Tinkering with the Obama Doctrine

During the 2008 presidential campaign, no candidate offered a clearer break with George W. Bush's foreign policy than Barack Obama. With America in the middle of two prolonged wars in the Middle East, the Illinois senator pledged to use "soft power" and engagement to pursue American interests rather than military action. Obama's argument was that the standing of the United States had been heavily damaged by Bush's policies of invasion, torture, and indefinite detention, and in order to repair this damage, the United States needed to pursue policies that directly reached out to the residents of the world.

These goals have only been partially realized, and nowhere is this more evident than in the Middle East. Obama pledged a “new beginning” at Cairo University in 2009, and has tried to engage the world without plunging into drawn-out conflicts during his first term. But the approach has hit some of its limitations. President Obama has effectively drawn down from Iraq and Afghanistan, hunted terrorists with a high degree of efficiency, and avoided entering the United States into another quagmire. But he was elected under the promise that he would significantly repair America's standing in the world—not just execute old policies more effectively. With Iraq in the rear-view mirror, simply avoiding war will no longer be enough. The Syrian crisis is reaching a breaking point, Iran is still an adversary, and Israel's aggressive actions have not moved the Middle East any closer to a permanent peace.

With the appointments of Chuck Hagel, John Kerry, and John Brennan, President Obama shows that he favors readjusting his foreign policy rather than radically reinventing it. None of the choices represent a significant departure from the current course. The appointment of John Brennan represents a “double down” on Obama's aggressive use of drones to target terrorists abroad, for instance. But Hagel and Kerry do represent a willingness to reassess U.S. foreign policy in some areas, and are in a position to challenge some of the traditional thinking on the Middle East. If they do not succeed in changing course, however, the world could see the war in Syria explode, or a new conflict involving Israel or Iran develop. Below is a look at the key issues the administration will have to address, and an examination of how the president’s new appointees may approach them.


Partially because of Obama’s efforts, war between Israel and Iran has been avoided. But the president has neither found a way to cooperate with Benjamin Netanyahu nor been able to convince Israel to take a softer path on Palestine or Iran. In criticizing the power of the “Jewish lobby”—a poor choice of words, to be sure—Hagel was trying to argue that the pro-Israel lobby has refused to hold the Israeli government accountable for failed policies. Hagel has in the past urged for an engagement with Hamas—a necessity in order to restart the peace talks. John Kerry's recent statements opposing additional Israeli settlements also suggests a change in tone when discussing the effectiveness of Netanyahu's policies. The reality is that many American and Israeli liberals believe in a less aggressive foreign policy than the one pursued by Netanyahu.

But so far, this has amounted to little more than a change in tone. Some analysts have suggested that no president has been more supportive of Netanyahu's aggressive actions than President Obama (even the Israeli press thinks this will continue). It's possible that additional public pressure on the Israeli prime minister, combined with his weakened political standing after this month’s close election, will force him to focus more on domestic issues and diplomacy than military actions. But beyond back-room disagreements and the occasional public statement pressuring Israel to engage in diplomacy, the United States remains entirely supportive of Israel's actions and this is unlikely to change.


After years of slow progress, the more aggressive rhetoric of the Bush administration emboldened Iran's hardliners and their more oppositional policies. In 2008, Obama pledged to re-engage Iran as part of his “new start” agenda. This approach, however, butted up against defiant opposition of an Iranian government that was trying to expand its power by meddling in Iraq, restarting its reactors, and cracking down on internal dissent. In response to this, the United States led most of the world to adopt multilateral sanctions against Iran, the goal of which was to crush the country’s economy, forcing it to either cooperate with the international community or face the wrath of its citizens. The sanctions have achieved their primary objective—Iran's economy is in tatters, its currency has at various times been in a state of free fall, and its industries are seeing major supply problems, coupled with a lack of foreign credit. But the government is more recalcitrant than ever, partially as a response to the constant saber-rattling of U.S. politicians and the Israeli government. There is little indication Iran recalcitrance will soften.

