Zumwalt: Trump vs. Obama: How Their National Security Strategies Compare

Collage of Trump and Obama signing executive orders

The requirement for the Executive Branch to issue a National Security Strategy (NSS) arose from the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act.

Its purpose is to set forth what the President’s vision is concerning the advancement of our national security interests and building international order based on various security, economic, and political strategies. It is a framework document to begin discussions with Congress to reach a consensus and establish priorities. Effectively done, it enables the President to design a successful foreign policy to deal with “our adversaries, our allies, and our nation’s future.”

President Donald Trump’s NSS was dated 34 months after President Barack Obama issued his last Strategy. Comparing these two presidential Strategies reveals easily discernible differences.

Quickly noticeable is the focus taken by the two reports. Obama’s was lightweight, weighing in at 29 pages and roughly 13,600+ words. Trump’s was much more detailed in identifying threats, generating a 55-page, 20,300+ word document. Obama’s NSS left us with the impression there was not a whole lot in the world to worry about; not so with Trump’s.

Obama’s NSS made clear the administration would address no link between terrorism and Islam. He declared, “In all our efforts, we aim to draw a stark contrast between what we stand for and the heinous deeds of terrorists. We reject the lie that America and its allies are at war with Islam.”

The one and only time Obama used the word “Islam” or a derivative thereof in his NSS was the reference above – and that was only to deny any linkage. Trump’s NSS made clear the link exists, stating, “Radical Islamist terror groups were flourishing” when he came into office. The word “Islam” or a derivative thereof to describe terrorism and other activities appears nine times.

Another noticeable difference between the two presidential strategies is the use of the word “jihad.” As jihadis continue to commit acts of terrorism around the globe, Obama’s NSS refused to mention the word even once, placing responsibility for terrorism on the nebulous “violent extremist.” Trump’s NSS used the word “jihad” or a derivative of it 31 times to ensure the reader clearly understands the threat we face.

Also in the lexicon of threat terms Obama refused to use, but Trump does not, is a reference to an attack that can destroy our electrical grid system, potentially killing 90 percent of all Americans. It is known as an “Electromagnetic Pulse” (EMP) attack. It can be created one of two ways: either naturally by a major solar storm hitting the Earth, or manmade by a nuclear airburst, such as one North Korea may be capable of launching.

Trump’s NSS addresses “the vulnerability of U.S. critical infrastructure to cyber, physical, and electromagnetic attacks.” An EMP attack was a frightening reality all during Obama’s tenure but was never flagged as such. North Korea’s threat to use EMP drives this reality home.

Interestingly, many nations with which Obama’s foreign policy sought to nurture better relations through outrageous agreements and/or a policy of appeasement are now targeted as strategic concerns by Trump.

Under “A Competitive World” in his NSS, Trump puts the world on notice:

The United States will respond to the growing political, economic, and military competitions we face around the world. China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence. At the same time, the dictatorships of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran are determined to destabilize regions, threaten Americans and our allies, and brutalize their own people…While these challenges differ in nature and magnitude, they are fundamentally contests between those who value human dignity and freedom and those who oppress individuals and enforce uniformity. These competitions require the United States to rethink the policies of the past two decades—policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners. For the most part, this premise turned out to be false.

Surprisingly, the 2015 Obama NSS had also expressed concerns about Russia. This is surprising since Obama, during the 2012 presidential election debates, criticized Republican candidate Mitt Romney for his own concerns about Moscow. Obama mocked Romney, informing him the Cold War was over. Meanwhile, critics who still cling to the belief of a Trump/Russia conspiracy theory may find it surprising Trump’s 2017 NSS does not hesitate to criticize an aggressive Russian foreign policy.

As to China, Trump seeks a policy to address both Beijing’s rising military threat as well as its unfair business practices in stealing proprietary technology from American companies.

Trump’s NSS is built upon four strategic pillars: protecting the homeland, the American people, and American way of life; promoting American prosperity; preserving peace through strength; and advancing American influence in the world.

Trump’s NSS leaves a clear message there is a new sheriff in town — one who seeks to focus on America’s interests first, reversing Obama’s priority focus on globalist agendas. Also, Trump makes it clear to those who oppose our interests: we can be your best friend or your worst enemy — it is their choice.

In comparing the 2015 Obama NSS report to the 2017 Trump report written 34 months later, we find ourselves – as did Rip Van Winkle – awakening to a much different and, in our case, a much more dangerous world. Unfortunately, as failed Obama foreign policies have now come home to roost, so too has reality.

Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of “Bare Feet, Iron Will–Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields,” “Living the Juche Lie: North Korea’s Kim Dynasty” and “Doomsday: Iran–The Clock is Ticking.” He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.


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