With the end of President Obama’s third year in office, and another foreign policy crisis in the offing in Syria, American commentators are struggling again with the problem of whether there’s an “Obama Doctrine,” and if so what it entails. In a stimulating article in the Weekly Standard, Elliott Abrams argues that the Obama Doctrine consists of the President’s willingness to take political advantage of military operations, so long as those operations are quick raids by U.S. forces that are over before they are announced. As Abrams puts it:
divulging the secrets is at the very heart of the Obama Doctrine. Secret operations gain the president no credit. Revelation of the completed operations is the whole point, demonstrating Obama’s courage and his commitment to yesterday’s deeds.
Not coincidentally, relying on the Special Forces also justifies cutting the budget for the rest of the Pentagon. Abrams only mentions Obama’s drone campaign in passing, but it’s more fodder for his argument: the leaks that have revealed the scope of the campaign will damage its operational effectiveness, but in the short run they serve primarily to advertise the White House’s commitment to apparently costless and successful action.
The problem with Abrams’ assessment is that, though correct within its scope, it’s too narrow to define a full Doctrine. My colleagues Kim Holmes and James Carafano set out a broader definition of the Obama Doctrine -- defined by the President’s accumulating words and deeds -- over a year ago. They emphasized the President’s reliance on international institutions, soft-power, and engagement, his rejection of American exceptionalism, and his minimization of American sovereignty. And while no single event can perfectly exemplify the Administration’s foreign policy and its failures, events in Syria sure come close.
A crucial part of the Administration’s world view when it entered office in 2009 was that, if only it extended the hand of friendship to various authoritarian regimes, the U.S. would have a much easier time abroad. In other words, it was all George W. Bush’s fault. This policy was tried and failed in Iran, where the Administration has acknowledged that it missed an opportunity by failing to support the popular protests in June 2009. It featured in the so-called reset of relations with Russia, which paid off with the Russian veto of the Security Council resolution on Syria. And it was central to their approach on Syria, where the Administration ran a gauntlet of criticism to secure Robert Ford’s confirmation as U.S. Ambassador to Syria in October, only to pull the entire U.S. embassy out of Damascus last week. It’s no criticism of Amb. Ford’s honorable conduct of his mission to say that he should never have been sent in the first place, and that his dispatch represents another failed trial of the engagement strategy.
Another part of the Administration’s approach was to rely more on the United Nations, and, more broadly, on the world’s multilateral institutions and treaties. You don’t hear much about this any more, partly because efforts like the U.S. re-entry into the U.N. Human Rights Council have been such a resounding flop -- though the Law of the Sea Treaty and the Arms Trade Treaty are still lurking. Indeed, behind the scenes, the Administration has become a proponent of the need for U.N. budgetary reform, and has worked to secure a small (and regrettably flimsy) budget cut. But when the cameras are on, the old instinct returns, and the Administration trots off to the Security Council. The Russian and Chinese veto on Syria is evidence enough of the weakness of this strategy, which places the agenda-setting power in the hands of states that have no interest in successful American leadership. Even worse, as I pointed out here in September, there is the problem of how the Administration handled the Libyan intervention, and the way it has predictably complicated the problem of Syria:
The Obama Administration badly wanted to act [in Libya] with the approval of the U.N. Security Council. So on March 17, it got, by a vote of 10-0 with five abstentions, a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing “all necessary measures … to protect civilians.” It then immediately reinterpreted this resolution into approval for NATO to become the rebel air force. The next time the Administration wants to do something through the U.N. – say, on Syria – it will find Russia and China a lot less eager to abstain on resolutions that might be subject to creative reinterpretation. Relying on the U.N. carries immense inherent costs: tricking the U.N. to get what you want just increases those costs.
Finally, there’s the problem of American security leadership and its commitments to its allies and interests around the world. It was only last November when the Administration announced, with much fanfare, its “pivot” to Asia. How does the pivot jibe with today’s focus on Syria? The answer is that it doesn’t, and that, while Asia is obviously important, so are the Middle East and Europe: superpowers have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. As unfortunate as this is, it’s a fact that the U.S. can’t set the world’s agenda by proclamation: as the saying goes, the other guy gets a vote too. The idea of a “pivot” was deeply unserious from the start, and the only thing saving it now is that events in Syria appear unlikely to result in U.S. or NATO military intervention. If it comes to a confrontation with Iran, the Administration’s pull-out in Iraq, its drawdown in Afghanistan, its de-emphasis of the U.S.’s security role in the Middle East, and its imposed and impending defense cuts will look even worse than they do today.
In the end, the fundamental problem with the foundations of Obama’s foreign policy is simple: nothing about Obama’s experiences before the 2008 campaign speak to his having any serious interest in foreign policy and grand strategy, and nothing about the way he won the White House encouraged him to develop those interests. He won because of the exhaustion of the Republicans over Iraq, and the onset of the 2008 financial crisis, and if he wins again in 2012, it will be because the U.S. economy is doing marginally better, not because of any plausible triumph abroad.
That’s too bad, because the struggle in Syria is not merely about human rights, as important as those are: it represents a major opportunity for the U.S. to disrupt the web of Iranian influence that stretches from Tehran to Damascus to Lebanon, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. This is not pre-eminently a humanitarian problem: it is an opportunity to win a strategic victory by slamming an open door in Iran’s face. So far, the U.S. has fumbled this opportunity as badly as it fumbled the June 2009 protests in Iran, and in foreign policy, you only get so many opportunities to miss your opportunities. The fact that breaking Iran’s winning streak wouldn’t win many votes should be beside the point.
But Obama has little to gain by putting foreign policy on the front pages and, it would appear, little desire to put them front and center either. He needs only to do just enough -- in the form of speeches, symbolic actions, gestures to the left, and not very covert military operations -- to neutralize the charge that he’s not interested in American leadership. Syria testifies to the fact that the dreams of his early administration have comprehensively failed, and that he’s now relying on ad hoc approaches. True, all foreign policy is to an extent improvisation, but great improvisers work off the melody. Right now, the Obama Doctrine is a discordant mess.
Dr. Ted R. Bromund is the Margaret Thatcher Senior Research Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom in the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. He joined Heritage in 2008 after a decade as the Associate Director of International Security Studies at Yale University, a research and teaching centre dedicated to diplomatic, military and strategic history, and grand strategy. He blogs regularly for the Centre for Policy Studies.