Obama Doctrine – pendulum swung too far?



For any believer in the trans-Atlantic alliance, liberal interventionism and the overall beneficence of American power, President Obama’s long exposition of his foreign policy to Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic made for pretty depressing reading, Roger Cohen writes for the New York Times:

The thing about pendulums is they swing too far. Obama is right on many fronts. He’s right that Iran and Saudi Arabia need to “institute some sort of cold peace.” Right to conclude the Iran nuclear deal, open to Cuba, clinch the Paris climate accord and back free trade with Asia. But his cool realism has been disastrous in Syria and damaging to Europe. It also failed to seize tantalizing opportunities for liberty and democracy in Iran and Egypt. The greatest liberation movement since 1989 — the Arab Awakening — withered on his watch. 

Stanford University’s Francis Fukuyama would echo many of the criticisms made of the Obama Doctrine by others in the foreign policy establishment, he writes for the American Interest:

  • First, while it’s true that there is a “cult of credibility” in Washington which is often overemphasized, credibility nonetheless remains a valuable commodity which President Obama squandered in his red-line drawing in Syria. ..
  • Second, it is wrong to palm off the blame for the Libya fiasco on Britain and France. Yes, of course, they should have done more, but the United States was complicit in neglecting that country after the fall of Qaddafi as well. It would have been more honest for Obama to argue for not intervening in the first place, given the general inability of either the United States or its allies to create viable states in the wake of toppled authoritarian leaders. …
  • Third, Obama comes close to conceding a sphere of influence for Russia in Ukraine and the territories of the former Soviet Union. It is true that we could not defend Ukraine from Russia, which is why I always opposed Ukrainian membership in NATO. But the independence and success of a democratic Ukraine is very important…
  • Fourth, withdrawing from Afghanistan is not a big achievement. It is very important for the President to make clear that we will retain a viable force presence there for the indefinite future, and to end the fiction that we are still disengaging.

All of that being said, the President made a number of important points with which I completely agree, adds Fukuyama, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy:

  • First, he is right that the Islamic State and terrorism more generally do not constitute an existential threat to the United States. Indeed, the big problem with terrorism always lies in our tendency to overreact …
  • Second, his relatively even-handed approach to the spreading Sunni-Shi‘a civil war and the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is also correct. We have no intrinsic interest in this struggle; we can only hope to contain it. …..
  • Third, Obama is right that, in the long run, Asia has been relatively neglected as a result of our entanglements in the Middle East. China is the most important long-term threat that the United States faces. …Obama’s problem is that he sees primarily the upside of all those young entrepreneurs in Kuala Lumpur, and not the real and immediate dangers that China poses to Malaysia and many of its neighbors. …
  • Finally, the opening to Cuba was a very good thing that will help underpin American influence in the Western hemisphere and promote liberalization of the island down the road. ….RTWT

“The problem is that we do not live in a world of Obamas,” writes former Spanish foreign minister Ana Palacio. “Things are simply not so rational and carefully calculated. This is perhaps why the tribalism and atavism that Obama mentions throughout the piece are just so disconcerting to him. It does not fit the mold. Obama …. is trying to play chess while the real world is playing checkers.”

The values and institutions that the United States cherishes, which are the opposites of tribalism, fundamentalism, sectarianism, and militarism, have made remarkable progress around the world in the past hundred years, notes Michael Mandelbaum, a Professor of American Foreign Policy at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies:

[B]ut in the interest of historical accuracy and political clarity it must be said that the things that Obama rightly deplores are more familiar, more “normal,” more deeply grounded in local experience, and more firmly entrenched in the Middle East, and not there alone, than what America and other democracies preach and, on the whole, practice. American power cannot banish these things, but it can oppose the foreign policies of countries that seek to spread them and support the efforts of other countries that are willing, if in the Middle East sometimes only partially and tentatively, to resist them.

Obama’s foreign policy doctrine “is an abdication of the kind of leadership the United States has maintained for the entire post-World War II era,” says David J. Kramer, senior director for human rights and democracy at the McCain Institute for International Leadership. “Obama is telling the world that we no longer will act to deter aggression by kleptocratic, authoritarian regimes and that smaller countries are left to fend for themselves. He also is rejecting long-standing U.S. policy of support for other countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Ten months before the end of his tenure, Obama’s record in the Middle East seems mixed, writes Itamar Rabinovich, president of the Israel Institute, and Israel’s Ambassador in Washington in the mid-1990s:

This has to some extent happened by choice (the pivot), and to some extent due to the decline in the importance of the region’s oil, but it has mostly been the outcome of the Arab Spring and its sequels: the deterioration of Washington’s relationship with the conservative Sunni states and the failure of its policy in the Syrian crisis.

When President Obama went to Cairo early in his first term to portray the vision of a new democratic Middle East, neither he nor anyone else foresaw the shock waves that would emanate from Tunisia in 2010.

Internationally, the United States should focus on good-enough governance, not on putting countries on the path to Denmark or withdrawal, Stanford University’s Stephen D. Krasner adds:

The first objective of good-enough governance would be to enhance security in poorly governed states. All good things do not go together; enhanced security might mean less observance of human rights and less rule of law….. The United States should focus on tolerance or perhaps good-enough inclusion rather than full inclusion. In some circumstances some services might be improved, especially health, and better job prospects and some economic growth might be achieved. Free and fair elections, however, and the elimination of corruption are unattainable. Unlike enhanced security, tolerance, better health services, and more jobs, free and fair elections and Weberian rational-legal bureaucracies are inconsistent with the interests of local elites in poorly governed states.


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