The Cable

Obama's new national security strategy: Bush 2.0?

The Obama administration will roll out its first National Security Strategy Thursday, which will seek to place this administration's mark on national security thinking while simultaneously justifying the continuation of many of the Bush administration's policies.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will unveil the document with a speech at the Brookings Institution and National Security Advisor Jim Jones will follow up with a briefing at the State Department's Foreign Press Center. There was an extensive and orderly consultative process that led up to this release, including deputies meetings that elicited feedback and outside consultations with eminent former officials from both parties, including Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft, and Zbigniew Brzezinski.

That process tracks more closely with the bottom-up approach of the Clinton administration, as opposed to the top-down, White House driven process used by the Bush team. The advantages of the inclusive approach are that there is more consensus and buy-in from the interagency up front. The downside is that the document gets longer and reads more like a committee report if more chefs are allowed into the kitchen.

President Obama previewed the strategy at the West Point military academy last weekend and portrayed it as a divergence from the past administration, in that it pledges a focus on multilateralism and building partnerships around the world.

"Yes, we are clear-eyed about the shortfalls of our international system. But America has not succeeded by stepping out of the currents of cooperation," Obama said. "So we have to shape an international order that can meet the challenges of our generation. We will be steadfast in strengthening those old alliances that have served us so well.... As influence extends to more countries and capitals, we also have to build new partnerships, and shape stronger international standards and institutions."

Left-leaning foreign-policy experts are already preparing to call the new strategy document a course correction from what they see as the misguided practices of the Bush administration.

"Progressives have long held that international rules and institutions play a vital role in U.S. security and global problem solving," Brian Katulis, fellow at the Center for American Progress, wrote today. "Progressives shouldn't overlook this moment -- when their ideas are becoming the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy."

But the other two previews of the strategy, one given by Jones at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy last month and another given by top counterterrorism advisor John Brennan today at the Center for Strategic and International Security, reveal a strategy that has more in common with past iterations than divergences.

In his speech, Jones laid out the four pillars of the new strategy: security, prosperity, values, and international order. That's somewhat different from Bush's 2006 NSS, which named two key pillars: "promoting freedom, justice, and human dignity," and "confronting the challenges of our time by leading a growing community of democracies."

But the basic tenor, aside from the "international order" part, is the same.

"The word ‘democracy' is not in the header of that section, but the values they are talking about are all democratic values," said Peter D. Feaver, a Duke University professor who worked directly on the last NSS at the Bush White House and writes for FP's Shadow Government blog

"They want it to be different, but there will be way more continuity than change," said Feaver. "When you read the NSS, what will be striking is how similar it is, because at the level of grand strategy there is more similarity than differences."

Brennan admitted as much in his preview speech, when he defended some policies liberals have eschewed, such as indefinite detention and the delays in closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in response to a question from Spencer Ackerman of the Washington Independent.

"When this administration came in, in January of last year, we dealt with a number of legacy situations that we wanted to make sure we were able to deal with appropriately without compromising the security of the American people," Brennan said.

When asked by The Cable if the NSS would mandate any new changes to the national security bureaucracy, Brennan said, "This document embodies that which has been part and parcel of this administration's policies heretofore, and it also lays out the vision of where we are going in the future."

Feaver said that the document, by nature, isn't meant to call for big changes in government organization on its own, but that doesn't mean it isn't valuable.

"Precisely because it's a public document, it must reflect what they've been doing. You're not going to get big surprises," he said. "The document is important because it is meant to string together in a strategic logic what they've already been doing."

The Cable

Gates stares down Congress over Air Force funding

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's push to change how the Defense Department sets its strategic and spending priorities faces its next major test in Congress Thursday, and Gates is heavily involved in seeing it through behind the scenes.

"The attacks of September 11th, 2001, opened a gusher of defense spending that nearly doubled the base budget over the last decade, not counting supplemental appropriations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Which brings us to the situation we face and the choices we have today -- as a defense department and as a country," Gates said in a May 8 speech at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas. "Given America's difficult economic circumstances and parlous fiscal condition, military spending on things large and small can and should expect closer, harsher scrutiny. The gusher has been turned off, and will stay off for a good period of time."

There's a torrent of speculation that Gates will leave office early next year (he's only said he will reevaluate at years' end), and Gates has been giving a series of speeches leveling harsh criticisms of the way the United States goes about organizing and funding its national security infrastructure. Given the entrenched interests on Capitol Hill, within the military, and in the wider defense community, it's the kind of initiative only an official with unassailable credibility and the freedom of not worrying about his next job can pull off.

Gates successfully won his first battle with Congress, ending production of the F-22 fighter, through a mixture of public and private moves that showed his deft ability to play both an inside and an outside political game.

His next big battle kicks off tomorrow, when lawmakers will try to thwart Gates's effort to rein in the other major fighter program, the F-35, by finally canceling plans to build a second engine model for the plane.

Every year, successive administrations have submitted budgets without the engine funding, while lawmakers add about $500 million to build a second engine for the F-35. And every year, Congress has won, getting the funding approved and avoiding a veto. This year could be different.

Gates is serious about this year's veto threat. He deployed Ashton Carter, the under secretary of defense for acquisitions, to the Hill today to make the case privately behind the scenes. Carter is arguing for an amendment (pdf) put forth by House leadership member John Larson, D-CT, Chellie Pingree, D-ME, and  Rep. Tom Rooney, R-FL, that would strip the bill of the funds.

Gates is expected to send a letter in support of the amendment Thursday when the bill hits the House floor.

It's an oversimplification to say that Gates wants to cut the overall level of defense spending. His chief ambition is to cut waste and compel each service to find areas to bring down their costs. "This can only work if the services are incentivized to cut costs, they can keep what they catch," said Pentaon spokesman Geoff Morrell.

But this latest initiaive dovetails with Gates other main initiative, to rebalance military spending toward the current conflicts, which necessarily means more pressure on the budgets of the Air Force and the Navy.

The F-35 program, which has been years delayed and billions over budget, is at the top of his target list for cuts.

"Is it a dire threat that by 2020 the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China?," Gates asked in the speech. "These are the kinds of questions Eisenhower asked as commander-in-chief. They are the kinds of questions I believe he would ask today."

It's very plausible that Congress will ignore Gates's plea and send the bill with the F-35 engine money in it to Obama, daring him to make himself a target by vetoing a national-security bill. But Gates is laying down political cover for the president on this one, making a public case for the cuts while simultaneously working behind the scenes.

"What is required going forward is not more study. Nor do we need more legislation. It is not a great mystery what needs to change. What it takes is the political will and willingness, as Eisenhower possessed, to make hard choices -- choices that will displease powerful people both inside the Pentagon and out."

Getty Images