Obama sought to assure the world that he would restrict the use of the American military. In practical fact that meant he would not use it unless the target was so weak as to nearly capitulate upon contact, or the target was at odds with a revolutionary uprising (Iran’s theocracy excepted).
Obama’s drone assassinations have been more than four times the Bush total, but they have been largely stealthy and unreported, and they came at no cost in American life. Libya was a misadventure, but American led Britain and France only from behind. We never had any intention of using force in Syria; the miscalculation lay in Obama’s blustering that he might use force and that his pseudo red lines, like his deadlines with Iran, were real.
Summed up, the Obama Doctrine is a gradual retreat of the American presence worldwide — on the theory that our absence will lead to a vacuum better occupied by regional powers that know how to manage their neighborhood’s affairs and have greater legitimacy in their own spheres of influence. Any damage that might occur with the loss of the American omnipresence does not approximate the harm already done by American intrusiveness. The current global maladies — Islamist terrorism, Middle Eastern tensions, Chinese muscle-flexing, Russian obstructionism, resurgence of Communist autocracy in Latin America — will fade once the United States lowers its profile and keeps out of other nations’ business.
The methods to achieve this recessional are tricky — as they are for any aging sheriff, guns drawn, who hobbles slowly out of a crowded saloon on his last day on the job. American withdrawal must be facilitated by the semblance of power. That is, rhetoric, loud deadlines and red lines, and drones can for now approximate the old U.S. presence, as America insidiously abandons its 70-year role as architect of a global system that brought the world unprecedented security and prosperity. “No option is off the table” tells most foreign leaders that very probably no option ever was on it.
Finally, what is the ideology that fuels the Obama doctrine — both its objectives and its methods?
For Obama, America abroad is analogous to the 1 percent at home. We need not squabble over the reasons why the wealthiest Americans enjoy unequal access to the things money can buy, or why America, of all nations, finds itself with unmatched global clout and influence. The concern is only that such privilege exists; that it is unfair; that it has led to injustice for the majority; and that it must be changed.
Obama, of course, cannot issue a global tax aimed at the United States. He cannot easily expand U.S. foreign aid as a sort of reparations. And he cannot craft the international equivalent of Obamacare. But he does seek the same sort of redistributive readjustment to America’s presence abroad that he does to some Americans at home — in the interests of fairness, equality, and social justice.
Just as the United States would be a lot better place if a few million were not so rich, so too the world would be better off if the United States — and to a lesser extent Europe — were not so powerful and interventionist.
For every foreign concern, there is a greater domestic concern. Each Marine posted abroad, each GPS-guided bomb, each new frigate does not add to our deterrence and thus help keep the peace. Instead, such investments only raise the likelihood that unnecessary tensions will follow — and, meanwhile, precious dollars are diverted from far more important domestic constituencies who rightly object that a cruise missile means hundreds of new food-stamp applicants denied.
That the American public is supposedly exhausted after two wars and a variety of interventions, and that it is struggling with $17 trillion in debt and expanding entitlements, suggest that the Obama Doctrine, for all its radicalism, will not necessarily be seen as such by the public — any more than Depression-era American isolationism, after the disappointment with the aftermath of World War I, was considered unwise in an ever more dangerous world.
In short, Obama has a strategy. He has found a means of advancing it. He believes in the ideological basis for seeing it succeed. And he assumes that the public, for a variety of reasons, is quite supportive of it.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.