President Obama’s foreign policy has been much maligned over the years of his presidency by both the left and the right. Those on the left have bemoaned his continued use of drones and what is viewed as an unduly aggressive approach to intelligence gathering (revealed by the Snowdon disclosures of NSA abuse). Those on the right claim he is too slow to exert American military might and that the nation has lost much prestige in the world community because of his seeming indecisiveness.
In fact, Mr. Obama has charted a relatively clear and decisive course of action in almost every international incident/crisis his administration has faced. And a careful analysis of those actions reveals a definite shift in American foreign policy, perhaps the most dramatic shift since the end of the Second World War.
Simply stated, the Obama Doctrine limits military responses to those circumstances that directly impact on American security (as opposed to “American interests”) and avoids military responses that would involve an all-out military engagement (“boots on the ground”) in favor of having regional players take on that role. The Obama Doctrine also places increased emphasis on diplomacy, defined to include the measured use of sanctions, in lieu of aggressive posturing, with threats of military action, for all traditional international disputes and territorial aggressions.
It also takes a measured approach to terrorist non-state actors, eschewing entirely “war-on-terror” labels in favor of case-by-case assessments of the threat posed and the consequences of aggressive counter-measures. The Obama Doctrine can result in limited military actions, some, as in the current threat posed by ISIL, even planned to extend for a significant period of time, but it does not presume an open-ended “war” against terrorism itself or against any and all non-state entities and organizations that could conceivably pose a threat to the United States.
In essence, the Obama Doctrine redefines America’s role in the world and its view of its own interests. It diminishes the use of military force as a primary tool and instead uses the impact of diplomatic and economic persuasion as the means by which the country can protect itself and preserve its way of life. This doctrine is a cross between Monroe’s (“You stay out of our backyard and we’ll stay out of yours”) and Teddy Roosevelt’s (“Speak softly and carry a big stick”). It regards military force as a weapon to be deployed rarely rather than regularly and reduces the need for it by re-defining the kinds of circumstances that call for its use.
Viewed in terms of recent history, the Obama Doctrine would have led to very different American actions and reactions. Faced with the circumstances of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the Obama Doctrine would not have found American forces fighting in Iraq. Instead, the U.S. would have led an international use of economic sanctions, coupled with limited U.S. military support of regional countries that sought to expel Iraq from Kuwait. In other words, the U.S. would have supplied armaments and provided air power for a military campaign against Iraq and would have used economic sanctions against Saddam’s regime to force his withdrawal from Kuwait.
In response to 9/11, it is unlikely that the Obama Doctrine would have led to anything like the thirteen year war in Afghanistan. Instead, it would have seen significant air power used against likely al Qaeda camps and enhanced economic and diplomatic tactics to force the government of Afghanistan to force al Qaeda out of its territory. The result could have very likely been at least a decade of aggressive actions but the cost would have been far less in both dollars and lost lives and may have led to fewer new terrorist cells in the rest of the world (and certainly no more).
And, of course, the Obama Doctrine would never have seen the United States invade Iraq under any of the many pretexts claimed by the Bush-Cheney administration. It would thus have never laid the seeds for the development of an ISIL or for the expansion of terrorism into that country and would have kept Iran as an implicit enemy rather than a de facto ally of Iraq (as it is now).
The Obama Doctrine has been on display in Syria, where any increased U.S. military presence at any point over the last three years would have more likely led to worse circumstances (from an American perspective) than exist now. (If you doubt that assertion, just ask yourself which rebel groups could be trusted in Syria to be true “friends” of the U.S. once the Assad regime was overthrown.)
The Obama Doctrine is now also on display in the president’s decision to confront ISIL. The goal will be the destruction of that terrorist group, but it will not involve a U.S. invasion of a sovereign state, nor will it involve placing American forces in harm’s way with a boots-on-the-ground all-out war. Instead, it will seek to place ISIL on the defensive through enhanced intelligence tactics (drones and limited air strikes) and through support for the military commitments that regional states are willing (through American diplomacy) to take against the threat to their governments.
And the Obama Doctrine is on display in terms of the re-definition of American interests. Instead of focusing on broad statements of interests in “democratic principles” or, plainly stated, in countries that have oil, the Obama Doctrine emphasizes the security of the country, as in protection from terrorist attacks, not from the loss of a source of oil. This aspect of the doctrine is really just common sense. No country that has an abundance of oil will ever refuse to sell it, and efforts to jack up the price are also doomed to fail (witness the failed efforts of OPEC to do so long term in the 1980s and ‘90s).
Oil was never a legitimate basis for going to war, and the Obama Doctrine thankfully recognizes that fact.
Obama hasn’t been a great president. His domestic record, Obamacare notwithstanding, is still largely unimpressive. But without a lot of fanfare, he is crafting an exciting new foreign policy for his country.