How Obama's National Security Strategy Is Like Bush's

President Obama speaks in the White House's East Room on May 27 Mandel Ngan /AFP-Getty Images

Pop quiz: If Barack Obama and George W. Bush are like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—opposites in world-view and approach—then why do the following lines appear in President Obama's just-released National Security Strategy and cover letter:

  • "The United States must reserve the right to act unilaterally."
  • "We must maintain our military's conventional superiority."
  • America "has succeeded by steering" other nations "in the direction of liberty and justice—so that nations thrive by meeting their responsibilities and face consequences when they don't."

Ummm, is this really different from the infamous 2002 National Security Strategy, which many critics saw as a precursor to "preventive war" in Iraq and other unilateralist actions and a grandiose embrace of the neocon agenda of democracy promotion by force?The Bush strategy did outline the idea of preemptive action. But that 2002 NSS also indicated that when it comes to striking other states, Washington will move deliberately and in consultation with allies: "The reasons for our actions will be clear, the force measured, and the cause just," the document said.

Yes, there are some serious differences between the two strategy documents, reflecting the very different world-views of two very different presidents. "To succeed, we must face the world as it is," reads the opening line of Obama's paper, channeling the pragmatic, realist bent of this president. "The United States possesses unprecedented—and unequaled—strength and influence in the world," Bush's strategy proclaims at the start, reflecting both the hubris and the in-your-face determination of the previous president to destroy Al Qaeda and other threats.

Yet it is unmistakable that there are far more similarities than differences between the two National Security Strategies, though each of them marks the advent of an era that is supposedly as distinct from the other as any two periods in U.S. history. Both call for the United States to "continue to underwrite global security"—as the Obama document says—and both make a point of highlighting the war on "al Qaeda and its affiliates" and preventing "the proliferation of the world's most dangerous weapons" (both phrases are also in the Obama paper). The main differences are tonal. The Obama NSS emphasizes cooperation and cautions repeatedly against the dangers of acting alone, while delivering up its don't-screw-with-America message as a caveat; the Bush document emphasizes American might and right, and makes cooperation and consultation more of its caveat.

In practice, however, if policy actually follows prescription in these papers—and there's never any guarantee it will—there is far less than meets the eye in the global transformation Barack Obama has promised.