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Conflict Avoidance

Author: Micah Zenko, Senior Fellow
December 4, 2013


On Friday, Nov. 29, President Barack Obama released a letter to congressional leaders which he wrote to "inform you of my intent to release a new National Security Strategy in early 2014." The National Security Strategy (NSS) was first required as part of the Goldwater-Nichols defense reorganization legislation of 1986. The law mandated that the president submit an annual report to Congress outlining U.S. national security interests, goals, and objectives, as well as the adequacy of capabilities to achieve them. (Since 2002, presidents have submitted them every four years.) The NSS is intended to provide strategic yet prioritized guidance from which national security agencies base their own guidance documents, budgets, directive, and policies. For the Pentagon, this includes the National Defense Strategy, National Military Strategy, Guidance for the Employment of the Forces, and others. But this theoretical flow of guidance documents is rarely indicative of how things work in practice. One very senior Pentagon official in the George W. Bush administration told me that he never saw the infamous "preemptive war" NSS of 2002 before it appeared on the White House's website.

To be fair, there's a lot to read. Because each NSS is frankly too long -- the first comprehensive one developed under President Ronald Reagan was 41 pages; the latest was 52 pages -- they tend to be remembered (if at all) for one or two notable highlights. For example, Obama's 2010 NSS was characterized by analysts as the anti-Bush strategy, which highlighted America's restraint in the world and renewed partnerships with friends and allies.

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