Magazine | May 6, 2013, Issue

The Diffidence Doctrine

President Obama’s neo-isolationist foreign policy

Is there an Obama Doctrine? That is an understandable question, given that over the past four years President Obama has not articulated a comprehensive foreign policy, and that his supporters haven’t offered a system of guiding principles for foreign policy over that period.

Nevertheless, American behavior abroad is becoming predictable. One constant is the general consensus that a war-weary America must avoid use of ground troops overseas. Second, there is the familiar assumption that anti-Americanism abroad, especially given our recent past under George W. Bush, is both understandable and often proof of a foreign leader’s authenticity and legitimacy. And third, there has been a pivot away from foreign affairs to focus instead on fundamentally transforming American society at home. If we keep those three themes in mind, much of what America has done since January 2009 makes remarkable sense.

Afghanistan and Iraq ceased being campaign issues by midsummer 2008, despite Barack Obama’s loud assertion of his anti-war credentials in the Democratic primaries. After the 2007 surge, Iraq had become relatively quiet (14 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq in the month before Obama took office). To emphasize his national-security bona fides, Obama also campaigned on finishing the “good” war in Afghanistan, apparently under the assumption that the Taliban were about defeated, or at least would be once we put our eye properly back on the right ball. Most in the administration sensed that the U.N.-approved, and less costly, Afghanistan War had not yet contributed, in the manner of Iraq, to the growing American weariness with foreign interventions in general.

But by early 2009, Iraq had gone quiet while Afghanistan had heated up. In response to those realities, Obama opted for complete withdrawal from Iraq, even as he was now trapped by his own pro-war rhetoric into staying a while longer in Afghanistan — an awkwardness reflected in his simultaneous announcement of withdrawal dates and a temporary surge to quell the violence. Obama also acted as if the Bush-administration origins of Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai government and Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki government made both suspect, in a way that the more anti-American Middle East regimes, such as those of the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan (or, later, Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi), were not.

The administration talked up the ongoing insurrections of the Arab Spring, in understandable hopes that a Nobel peace laureate’s presidential sanction might be seen retrospectively in the Middle East as an original catalyst of reform. Perhaps Obama felt that corrupt, tottering, pro-American autocrats, such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak or Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, were doomed anyway, and so he belatedly supported the North African insurgents in order to “be on the right side of history.” Or maybe the administration saw Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood as moderates and thus valuable bridges to an inevitable European-style parliamentary democracy. Or the administration may have simply not understood the nature of the choices in the Middle East, most of them between bad and worse, that had confronted all prior American presidents. In any case, Washington did not realize that, in the absence of a costly and unpopular American presence on the ground, Middle East popular upheavals usually follow the Bolshevik model of the better-organized extremists’ crushing moderate reformers to seize absolute power, whether in 1979 Iran or 2011 Egypt.

In any event, by “leading from behind” in Libya, the Obama administration helped to remove the monster in rehabilitation Muammar Qaddafi, only to leave the mess that followed to warring Islamist tribes. The administration did its best to pretend that the Libyan chaos was at least better than the horrific order of the Qaddafi regime, and was unwilling later to beef up security in our consulate in Benghazi, with catastrophic results. Egypt is now undergoing “Pakistanization,” as an anti-American regime lectures us that any reduction in our ample foreign aid will result in a far worse alternative. France — happily so for the Obama administration — is now the only Western actor in North Africa, and perhaps in the Middle East in general.

As the Arab Spring next reached Syria, Obama talked loudly about the need for Bashar Assad to depart, even as he did nothing to carry out his threats. One can agree or disagree with his reluctance to enter such a quagmire, even to stop the mass slaughter, but Obama’s Syrian problem is the now familiar combination of loud sermons followed by mousy actions. No expert quite knows what to do about stopping the Iranian nuclear program other than continuing sanctions of questionable efficacy. And yet most accept that threatening Tehran with nonbinding but serial deadlines, and failing to support the hundreds of thousands of Iranian protesters in the spring of 2009, only emboldened the theocracy.

#page# In other parts of the world, the Obama administration is outsourcing formerly American responsibilities to U.S. allies. One reason that North Korea may be so boldly threatening to send missiles into South Korea and Japan is a growing sense that America’s defense umbrella is not so reliable anymore. The southeastern Mediterranean — a cauldron of disputes — is all but devoid of U.S. leadership.

The Obama administration sounds diffident about the 70-year post-war order that the United States created and preserved. Vice President Joe Biden has talked of formulating a “new world order” to replace the one that gave the world unprecedented peace and prosperity. Conservatives have jumped on the president’s trivial gestures — the “apology tour,” the bows to foreign authoritarians and monarchs. In isolation, these would be irrelevant, but they reflect an underlying policy of multipolarity and multilateralism.

Obama’s apparent neutrality in the matter of the “Malvinas,” his initial pressure on Israel about the settlements, his courting of Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman Turkey, his seeking of the permission of the Arab League and the United Nations (but not the U.S. Congress) to intervene in Libya — all send signals that there is no privilege to be derived from being a supporter of America or its values.

Two recent developments — defense cuts through sequestration and the increased use of drones — fit the Obama blueprint and are becoming cornerstones of American foreign policy. The Obama administration was not terribly disappointed by sequestration’s scheduled $500 billion in across-the-board defense cuts over the next decade. Indeed, it had already proposed hundreds of billions of dollars of reductions on its own. Sequestration offered the best of both worlds: An ideological reluctance to act abroad could now be cloaked by the congressional imposition of overdue fiscal prudence.

And Obama, in one term, may have expanded targeted assassinations by drones tenfold over the tally of the eight-year Bush presidency. As judge, jury, and executioner, Obama has, in drones, a politically popular substitute for the deployment of U.S. ground troops. Drones avoid the messy circumstances and legal controversies involved in capturing terrorist suspects and bringing them for interrogation to Guantanamo. In cynical fashion, the administration assumes that prior liberal criticism of the Bush-Cheney anti-terrorism policy was largely partisan — given that Obama, with silent acquiescence from his base, embraced and expanded almost all of the protocols he inherited and once derided. In sum, the administration rightly assumes that the American public wants the War on Terror continued, but out of mind and out of sight. Vastly expanding the kill list — in rare circumstances to include renegade U.S. citizens — will hardly bother most Americans, and not bother at all the former liberal critics of George W. Bush.

The U.S. remains the world’s preeminent economic and military power — a fact that will not change in just the eight years of the Obama administration. If Obama at times expects foreign nations to listen to his sermonizing, such confidence is based on the reality that both he and his audience understand the historic power that he inherited. Even a neo-isolationist America will, for now, remain the indispensable world power.

Still, where does all this diffidence abroad eventually lead? The Obama administration has adroitly fashioned a policy that reflects the mood of a war-weary public that prefers its borrowed money to be spent on entitlements. Likewise, in the 1930s, our isolationist grandfathers were still demoralized by the costs and ambivalent results of World War I and traumatized by a long depression — and thus in no mood to anticipate foreign threats.

The problem, then and now, with American retrenchment is not just that others — all less ethical and legal-minded — will eventually police the world, but that inevitably they will want to police us as well.

Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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