Does Barack Obama have a strategy? He is often criticized for being adrift.
Nonetheless, while Obama has never articulated strategic aims in the manner of Ronald Reagan or the two Bushes, it is not therefore true that there is no “Obama Doctrine.” Indeed, now that he has been in office five years, we can see an overarching common objective in otherwise baffling foreign-policy misadventures.
Collate the following: large defense cuts, the president’s suspicions that he is being gamed by the military, the pullout from the anti-missile defense pact in Eastern Europe, the pressure on Israel to give new concessions to its neighbors, the sudden warming up with an increasingly Islamist Turkey, the failed reset with Russia, radical nuclear-arms-reduction talks, the abject withdrawal of all U.S. peacekeeping forces in Iraq, the timetable withdrawals in Afghanistan, the new worries of our Asian and Middle Eastern allies, the constant euphemisms on the war on terror, the stepped-up drone attacks, the lead-from-behind removal of Moammar Qaddafi, the pullaway from Mubarak in Egypt, the support for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the pink lines in Syria, the Iranian missile deal, the declaration that al-Qaeda was on the run and the war on terror essentially ending, the Benghazi coverup, and on and on.
Does such American behavior display any consistent strategic coherence?
I think it most certainly does.
The Obama administration believes that past administrations’ strategic objectives and the methods of achieving them not only were flawed, but led to the sort of world that is not in our interests as defined by the Obama team. The contemporary world landscape is an unfair place. “Have” nations exploit the “have-nots,” in large part because of the rigged postwar system of free-market commerce, alliances, and politics that the United States created. While it would be dangerous and indeed impossible to abruptly disown our responsibilities — we can still hunt down bin Laden, kill terrorists with drones, and jawbone rogue dictators — we can begin to withdraw our sponsorship from the mess that, in a variety of ways, we were responsible for.
Our past and most secure alliances — the special relationships with Britain and Israel especially — are now seen as having alienated more people than they encouraged. Islamist movements in Turkey and Egypt were either inevitable or justified, given historical grievances against the West and the fact that they reflect grass-roots indigenous support.
Arbitrary American axioms — an enemy Iran was going to get the bomb to threaten the Middle East; a good Israel was a force for democracy and prosperity in an otherwise unhinged Middle East; the Persian Gulf monarchies were corrupt and anti-American, but not as corrupt and anti-American as the likely alternatives to them — were simplistic and outdated.
China and Russia were needlessly estranged, given that they both sought reform, only to be gratuitously alienated by the bullying United States. Anti-Americanism was fed not by envy or the fact that the nation’s superpower responsibilities were easily caricatured, but rather by our often haughty behavior and a long history of global misdeeds. Obama in his Cairo speech, in his apology tour, and through his subordinates was not shy about voicing these reappraisals of the American past.
Most Americans are proud that we won the Cold War; Obama wonders whether we had to fight it as we did. Most Americans believe Islamists hate us for who we are and what we represent. Obama believes that we may have earned such enmity. Most Americans believe that the world outside the U.S. can be a pretty wretched place; Obama believes either that it is not so wretched, or that its wretchedness is mostly due to the American omnipresence.
What were the president’s methods of achieving this repositioning of the United States?
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.