Pentagon Correspondent Reviews U.S. National Security Interests

February 22, 2011

February 22, 2011 — A University of Virginia audience got a lesson Monday in "United States Security Challenges for the 21st Century," with a backstory on how and why the sphere of U.S. influence has grown to where it is today.

Al Pessin, Pentagon correspondent for Voice of America, opened his talk in Nau Hall auditorium with a tutorial on the world's strategic environment.

"Think of it as a cloud, and inside of this cloud are all kinds of things we need to worry about," he said, listing several factors: major countries, including China and Russia; terrorist groups; cyber-attacks; nuclear states; repression. "Also in the strategic environment is the United States, its military, economic, political and ideological power. We have our allies and our friends. But not all of our allies are supposed to be our friends."

Pessin said that within the environment there also exists a commonality of interests. "On a lot of these issues, like terrorism, for example, you may very well get help from countries that are your adversaries on other subjects, specifically China or Russia in this case. On climate change, you might get help from all kinds of groups, maybe even a country like Iran."

It's a very complex situation, he said, and anything that happens within the environment affects everything else.

Pessin also talked about President Obama's National Security Strategy, a document that is issued every four years and came out last May. Among its goals is to enhance the United States' ability to fight "asymmetric" wars.

"Do you guys know what asymmetric wars are?" he asked. These, he said, are "wars against an adversary that seems to be weaker, but has some capabilities that you just can't seem to defeat. Think Iraq, think Afghanistan, think western Pakistan."

How and why does America see itself as a superpower? Pessin asked. "Well, it goes back to one thing in this presentation that I'm sure everyone is familiar with: your fellow Virginian, President Monroe."

Pessin said the Monroe Doctrine "established the Americas as a sphere of influence. Monroe said to the Spanish, 'Don't try to come across and try to recolonize South America,' said to the Russians, 'Don't try to come down the Pacific coast and try to colonize North America.'"

He then pointed to doctrines that followed. In the Truman Doctrine of 1947, President Truman said it was in the best interests of the United States to prevent the further expansion of the Soviet Union. "So we left a lot of troops and equipment in Eastern Europe and launched a little thing we like to call the Cold War," Pessin said.

Next came the oil shock of 1980, and President Carter's doctrine, in which he promised to use U.S. might to defend interests in the Persian Gulf.

"So you can see we are really starting to widen out here," Pessin said. "Then we get to President Clinton in 1999. We've got the wars going on in the former Yugoslavia. He says it doesn't matter how remote the place is, so the scope of our stated interests is widening."

Pessin then pointed to the Bush Doctrine, which came after the devastating attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "If there is any ambiguity left after the Clinton doctrine, it is erased by the Bush doctrine," he said.

He told audience members that Bush declared the United States "would attack terrorists and their supporters where? Anywhere."

"So this is our world view, whether you agree with it or not," he said. "This is the description of the United States in the 21st century as a superpower."

The Obama administration, he said, does not yet have a doctrine, "but I think we can form an opinion from a couple of his speeches about his approach to warfare."

Pessin said the president is very cautious about the war in Iraq. "We have to have justification, limited goals, limited time, use our civilian instruments of national power, and use regional and global partners."

On Afghanistan, Pessin said Obama talked about the need to fully resource any conflict you go into, hold people accountable, seek reconciliation with adversaries and protect the human rights of those involved. He added, "But he also had a partial endorsement of the Bush Doctrine in that he said, 'Yes, we will attack terrorists anywhere in the world if we need to.'"

U.Va.'s Office of the Vice Provost for International Programs and the Center for International Programs hosted the event. It was co-sponsored by the student-run International Relations Organization.

Indonesia's ambassador to the U.S. comes to U.Va. on March 14. U.Va. brings Turkey's ambassador to the United States to Grounds on March 23.

-- by Jane Kelly

Media Contact

Jane Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications