Revisiting the Obama Doctrine

President Barack Obama began his term defining his foreign policy very simply: Tone down the rhetoric of President George W. Bush, focus on humanitarian issues, and reduce American militarism. Analysts, commentators, and pundits have tried to codify this general approach into an Obama doctrine, a set of coherent ideas that define and explain the president's policies. Two years later, however, it's difficult to say what, exactly, Obama's doctrine actually is. It is even more difficult to see a departure from President Bush's foreign policy. None of this changes with Osama bin Laden's rather spectacular death in his mansion in Pakistan.

Doctrines require a few basic components: a belief system for understanding circumstances, rules for putting that belief system into practice, and an event signaling the system's enactment -- a speech, an article, or a statement of principles. James Monroe famously said in 1823 that the U.S would view further European colonization of the Western Hemisphere as acts of aggression warranting intervention. Jimmy Carter declared in 1980 his intention to use "any means necessary" to defend U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf region. Even George W. Bush employed preemptive warfare and the principles of neoconservatism in a fairly coherent foreign-policy doctrine during his first term. In contrast, the president's 2009 Cairo speech, which is often invoked as illustrating an Obama doctrine, discussed the U.S.' desire to do the right thing without offering a blueprint for action.

The principles guiding Obama's foreign policy are so vague that pundits and writers often describe their own preferences and declare the president's stance worthy. As a candidate in 2007, Obama spoke of his belief in a "common security" that is guided by facts rather than ideology. He said that he believes humanitarian intervention is right sometimes, but sometimes it's not a good idea. A year later, Spencer Ackerman wrote for the Prospect that an Obama doctrine would be based on "dignity promotion." Ryan Lizza recently defined the Obama doctrine as "leading from behind." Even in praise, writers have described Obama's foreign-policy approach as "maddeningly subtle," which means almost no one can say what it really is. They just know that it is good and that they like it.

Obama doesn't have a doctrine of foreign policy; he has a style. As a result, his decisions are often constrained not by guiding principles but by circumstances. One of his biggest campaign promises, closing the Guantanamo Bay prison, has failed -- mired both in partisan politics and his inability to provide a pragmatic, workable alternative. While candidate Obama thought sitting down to talk with adversaries was itself a noble goal, President Obama has had to confront the messy reality that quite often, talk is just talk.

Because his foreign policy lacks the vision of doctrine -- or a strategy to implement that doctrine -- Obama is stuck reacting to crises instead of getting ahead of them. For example, negotiating Guantanamo's closure failed not because negotiations are a bad idea but because they only work when in service of a framework that defines America's role in the world and guides the use of U.S. power to secure it. While we breathed a sigh of relief at Osama bin Laden's death, the fundamental strategic problems facing the United States -- a decentralized al-Qaeda, U.S.-allied tyrants under siege from popular uprisings across the Middle East, a grinding civil war in Libya, climate change -- have not changed. The majority of Obama's decisions really just tinkered with Bush's policies: keeping Guantanamo open, drawing down in Iraq, surging into Afghanistan, and enforcing sanctions to combat Iranian nuclear ambitions.

In fact, Obama's 2010 National Security Strategy [PDF] was remarkable for how little it differed from previous administrations' strategies. While Obama added language to include global engagement and promotion of democracy and human rights, the specifics of the "war on terror," arguably the U.S.' most visible foreign policy, were very similar to his those set out by his predecessor. The only real change was dropping the phrase "war on terror." Even the withdrawal from Iraq largely kept the schedule President Bush negotiated in the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, signed in November 2008.

This doesn't mean Obama's foreign policy is devoid of success. The killing of Osama bin Laden was a decision filled with tremendous risk and an enormous payoff for the American public. The New START Treaty, which limits strategic nuclear weapons, was the first time since John F. Kennedy that a Democratic president secured an arms-control treaty through the Senate.

But what are Obama's other successes? The war in Libya can only be called a stalemate: U.S.-led NATO forces have prevented the rebels from losing, but beyond prolonging a brutal civil war, this approach has no clear outcome. The war in Afghanistan, too, is barely more than a stalemate, where the government's own violence statistics belie the claims of "tangible progress" against the Taliban. In other places where al-Qaeda has set up shop, such as Yemen, the Obama administration has reacted fecklessly by getting involved too late and not doing enough to alter the Yemeni government's misbehavior. Other efforts at global arms control have stalled out, bilateral trade agreements languish in the Senate, and no path exists for dealing with an increasingly cantankerous North Korea.

U.S. intervention in Libya, touted as humanitarian, has unclear goals and an uncertain end, with shifting justifications and motivations for remaining involved. In March, Obama argued that if the U.S. tried to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi by force, "our coalition would splinter." Yet two weeks later, Obama said it was "impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Gadhafi in power." As time marches on, the campaign morphs from a limited intervention to prevent atrocity to a full-fledged covert war against the Gadhafi government -- including NATO states sending in "advisers" and more special forces.

Indeed, despite Obama's rhetoric of dignity and human rights as a candidate, Obama's policies are not terribly different from his predecessors'. The war in Libya made sense because it seemed easy, and everyone despises Gadhafi. The prospect of war in Yemen, Syria, or Bahrain is much more difficult -- there is no similar consensus for hating their leaders, and America's relative familiarity with the societies of those nations hints at just how difficult intervention would be. Moreover, the U.S. has very little at stake in Libya; we could lose prestige but nothing tangible. Should things fail in Yemen or Syria, however, counterterrorism will face serious consequences. If an intervention in Bahrain falls apart too quickly, the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet in the Middle East might lose its enormous base of operations.

So, Obama is a pragmatist with an idealist streak. That's laudable as far as it goes -- idealism unchecked can be just as unwise as pragmatism unguided by ideals. But it's not really a doctrine, at least in the way one would normally describe one. It's a style, then: not a guiding principle or a grand strategic vision, just preferences. Which is not quite the change we all believed in.

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