The No-Doctrine President

Posted January 8, 2011

Categories: Articles

Zoologists get pretty excited when they discover an unusual animal. They happily devote many hours to the task of classifying the beast and, if it qualifies as a new species, giving it a name. A great deal of money and prestige rides on these scientific endeavors.

The same applies to the political sphere, where new and unusual creatures frequently turn up. When it comes to Barack Obama, however, political zoologists remain undecided whether he is a new kind of political animal and if his foreign policy represents a unique departure from the same old, same old.

Complicating classification, of course, is that President Obama is literally all over the map when it comes to foreign policy. U.S. forces are still fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the president has called for drawing down troops in both conflicts according to established time tables. Although Obama formally retired the phrase “global war on terrorism,” CIA drone attacks continue to rain down on Pakistan and aggressive counter-terrorism operations are taking place in dozens of countries. The United States, along with NATO, has bombed Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in Libya even as the Obama administration assures the American public that this isn’t a war but a “kinetic military action.”

For the political zoologist, the equivalent of finding a new species is identifying a new Doctrine. Do all the zigs and zags in U.S. foreign policy in the last two years add up to a coherent Obama Doctrine?

Even before Obama made it to the White House, he stood accused of possessing such a Doctrine.
Rival Hillary Clinton suggested during the presidential debates that Obama embraced a kind of Chamberlain Doctrine by naively promising to sit down and talk with any adversary of the United States. James Kirchick of the The New Republic upped the appeasement ante by predicting that the president-to-be would “remain impassive in the face of genocide.” For liberals, meanwhile, Obama offered up the I’m Not Bush Doctrine: Obama’s campaign brain trust told Spencer Ackerman in The American Prospect that “they envision a doctrine that first ends the politics of fear and then moves beyond a hollow, sloganeering ‘democracy promotion’ agenda in favor of ‘dignity promotion,’ to fix the conditions of misery that breed anti-Americanism and prevent liberty, justice, and prosperity from taking root.”

It turned out, of course, that Obama was neither appeaser nor dignity promoter. He used force (in Afghanistan, in Pakistan) when he deemed it necessary, and those aerial attacks did nothing to promote dignity. The debate over doctrine, in Obama’s first couple years, boiled down to either “multilateralism with teeth” (The Atlantic) or “multilateralism without teeth” (The Heritage Foundation). In Oslo, the president deliberately mixed his messages by accepting the Nobel Peace Prize with a speech about the necessity of war. This modest baring of teeth did not, however, satisfy a right wing that suspected Obama of rejecting exceptionalist tradition of the United States: the right to do whatever we need to do whenever we need to do it.

The Libya War has revived this search for a doctrine. The pundits have tried to identify a middle ground for Obama’s foreign policy: “more of a hawk than Bill Clinton and more of a dove than President Bush,” according to Aaron Blake and Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post. In other words, as Politico put it, the Obama Doctrine consists of stopping massacres, getting in and out quickly, ensuring effective military action, and getting other countries to take the lead. In Foreign Policy, Daniel Drezner sees the Obama Doctrine as focusing on the essentials (the global economy, China, Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, nuclear nonproliferation) and letting the rest slide: “the United States suffers from an overextension of its foreign policy obligations. With a weakened economy and a drop in U.S. standing, it is both costly and fruitless for the administration to continue policy conflicts that yield little beyond pleasing those invested in the policy status quo.”

Thus have the political zoologists spoken. Obama has a Doctrine, but they can’t quite agree on what it is. The president hasn’t helped matters by refusing to boil down his foreign policy positions to a pithy or precise slogan.

But here’s another possibility. The pundits are wrong, and the president has no big doctrine.

Administrations proclaim doctrines as a way to frame U.S. power in the world. The United States can’t intervene everywhere. It can’t declare everything to be a national interest. Doctrines are essentially formulas for determining how, when, and where the United States throws its weight around. Obama’s failure to articulate a formal doctrine is characteristic both of the president’s political psychology and the vexed position of the United States in the world today. Obama is fundamentally unsure about the use of military force — he will back its use, in some cases more often than his predecessor, but not in a programmatic way. This ambivalence coincides with a relative decline in U.S. power overall.

So, for instance, Obama has not articulated a corollary to the Carter Doctrine, with the United States applying force to insure access to energy in the Persian Gulf. The war in Libya is not really about oil. It’s more about sending a message to leaders who defy their own people, the international community, and the United States. Nor has Obama favored the Bush Doctrine of preventive war and establishing full-spectrum dominance. The Obama administration was initially reluctant to intervene in Libya, and the Pentagon was perhaps the most reluctant of the parties to the decision. And, unlike Kennedy, Obama has not committed the United States to the spread of liberty. His administration was actually quite slow in endorsing the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and has crafted a much more ambiguous message about uprisings in Bahrain and Yemen.

If there is a Doctrine lurking somewhere in the president’s brain, it’s probably the Gorbachev Doctrine. The Soviet leader did whatever he could to minimize Soviet involvement in overseas entanglements — withdrawing from Afghanistan, cutting loose East European liabilities, negotiating arms control treaties — in order to focus on domestic concerns. So, too, has Obama tried to reduce U.S. exposure abroad to repair the damage that the Bush years inflicted on the American economy. Gorbachev took a look at the Soviet Union’s relative strength and decided that a cooperative foreign policy was not a matter of choice but of necessity. So, too, has Obama applied the same calculus. The United States simply doesn’t have the resources to change facts on the ground through military force (even where Washington has applied very serious resources, as in Iraq, we have also largely failed.

