President Obama unveiled a national security strategy on Friday that called for “strategic patience” and warned against American “overreach,” an approach that drew criticism as some lawmakers say the rising threat from the Islamic State demands a more urgent response.
The 29-page document is meant to serve as a blueprint for Obama’s final two years in office. The strategy cast the U.S. as an indispensable force in combating global challenges, including terrorism, climate change and cyber threats.
“American leadership remains essential,” National Security Adviser Susan Rice said at a Brookings Institution event where she detailed the plan.
Yet the long-awaited security agenda included no major course changes in the military campaign against Islamic State militants or in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The document acknowledged serious threats abroad – and reiterated that, for the Islamic State, the goal is to “ultimately defeat” the terror group – but was imbued with a sense of restraint.
“America leads from a position of strength. But, this does not mean we can or should attempt to dictate the trajectory of all unfolding events around the world,” the document said. “As powerful as we are and will remain, our resources and influence are not infinite. And in a complex world, many of the security problems we face do not lend themselves to quick and easy fixes.”
The strategy said the U.S. has to make “hard choices” and “resist the over-reach that comes when we make decisions based upon fear.”
“The challenges we face require strategic patience and persistence,” the document said.
That line drew a rebuke from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who suggested the approach will only embolden America’s rivals.
“I doubt ISIL, the Iranian mullahs, or Vladmir Putin will be intimidated by President Obama’s strategy of ‘strategic patience.’ From their point of view, the more ‘patience’ President Obama practices the stronger they become,” he said in a statement. “The Obama Doctrine, or ‘strategic patience,’ has led to a world in chaos. … Applying more ‘patience’ to President Obama’s failed foreign policy just prolongs failure.”
The National Security Strategy was released a day after Obama made controversial remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast appearing to draw comparisons between Islamic State atrocities and bloody acts committed by Christians – hundreds of years ago.
“Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ,” Obama said. “In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. …So this is not unique to one group or one religion.”
The administration faced a storm of criticism for the comments. Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal on Friday ripped the president’s “history lesson,” saying the issue today “is the terrorism of radical Islam, the assassination of journalists, the beheading and burning alive of captives.”
Jindal said: “We will be happy to keep an eye out for runaway Christians, but it would be nice if he would face the reality of the situation today. The Medieval Christian threat is under control Mr. President. Please deal with the Radical Islamic threat today.”
White House spokesman Eric Schultz defended the comments on Friday, saying the president believes in American exceptionalism but also believes “we need to be honest with ourselves” when America falls short on holding to its values.
Some are concerned Obama’s rhetoric does not match the urgency of the challenge at hand, as the Islamic State holds a wide swath of territory across Iraq and Syria while seeking to attract followers from around the world. Its brutal execution by fire of a captured Jordanian pilot rallied the Jordan government this week to launch a new wave of airstrikes against the terror group.
In the National Security Strategy, the administration said the U.S. would continue to support Iraq’s government against ISIS, while working to train and equip a “moderate Syrian opposition” to battle terrorists in their country.
The document acknowledged that the terror threat “persists” and has spread to a range of countries and continents. At the same time, it claimed “the threat of catastrophic attacks against our homeland by terrorists has diminished.”
To that end, Rice said Friday that the danger does not rise to the level of past challenges America has faced.
“While the dangers we face may be more numerous and varied, they are not of the existential nature we confronted during World War II or during the Cold War. We cannot afford to be buffeted by alarmism and a nearly instantaneous news cycle,” Rice said.
She spoke to how the terror threat has spread into a network of Al Qaeda affiliates, local militias and groups like ISIS. “This diffusion may for now reduce the risk of a spectacular attack like 9/11 but it raises the probability of the types of attacks that we have seen in Boston, and Ottawa, Sydney, and Paris,” she said.
The president is required by law to send Congress a national security strategy annually. However, most presidents, including Obama, have done so only sporadically. Obama’s only previous memo to lawmakers came in 2010 and formalized his desire to broaden U.S. national security posture beyond anti-terror campaigns.
Obama’s critics have accused the president of putting his desire to keep the U.S. out of overseas conflicts ahead of the need for more robust action against the world’s bad actors. Some members of Congress have called for Obama to send more American ground troops to the Middle East to combat the Islamic State group, while also pushing for the White House to authorize shipments of defensive weapons to Ukraine to help its beleaguered military in the fight against Russian-backed separatists.
Administration officials have said that Obama is reconsidering his opposition to giving Ukraine lethal aid, though he continues to have concerns about the effectiveness of that step.
For much of his presidency, Obama has sought to recalibrate the focus of U.S. foreign policy away from the Middle East and toward fast-growing regions like Asia and Africa. He’s made numerous trips to Asia, in particular, and Rice announced Friday that Obama would be hosting state visits this year for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
In one area where Obama has overlap with Republicans, he reaffirmed his support for free trade agreements with Asia, as well as Europe.
The president also addressed the risks of climate change and infectious diseases like the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa.