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Security strategy recognizes U.S. limits

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WASHINGTON » President Barack Obama plans to release his second, and final, national security strategy Friday, making a stronger case than he did five years ago for robust U.S. leadership while recognizing limits on how much the United States can shape world events.

By issuing the blueprint at a time when critics have been accusing him of being far too reluctant to intervene, Obama will wade anew into the debate over how he has handled crises like those in the Middle East and Ukraine. In effect, he will argue that the urgent demands of combating the Islamic State and countering President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia need to be balanced with a focus on long-term challenges like climate change, global health and cyberattacks.

"The question is never whether America should lead, but how we should lead," Obama writes in an introduction to the document, a report that seems to mix legacy with strategy.

In taking on terrorists, he argues that the United States should avoid the deployment of large ground forces like those sent more than a decade ago to Iraq and Afghanistan. In spreading democratic values, he says, America should fight corruption and reach out to young people.

"On all these fronts, America leads from a position of strength," he writes. "But this does not mean we can or should attempt to dictate the trajectory of all unfolding events around the world. As powerful as we are and will remain, our resources and influence are not infinite. And in a complex world, many of the security problems we face do not lend themselves to quick and easy fixes."

Such arguments are not likely to satisfy critics, and even some of Obama’s advisers have pressed him to be more active in responding to the shorter-term crises. At a confirmation hearing Wednesday for Ashton B. Carter, the nominee for defense secretary, Republicans repeatedly bemoaned what they called the lack of a coherent policy.

"It doesn’t sound like a strategy to me," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told Carter after asking about the approach to the Islamic State, also called ISIL.

Carter indicated that he, too, might press Obama in favor of more assertive policies in some instances. Asked about sending arms to Ukraine to fight Russian-backed rebels, an idea that Obama has so far rebuffed, Carter said, "I very much incline in that direction."

The leadership criticism clearly grates on a White House that points out that Obama ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, although the administration has tried for years to live down a statement from an unnamed official that characterized the president’s approach as "leading from behind."

"There is this line of criticism that we are not leading, and it makes no sense," said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser who was one of the primary authors of the strategy document. "Who built the effort against ISIL? Who organized the sanctions on Russia? Who put together the international approach on Ebola?"

The 29-page document, required by Congress, uses the words "lead," "leadership" or variations nearly 100 times.

Overall, it reflects a president who is more seasoned and scarred than the one who last released a formal national security strategy in 2010. At the time, Obama’s main goals were ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, rebuilding ties with Russia and reviving a world economy reeling from financial collapse.

Now the economy is on the rebound, and most troops have been brought home. But the Russian rapprochement is dead and spinoffs of al-Qaida are on the rise, and the implosions of several Arab states have upended a strategy for the region that Obama laid out in the first years of his presidency.

The strategy lists eight top U.S. strategic risks, starting with a catastrophic attack at home but including threats like climate change, disruptions in the energy market and international problems caused by weak or failing states.

The document also focuses attention on a goal to eliminate global poverty within 15 years. And, for the first time, a national security strategy promotes the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people around the world as a priority.

The process of drafting such a document forces an administration to focus on and articulate its priorities. President George W. Bush used a strategy document to make the case 13 years ago for pre-empting threats — a concept that informed his invasion of Iraq. Obama takes a different approach to the same issue.

"Where there is a continuing, imminent threat, and when capture or other actions to disrupt the threat are not feasible, we will not hesitate to take decisive action," the strategy says. It adds: "The United States — not our adversaries — will define the nature and score of this struggle, lest it define us."

But the report makes it clear that it is not limiting pre-emption to traditional uses of force. Coming not long after the cyberattacks on Sony Pictures Entertainment, the report says the United States will "impose costs on malicious cyberactors." In the Sony case, Obama imposed new sanctions on North Korea, which he has blamed for the attack.

The efforts to strike back made headlines, but the strategy calls on the United States to increase its efforts to shape global norms and practices, not only online but also in space and on the seas, where the administration fears that China is trying to dominate lanes of traffic and keep the United States and others at bay.

One area where Obama seems to have narrowed his goals, or at least his expectations, is nuclear nonproliferation, a major focus of his first two years in office. During that time, he signed an arms-control treaty with Russia, began a series of international summit meetings to lock down loose nuclear material and imposed more sanctions on Iran to pressure it to give up its nuclear program.

But the document all but acknowledges that with Putin not interested in further arms cuts and Republicans in control of the Senate, Obama’s hopes of ratifying a long-stalled test ban treaty or negotiating new treaties are largely dead.

That leaves only one big effort to alter the nuclear landscape: a deal with Iran, which the president clearly wants but that has proved highly elusive.

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