Libya, unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, was not an intervention that flowed from an organic plan for preserving or expanding U.S. power in the world. The Libya War is about hesitation, failure to anticipate, reluctance to take major risks. As such, Libya reveals the lack of a doctrine about the use of U.S. power. The Obama administration is not likely to use Libya as a precedent for intervention anywhere else — not Ivory Coast where a bloody standoff just ended with former President Laurent Gbagbo’s capture, not Syria where Bashar Assad continues to crack down on demonstrators, not Zimbabwe where Robert Mugabe clings to the presidency. A single case does not a Doctrine make.

No Drama Obama, then, turns out to be No Doctrine Obama. If he manages to win a second term, he could turn that around. Imagine a president that took concrete steps toward nuclear abolition, actually reined in the military-industrial complex instead of waiting until a farewell speech to bemoan its influence, and helped build authentic international institutions that could, for instance, address the threat of climate change.

If he did all that, the president would prove a rare bird indeed, and worthy of his own Doctrine.

The Libyan Conundrum

Did the United States have a responsibility to protect Libyan civilians, or simply a responsibility to protest? People of conscience should be wary of U.S. military intervention, says Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) senior analyst Ian Williams in Armchair Anti-Imperialism and Libya. But in the case of Libya, he writes, the United States “was dragged unwillingly into its role by the Europeans and others and by the events on the ground, namely Gaddafi’s murderous threats and actual behavior. The United States had developed cynically good relations with Gaddafi. The West had no problems gaining access to Libyan oil. Regime change puts these relationships at risk.”

FPIF contributor Robert Naiman disagrees. In Surprise War for Regime Change in Libya is Wrong Path, he presents the war as bait and switch: a humanitarian operation that became a regime change effort. “The UN Security Council never approved a military mission to overthrow the Libyan government,” he writes. “Neither did Congress or the American people.”

The two sides then debated each other’s positions in Strategic Dialogue: Libya War.

Other FPIF contributors have also entered the fray. FPIF columnist Conn Hallinan, in Libya and the Law of Unintended Consequences, describes how countries like North Korea have interpreted the war. “An unnamed North Korean Foreign Ministry official told Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency that ‘the Libyan crisis’ was ‘teaching the international community a grave lesson…the truth that one should have power to defend peace.’ The official went on to suggest that the West had duped Libya into disarming its nuclear program in 2003 and then attacked it when it could no longer defend itself.”

“The United States should provide unfettered support to the ‘Arab Spring’ movements to topple their illegitimate regimes — but without using military intervention,” argue FPIF contributors Adil Shamoo and Bonnie Bricker. “We should provide moral, economic, and educational support, and later help construct the civil society infrastructure required for freedom and democracy.”

Examining a number of myths concerning the Arab world, FPIF contributor Saif Shahin takes issue with the notion that “democracies care about democracies.” He writes, in Arab Uprisings as a War on Error, “U.S. double standards couldn’t be clearer. Although it backed Mubarak and continues to turn a blind eye to the brutal suppression of peaceful protesters by friendly regimes in Bahrain and Yemen, Washington has launched military action because “the people… must be protected” in Libya — one country in the region where the oil has largely remained out of the reach of U.S. energy corporations.”

And over at Focal Points, blogmeister Russ Wellen starts off on the side of Responsibility to Protect and then ends up by raising serious questions about “the urge to urge on the Libyan intervention.”

Repression Continues in Honduras

The Obama administration’s rhetorical commitment to democracy — whether in the Middle East or elsewhere — hits a serious contradiction in Honduras. The more Porfirio Lobo’s government cracks down on dissent, the more Washington has scrambled to support it. “Despite this inconvenient truth of continued repression, the Honduran government and its U.S. backers claim that the ‘free and fair’ election of Lobo reestablished the constitutional order — political repression and censorship during the elections notwithstanding,” writes FPIF contributor and former chargé d’affaires of the embassy of Honduras in Washington in An Inconvenient Truth in Honduras, even “as they praise him for his ‘democratic achievements’ and advocate for the country’s prompt readmission to the Organization of American States.”

Meanwhile, the United States has been assisting another ally in its dirty war — in the Philippines. “A few years ago at the height of extrajudicial killings of suspected communist rebels belonging to the New People’s Army and their sympathizers,” writes FPIF contributor Carmela Cruz in Letter from Maguindanao, “Filipinos in the Philippines and in the United States took to the streets to call on the U.S. government to re-evaluate its assistance to the Philippine military.”

From Japan, FPIF contributor Jon Mitchell sends us a Postcard from…Tohoku about the efforts of the NGO Peace Boat to address the effects of the earthquake and tsunami. Within a week of the massive March 11 earthquake off the coast of Tohoku, Peace Boat’s advanced relief squad had navigated the region’s broken roads and set up base in the devastated city of Ishinomaki in Miyagi prefecture,” he writes. “From here they’ve been coordinating rotating teams of between 50 and 100 Japanese and international volunteers to assist the local community — primarily by cooking hot meals, distributing supplies, and clearing the tons of mud swept in by the 10-foot tsunami.”

Finally, in our special focus on Islamophobia, Rabbi Arthur Waskow talks about the connections between U.S. foreign policy and anti-Islamic sentiment. “In what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, it’s hard for Americans to keep in their heads that this does not mean that Islam is your enemy,” he says in the interview with FPIF. “Why are we spending billions of dollars and losing thousands of lives on these wars if these others are not bad people?

This is the ninth interview in FPIF’s special focus on Islamophobia. Earlier interviews were with John Esposito, Juan Cole, the Islamic Human Rights Commission, Phyllis Bennis, Arun Kundnani, Raed Jarrar and Niki Akhavan, Wajahat Ali, Farid Panjwani, and Cynthia Schneider.

To connect with our Global Day of Action on Military Spending on April, visit our website:

FPIF, April 12, 2011

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