All Spin and No Substance: The Need for a Meaningful Obama Strategy

It may be unfair to expect any meaningful discussion of strategy and America's security position in a State of the Union address. But, it is all too clear that President Obama failed to go beyond a few sentences of vacuous spin in dealing with the world outside the United States. The most he did was to claim that the United States has fewer troops at war. He provided no insights at all as to the security of the United States, his future defense policies, and his ability to translate strategic concepts into action. 

Unfortunately, he has done little better in the past. President Obama has often been strong on concepts, but short on actual plans and progress. He has often talked about the importance of transparency, but has then provided little more than rhetoric and spin. Some six years after taking office, he still seems to find it extraordinarily difficult to get down to actual substance and to provide the kind of supporting data that gives him real credibility.

Consider where the United States now stands and what the president has not addressed in any detail or tangible form: He has decided to rush a withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2016 without issuing any meaningful assessment of the risks, a clear action plan for the critical period between 2015 and the end of 2016, details on what the small number of U.S. forces and civilians left in country will actually do, and a clear explanation of planned U.S. expenditures.

The president said nothing about Russia and the Ukraine. More broadly, his administration has failed to define a clear strategy for dealing with Russia, for strengthening NATO, or reassessing the U.S. presence and force levels in Europe. The United States has issued many statements, concepts, and exercises in rhetoric about its policies, but little real substance.

It is now well over two years since the Obama administration announced a rebalancing to Asia. Once again, however, it has stuck with concepts and rhetoric and provided few actual details. It is unclear how U.S. force levels in Asia will change, how many aircraft and ships will shift from NATO to Asian missions, or what changes will take place in the U.S. budget.

As has been the case with all of the cuts in the U.S. defense budget and future programs, and discussion of sequestration, there has never been any explanation of how these affect U.S. strategy by major region or mission. The Obama administration can get down to details when it comers to defense budgeting, but it seems incapable of dealing with defense planning and programming.

The administration keeps implying that the United States is more secure in terms of indirect threats like terrorism. Once again, however, the president and key officials almost never address the trends actually reported in documents like the most recent State Department country reports on terrorism.

The database for the Statement Department report issued in April 2014 shows a massive rise in total terrorist activity from 2010 to 2014, driven largely by developments in countries where the United States has some degree of military involvement or is aiding the government: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines, and Pakistan. If the United States is “winning” in any of these countries, the START database that the State Department uses in its Annex of Statistical Information does not show this. In fact, its trend analysis shows exactly the reverse.

The Obama administration, however, not only ignores these trends, it has yet to show it has any clear and well-defined strategy and action plans to deal with terrorism on a global basis. It seems to be fighting terrorism one country at a time, and it is not doing well.

The START global terror database demonstrates that major incidents have risen from less than 300 a year in the Middle East and North Africa region from 1998 to 2004 to approximately 1,600 in 2008, and increased again from around 1,500 in 2010 to 1,700 in 2011, and jumped to 2,500 in 2012, and 4,650 in 2013. This is a fifteen-fold increase since 2002, and threefold increase since 2010.

A RAND Corporation study on trends in terrorism in 2014 found:

  • A 58 percent increase in the number of Salafi-jihadist groups from 2010 to 2013.
  • The number of Salafi jihadists more than doubled from 2010 to 2013, according to both Rand’s low and high estimates.
  • Significant increases took place in the number of attacks by al Qa’ida–affiliated groups between 2007 and 2013, with most of the violence in 2013 perpetrated by Daesh (43 percent), which eventually left al Qa’ida; al Shabaab (25 percent); Jabhat al-Nusrah (21 percent); and al Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (10 percent).
  • Approximately 99 percent of the attacks by al Qa’ida and its affiliates in 2013 were against “near enemy” targets in North Africa, the Middle East, and other regions outside of the West.

Another report by the Institute for Economics and Peace found that:

  • Fatalities related to terrorism soared 60 percent last year, and five countries—Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Syria—accounted for four-fifths of the almost 18,000 fatalities attributed to terrorism in 2013.
  • The highest terrorism index in the world was for Iraq at 10. Iraq had the bloodiest record of all, with more than 6,300 fatalities. Syria had a score of 8.12. Yemen had a score of 7.31. Egypt was 6.5. Lebanon was 6.4. Iran had a score of 4.9. Bahrain was 4.41. Saudi Arabia was 2.71. Jordan was 1.76. The United Arab Emirates was 0.29. Kuwait was 0.04. Oman and Qatar were zero.

If one looks more broadly at the Middle East, which is the principal scene of U.S. military action outside Afghanistan, the United States has have been involved in a low-level war in Yemen for years and seems to be losing it decisively. Yemen may seem far away, but it is on the border of Saudi Arabia and a critical center of the oil exports that feed the global economy, as well as that of the United States. Yemen is also the center of al Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula—arguably the most direct terrorist threat to the United States.

The president has extended nuclear negotiations with Iran without ever clearly defining U.S. goals or updating unclassified assessments of the Iranian nuclear threat. He has never clearly defined what the United States hopes to achieve in terms of the other threats Iran poses—in terms of missile threats to its neighbors and Israel, asymmetric sea-air-missile threats to our Arab allies in the Gulf, or its efforts to expand its influence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Yet, it is these nonnuclear threats that are the reason the United States now maintains a major warfighting capability in the Gulf and is making massive arms transfers to the Gulf Arab states. Once again, there is no real transparency and no clear strategy.

Like much of the media and the Congress, the president deals with three related conflicts in Iraq and Syria by focusing on the Islamic State, which is only one part of the reason for U.S. military action in Iraq and Syria. Even then, he has said nothing substantive about our progress in attacking the Islamic State to date nor provided any detailed reporting on the results of some 1,800 strike sorties on targets in Syria and Iraq. He did not mention the fact that the Islamic State is only one of the jihadist movements that now dominate the Syrian rebels and that it was the Al Nusra Front that decisively defeated the moderate rebel faction the United States had done most to support and arm in battles during late 2014.

The president has never defined a clear strategy or program for dealing with the deep divisions and continuing low-level civil war in Iraq that have empowered the Islamic State in taking control of much of the western part of the country. He has not discussed progress in creating some degree of Iraqi political unity or provided meaningful reporting on progress in rebuilding the Iraqi government forces, bringing key Sunni factions back to supporting the Iraqi central government, creating a working compromise between the central government and the Kurds. He did not discuss the risks in dealing with Iran and the problems in dealing with Shi’ite militias.

The president has been even vaguer about the U.S. strategy in Syria. The United States seems to be supporting small Syrian rebel training efforts in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, but it is not clear why, whether they can ever be strong enough relative to the Assad forces and other jihadist rebel threats to matter, and whether defeating the Islamic threat in Syria would help or simply empower Assad and other jihadist movements.

It is unclear how the United States is dealing with Turkey and its Arab allies, what the air strikes are actually doing in Syria, and why so many have been centered around a political target with minimal strategic importance like Kobane. Some reporting indicates that the United States is shifting to a strategy of trying the negotiate a settlement with Assad, but such reporting seems no more clear or reliable than any of the other guesses being made in the absence of any real transparency or leadership.

To be blunt, Mr. President, you are not Dr. Pangloss, and this is not the best of all possible worlds. The State of the Union speech may not be the place to explain the risks the United States faces in detail and give substance to six years of strategic rhetoric and spin. But if it is not, when will that substance come?

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy