Is there an Obama Doctrine, a distinct grand strategy informing the president’s foreign and national security policies?1 Or does the search for coherence confuse rather than clarify understanding? Opinions vary. Some prominent defenders of the administration not only deny the existence of the Obama Doctrine, but also praise the president for choosing pragmatism and flexibility as an alternative.2 In a January 2014 interview with David Remnick, President Obama responded in the same vein, saying there was no need for any new grand strategy: “I don’t really even need George Kennan right now,” said the president, only “the right strategic partners.”3 Conversely, some of Obama’s fiercest detractors assail him for lacking sufficient interest in foreign policy to define or adhere to any core strategy.4 Neither of these perspectives is correct. Nor does it suffice to summarize the Obama Doctrine as “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff” (Thomas Friedman’s formulation in the New York Times), or simply as a policy of American retrenchment.5
Like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, President Obama came to office as a conviction rather than consensus politician. Obama aspires to transform not only the relationship between government and the individual at home, but also the role of the United States abroad. As Walter Russell Mead observes, the president has “extremely ambitious” foreign policy goals: a global climate treaty; a new relationship with Iran; nuclear arms control and disarmament; the withdrawal of American military forces from Iraq and Afghanistan without leaving chaos behind; a final settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict; the containment of global terrorism; engagement with Russia; a benign end to the Syrian civil war; a decent outcome for the Arab Spring; a durable equilibrium in East Asia with a rising China embracing rather than menacing the regional status quo; American military restraint, except in extraordinary circumstances that require a high burden of proof to justify the resort to unilateralism (p.2) of narrow coalitions of the willing; and the establishment of multilateralism, collective security, and international law as the norm for resolving international disputes.6
President Obama has articulated a clear, consistent national security strategy, which has crystallized into a doctrine during his second term. The president has pursued his transformative agenda with remarkable fidelity, despite the vagaries of practical politics compelling even the most consistent conviction politicians to compromise frequently.
This book will explicate and analyze the Obama Doctrine, drawing primarily, though not exclusively, from President Obama’s own rationale for his policies. It will spotlight the period from his inauguration through the midterm elections of 2014. The author consciously avoids any reliance on incendiary accounts of President Obama’s foreign policy that routinely place the worst possible construction on the president’s motives without adequate empirical foundation.7 For all the divergence of perspectives on the merits of President Obama’s foreign policy, consensus exists that the president has dominated its formulation and implementation. This includes Obama’s first term, when occasional differences occurred within his administration; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was consistently the most hawkish member during internal debates.8 As William Galston observes in the Wall Street Journal, Clinton vigorously advocated the surge in Afghanistan, the use of American airpower in Libya in 2011, and the Navy Seal raid killing Osama bin Laden. She unsuccessfully supported maintaining a residual American force in Iraq, a proposal that the president’s manifest lack of enthusiasm for and the public opposition of the Iraqi government conspired to doom. Although she endorsed negotiating with Iran, Clinton also distrusted Iranian intentions—far more than the president did. President Obama prevailed handily, however, in all the major foreign policy battles within the administration while Hillary Clinton served as secretary of state.9 Robert Gates and Leon Panetta (who served as Obama’s first director of the CIA and then replaced Gates as secretary of defense) both complained in their memoirs about the Obama administration’s zealous determination to “bring everything under their control.”10
Obama has asserted his prerogative even more decisively during his second term, appointing Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, John Kerry as secretary of state, and Samantha Power as his ambassador to the United (p.3) Nations. This trio has embraced President Obama’s view of the world and the diminished role for American military power in it with even fewer reservations than their predecessors, who challenged the president on rare occasions within quite narrow bounds.11 Consider, for example, the symbiotic political relationship between Obama and John Kerry. Like Obama, Kerry stridently opposed every one of Ronald Reagan’s pivotal foreign policy initiatives—the defense buildup, SDI, the U.S. military intervention in Grenada, and his uncompromising and relentless anticommunist rhetoric. Like Obama, Kerry passionately advocated the nuclear freeze as a preferable alternative. After initially voting for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Kerry repented, coming out categorically against the war, the Bush Doctrine, and Bush’s 2007 surge. Kerry’s days as an antiwar leader in Vietnam also instilled in him strong presumption—matching Obama’s—for deferring and limiting the use of force in favor of multilateralism, engagement, and diplomacy.12
Although Chuck Hagel formerly served as a Republican senator from Nebraska, his foreign policy and national security views have long aligned more closely with the dovish New Politics wing of the Democratic Party. Hagel called for direct negotiations with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. He supported unconditional negotiations with the Iranian regime and categorically opposed the imposition of unilateral sanctions and the use of force against it. Unlike President Obama’s two Republican presidential opponents—Senator John McCain of Arizona and Massachusetts’s former governor Mitt Romney—Hagel favored substantially cutting defense spending and devolving U.S. global responsibilities.13 Hagel’s resignation after the midterm elections of 2014 under pressure from the president does not signify any new direction in the administration’s foreign or national security policy. Hagel left primarily because of Obama’s growing frustration with Hagel’s ineffectiveness rather than any major policy disagreement. Ashton Carter—Hagel’s replacement—has exemplary academic credentials and extensive policy experience, having previously served Presidents Carter and Clinton before becoming President Obama’s fourth secretary of defense. Carter lacks, however, either the inclination or the clout within the Obama administration’s increasingly homogeneous national security team to influence or alter the course the president has firmly set.14
Ambassador Power’s criticisms about the misuse of American power (p.4) make President Obama’s most apologetic statements seem tame by comparison: “U.S. foreign policy has to be rethought. It needs not tweaking but overhauling. We need: a historical reckoning with crimes committed, sponsored, or permitted by the United States. This would entail restoring FOIA to its pre-Bush stature, opening the files, and acknowledging the force of a mantra we have spent the last decade promoting in Guatemala, South Africa, and Yugoslavia: A country has to look back before it can move forward. Instituting a doctrine of mea culpa would enhance our credibility by showing that American decision-makers do not endorse the sins of their predecessors.”15
The year 2014 witnessed a further concentration of foreign policy decision making in the White House, as multiple foreign policy crises buffeted the Obama administration: a looming cold war in Europe with Putin’s Russia; a savage and emboldened Islamic caliphate in the Middle East; the collapse of Iraq; and China’s mounting assertiveness and arrogance dealing with its maritime neighbors in Asia. As Mark Landler reported in the New York Times, President Obama responded by “leaning more than ever on a his small circle of White House aides, who forged their relationship with him during the 2008 campaign and loom even larger in the administration without weighty voices like those of Robert M. Gates, the former secretary of defense, or Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former secretary of state.”16
This book offers a robust critique of the Obama Doctrine that is grounded in international relations theory and the annals of American diplomacy. It focuses on the record and trajectory of the Obama foreign policy in the geopolitically pivotal regions of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. The book argues that President Obama has imprudently abandoned the venerable tradition of muscular internationalism emblematic of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan, and both Bushes. Instead, the Obama Doctrine paves the way for ending the indispensable role the United States has played since World War II as what Josef Joffe calls “the world’s default power,” thereby defeating and deterring hegemonic threats in vital geopolitical regions; catalyzing the spread and sustenance of stable liberal democracy through trade and alliances rather than territorial acquisition; and striving conscientiously, though imperfectly, to choose the lesser moral and geopolitical evil when no plausible good alternative exists.17
(p.5) As a caveat, this book makes no claims to certainty in interpreting the past or speculating about the future. No assessment of American foreign policy should strive for a level of precision beyond what the subject matter admits: namely, arguments based on probabilities and possibilities. Perhaps events will ultimately vindicate President Obama’s gamble of establishing multilateralism as the norm if not the rule for when and how the United States engages with the world. Perhaps defining American interests worth fighting for narrowly and endowing the means to promote them modestly will reduce the costs and risks that the United States incurs. Perhaps President Obama’s grand strategy will make it possible for the United States safely to accord greater priority to solving problems at home and revitalizing the economy on which all forms of power depend.
Yet the lessons of history suggest otherwise. Typically, the greatest challenges to the United States arise when dangerous adversaries perceive the United States as internationally disengaged and unprepared militarily. After World War I, American withdrawal and retrenchment did not make the world safe for democracy, but for Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism. After World War II, the United States did not make the same mistake. American power proved indispensable for winning the Cold War and extending the democratic zone of peace during the 1990s. Stephen C. Brooks, G. John Ikenberry, and William C. Wohlforth encapsulate nicely the benefits arising from the United States’ remaining militarily preeminent and deeply engaged in the world: it helps “prevent the outbreak of conflict in the world’s most important regions, keeps the global economy humming, and makes international cooperation easier.”18 The Obama Doctrine risks casting all this away, imperiling America’s national interest, rightly understood.
Chapter 1 explicates the main tenets of the Obama Doctrine—an ambitious synthesis of rival approaches to international relations without being beholden to an unalloyed version of any single one. Chapter 2 identifies the Obama Doctrine’s points of convergence with and departure from traditions such as neorealism, classical realism, declinism, liberal internationalism, and moral democratic realism—all of which have numerous variations. Chapter 3 compares and contrasts the Obama Doctrine with the rival traditions of American diplomacy. Chapters 4 through 6 analyze the record of the Obama Doctrine in the three paramount regions geopolitically for American foreign policy: Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. (p.6) These chapters also address President Obama’s record of and rationale for using force, including his strategy for winding down wars while avoiding what he perceives to be excessively high costs and risks. The conclusion offers a brisk summation of why the Obama Doctrine invites peril and why a grand strategy anchored in moral democratic realism, adapted to the conditions of the twenty-first century, offers the best practicable alternative. The epilogue evaluates whether and to what extent the president has reset or doubled down on the main tenets of the Obama Doctrine since the midterm elections of 2014. It will expound briefly on the president’s 2015 National Security Strategy, released in early February—particularly the theme of “strategic patience.”19 This document largely affirms the main tenets of the Obama Doctrine as this writer has rendered them.
(1.) Ryan Lizza, “The Consequentialist: How the Arab Spring Remade Obama’s Foreign Policy,” New Yorker, May 2, 2011, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/05/02/the-consequentialist?currentPage=all.
(2.) Fareed Zakaria, “Stop Searching for an Obama Doctrine,” Washington Post, July 6, 2011, www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/stop-searching-for-an-obama-doctrine/2011/07/06/gIQAQMmI1H_story.html.
(3.) David Remnick, “Going the Distance: On and Off the Road with Barack Obama,” New Yorker, January 27, 2014, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/01/27/going-the-distance-2?currentPage=all.
(4.) Will Inboden, “Looking for an Obama Doctrine That Doesn’t Exist,” Foreign Policy, September 16, 2013, http://shadow.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/09/16/looking_for_an_obama_doctrine_that_doesnt_exist; and William C. Martel, “America’s Grand Strategy Disaster,” National Interest, June 9, 2014, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/americas-grand-strategy-disaster-10627.
(5.) Thomas L. Friedman, “Obama’s Foreign Policy Book,” New York Times, May 31, 2014, www.nytimes.com/2014/06/01/opinion/sunday/friedman-obamas-foreign-policy-book.html; E. J. Dionne, “Finding Strength in Restraint,” Commercial Appeal, May 30, 2014, www.commercialappeal.com/news/e-j-dionne-why-restraint-makes-us-stronger; and Stephen Sestanovich, Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), 301–24.
(6.) Walter Russell Mead, “The President’s Foreign Policy Paradox,” Wall Street Journal, March, 28, 2014, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303725404579457950519734142.
(7.) Dinesh D’Souza, The Roots of Obama’s Rage (New York: Regnery Publishing, 2011); and Dinesh D’Souza, Obama’s America: Unmaking the American Dream (New York: Regnery Publishing, 2012).
(8.) Bob Woodward, Obama’s Wars (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010); Robert M. Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014). For all their difference, both authors state without equivocation that President Obama largely acts as his own secretary of state and almost always gets his way within his administration. See also James Mann, The Obamians: The Struggle inside the White House to Redefine American Power (New York: Viking, 2012).
(9.) William A. Galston, “The Big 2016 Foreign Policy Debates: Rand (p.216) Paul Will Fight GOP Hawks, and Joe Biden Could Run to the Left of Hillary Clinton,” Wall Street Journal, July 22, 2014, http://online.wsj.com/articles/william-a-galston-the-big-2016-foreign-policy-debates-1406071181.
(11.) Josh Rogin, “A Foreign Policy Shakeup at the White House,” Daily Beast, June 5, 2013, http://thekojonnamdishow.org/shows/2013-06-05/a_foreign_policy_shakeup_at_the_white_house. Rogin, senior correspondent for national security and politics, provides an assessment of the shift in the White House foreign policy team.
(12.) Joshua Muravchik, “In the Cold War: Kerry Froze,” Los Angeles Times, August 10, 2004, http://articles.latimes.com/2004/aug/10/opinion/oe-muravchik10.
(13.) Robert Kaufman, “We Can Do Better Than Hagel,” Orange County Register, February 20, 2013, www.ocregister.com/articles/hagel-496467-obama-president.html.
(14.) Robert Burns, “Obama Picks Ashton Carter to Be Next Secretary of Defense,” PBS News Hour, December 5, 2014, www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/ashton-carter-announced-obamas-next-secretary-defense/.
(15.) Samantha Power, “Force Full: Bush’s Illiberal Power,” New Republic, March 3, 2003, www.newrepublic.com/article/srebenica-liberalism-balkan-united%20nations.
(16.) Mark Landler, “Obama Could Replace Aides Bruised by a Cascade of Crises,” New York Times, October 29, 2014, www.nytimes.com/2014/10/30/world/middleeast/mounting-crises-raise-questions-on-capacity-of-obamas-team.html?_r=0.
(17.) Josef Joffe, The Myth of America’s Decline: Politics, Economics, and a Half Century of False Prophecies (New York: Liveright, 2014), 246–60.
(18.) Stephen G. Brooks, G. John Ikenberry, and William C. Wohlforth, “Lean Forward: In Defense of American Engagement,” Foreign Affairs, January/Feb-ruary 2013, www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/138468/stephen-g-brooks-g-john-ikenberry-and-william-c-wohlforth/lean-forward.
(19.) Barack Obama, National Security Strategy, February 2015, www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/2015_national_security_strategy.pdf.