargement may not have been an all-encompassing document, or even the best it could have been, but it has henceforth been the backbone of U.S. security policy. And, a policy is of little value if not understood and implemented.

Paul Evancoe is a novelist and freelance writer. His action novels “Own the Night,” “Violent Peace” and “Poison Promise” deal with terrorism and weapons of mass destruction and are available at




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