A fascinating paradox emerges from the news that U.S. Special Forces on Sunday killed terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden in a superbly well-planned and executed raid on his Pakistani compound.
The Obama administration rightfully celebrates the most important victory in the 10-year global war on terrorism, basking in the glory of justice done to a man who plotted the murder of more than 3,000 people on U.S. soil—mostly American citizens, but also citizens of many other nations. “His demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity,” said President Obama in his late evening address from the White House.
Yet at the very same time, the Administration finds itself contradicting the “national narrative” it has been carefully constructing since President Obama took office. This narrative is a Carteresque story of a nation in decline, forced toward international compromise and debilitating cuts in its military budget. But it was not multilateralism that brought Osama bin Laden down, nor was it “soft” or even “smart” power. What happened Sunday cannot be described as anything but a triumph of “hard power,” of military intelligence, skill, precision, and courage. It was also an outstanding example of the United States “going it alone.”
All of the above flies in the face of the recent publication of “A National Strategic Narrative” by the Woodrow Wilson Center and enthusiastically endorsed and prefaced by Anne-Marie Slaughter, who from 2009 to 2011 served as director of policy planning at the State Department.
Though not an official document, it is certainly fair to say that this document falls entirely into line with the Clinton State Department’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, with which Slaughter was closely associated. A “national narrative” (a catch phrase of our times) is the story by which a people understand their country’s role in the world. “The American dream” is one such foundational narrative of the United States; so is the narrative of “American exceptionalism.”
The “national strategic narrative” document authored by Navy Captain Wayne Porter and Marine Colonel Mark Mykleby (under the pseudonym Mr. Y) aspires to play a role similar to that of George Kennan’s famous “Mr. X” 1947 Foreign Affairs article. However, while Kennan promoted American global leadership in the containment of the Soviet Union, defeatism is the order of today if you believe Porter and Mykleby. In other words, Mr. Y is no Mr. X.
“Consider the description of the U.S. president as ‘the leader of the free world,’ a phrase that encapsulated U.S. power and the structure of the global order for decades. Yet anyone under thirty today, a majority of the world’s population, likely has no idea what it means,” writes Slaughter.
This is a highly dubious assertion. The U.S. in her view is entering into a period of “declinism,” defined as “the periodic certainty that we are losing all the things that have made us a great nation.” Given this understanding of today’s United States, Porter and Mykleby provide a blueprint for a not-very-assertive future foreign policy posture. The elements of this strategic narrative include abandoning any notion that this country can control or dominate global events, reliance on multilateralism, “sustainment”—by which is meant focusing on domestic resources—and cutting defense to fund global engagement.
Yet the fact is that “soft power” (or even “smart power”) has not delivered the promised results for the Obama Administration, but “hard power” has. The President’s policy of increased drone attacks on the Afghanistan–Pakistan border have had far more impact on the activity of terrorists than mountains of foreign aid given to Afghanistan and Pakistan. And the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. Special Forces will add fresh arguments for resisting deep and crippling defense cuts.
Hopefully, even the President will be struck by the irony of it all as he continues to bask in the glow of Sunday’s successful raid.