The Post-Strategic Presidency

In 2012, Dr. Lamont Colucci was approached by U.S. News and World Report to write a weekly column on foreign policy and national security. This is under the aegis of World Report – Insights, perspectives, and commentary on foreign affairs. View the article on

The coffin is quickly being lowered on President Barack Obama’s most recent National Security Strategy. It arrived with little fanfare, received almost no attention from the electorate, and grabbed the attention of the foreign policy elite for only a day or two. Many have written about the laundry list that was contained or omitted, but few have asked the question at the deep end of the pool: Does this administration have a strategic set of goals to advance American interests in its waning days?

This goes well beyond any single issue, such as the Islamic State group, China or counterterrorism. It asks the important question of grand strategy that every occupant of the White House must confront, no matter how wrongly obsessed they are about domestic issues: Has my presidency created the conditions for American survival, prosperity, primacy and respect on the international scene? These four fundamentals are the critical questions a president must answer before anything else.

From the beginning, the Obama doctrine has been an amalgamation of four previous presidents, poorly synthesized into a disjointed Frankenstein’s monster. It lumbers around ham-fisted, dazed, confused and often angry. The parts of the monster are Carter’s extreme multilateralist, anti-American exceptionalism; Nixon’s burden-sharing, highly amplified to “lead from behind”; and Clinton’s obsession with globalization, risk-aversion, polls and technocracy. The only portion of the Obama doctrine that was and is successful has been when he followed some of the legacies left by his predecessor, President George W. Bush, in the areas of counterterrorism.

The one area that is truly Obama’s own is his hesitancy in strategy and action. This is praised by many on the left, who have categorized it as either “strategic patience” or “strategic restraint,” as if strategy is something that should ever take an extended hiatus. The attempt to make a vice into a virtue is 1000 year-old politics and is to be expected, even though it is destructive in the long term.

The 2015 National Security Strategy demonstrates that nothing has changed for this president since he went from community organizer to commander in chief. All of the accusations made by many establishment liberals that he simply does not care for and is uninterested in foreign affairs and national security are simply, again, codified.

The document outlined four broad goals: the security of the United States, its citizens, and U.S. allies and partners; a strong, innovative and growing U.S. economy in an open international economic system that promotes opportunity and prosperity; respect for universal values at home and around the world; and an international order advanced by U.S. leadership that promotes peace, security and opportunity through stronger cooperation to meet global challenges. These vague platitudes are backed up only by various lists of tactical attempts. The document fundamentally asks more questions than it answers.

Many inside and outside of government, including some foreign policy experts, dismiss the importance of the National Security Strategy document as propaganda that has no operational value. This is incredibly dangerous. The roots of the document lie in the 1947 National Security Act and the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. These made it clear that the purpose of the president to issue declarations of national security strategy was and is not about politics or propaganda, but to ensure the safety of the United States. Presidents, notably Clinton and Obama, who have treated these documents as vehicles for personal, party or optical aggrandizement are exactly those presidents whose failure in national security and foreign policy are profound.

Obama has been called the post-American president, and he has often been heartily criticized for not demonstrating an adherence to American exceptionalism. However, perhaps this misses the profounder point. The president must ensure American power and fortune, but his inability or unwillingness to take difficult and decisive action makes this impossible. Perhaps his real moniker should be the post-strategy president.