In Iran, the administration has abandoned its engagement approach, largely due to political pressure from ever-hawkish conservatives, on the campaign trail and the floors of Congress, and from the pro-Israeli lobby that was already falsely convinced that Obama would be too soft on Israel's enemies and too hard on Israeli efforts to combat them. However, both Hagel and John Kerry have suggested that engagement is ultimately the answer. Hagel has said that sanctions and saber rattling undermine diplomacy, and Kerry has suggested that China, a major trading partner with Iran and the rest of the Middle East, could help broker international agreements with Iran. Both Kerry and Hagel have argued that helping Iran to construct a civilian nuclear program could end the standoff over nuclear weapons and could be used as an incentive for Iran to cooperate on other issues. Their appointments may prove to be important in putting the U.S. closer to a new start with Iran.


Syria remains perhaps the single greatest failure of Obama’s light-touch policy. The civil war between Syrian President Bashar al Assad and his supporters, which include Hezbollah fighters, and the Syrian rebels is escalating and spilling across the borders: Last week, Israel launched airstrikes against targets inside Syria based on intelligence that Syrian arms Assad was giving anti-aircraft missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon, presumably as repayment for the military assistance of the terrorist group. This incident heightens the chance that Israel could enter into yet another armed conflict with Lebanon or Syria. Meanwhile, the rapid rise of the suspected Al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra, poses a threat to the entire region.

So far, the Obama administration has maintained that a political settlement between the regime and the opposition is the only way to end the conflict. Following this logic, the United States has refused to arm the rebels, and the White House has repeatedly stated that only the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would constitute a “red line” which, if crossed, would trigger U.S. military intervention. Hagel, a combat veteran himself, has often spoken about the wisdom of avoiding wars at all costs unless they are absolutely necessary. His comments about Syria suggest that, like Obama, he does not see a military solution to this crisis. Hagel is also weary of arming the Syrian rebels. But the avoidance of military intervention may allow a war to develop which could suck us in, regardless of the administration's intentions.

John Kerry has made comments in the last six months that suggest that it is time for Washington to rethink its hands-off approach, perhaps by arming the rebels or by establishing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria. At the onset of the protests, Kerry supported a diplomatic effort to end the crisis. Since then, however, he has raised the prospect of arming groups of Syrian rebels who support democracy and secularism, and has suggested that it may be time to establish “safe zones”—no-fly zones on the borders of Syria that would protect Syrian civilians and refugees. Most important, Kerry has questioned a key piece of Obama's Syria policy:

I am told by some people that certain things would be a game-changer—a use of weapons of mass destruction, for instance, or some massive massacre. But that notion that a massive massacre might be a game-changer somehow begs the question of where do you draw the distinction between 100 people a day or 1,000 people a week, or 3,000 or 4,000 people a month, and what does the total mean to all of us and to the civilized world?

Yet Kerry is still cautious about war. His statements criticizing the Vietnam War, of which he was a combat veteran, suggest that he will push for a sophisticated solution that values war as a last resort. However, several of Kerry's statements in the last eight months suggest that he believes it is time to act now to hasten the end of this crisis.

On the Two Fronts

If the president’s engagement approach must work anywhere, it’s in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the departure of U.S. forces leaves only diplomacy in the administration’s toolbox. U.S. troops have been withdrawn from Iraq, but new and old challenges continue to plague the Iraqi government. Sunni Muslims have taken to the streets to protest what they see as the dominance of Shia leaders. These tensions reached new levels when Iraq's Vice President, Tariq al-Hashimi, was sentenced to death for murder in absentia. Suicide bombings are on the rise as a result. The 2003 U.S. military invasion of Iraq, and the eight-plus year war that followed, failed to bring order to Iraq, and in his second term, Obama will have to find a way to pressure the Iraqi leaders to change their own ways in order to make progress.

Similarly, the Obama administration is still holding to a plan that would withdraw most U.S. Troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, only leaving some forces to train Afghan military and police, and to react to specific threats. It remains to be seen whether the corrupt, obstinate, and so-far inadequate Karzai administration will be able to survive without large numbers of U.S. soldiers to help him. It also remains unclear whether he will be an effective shield against allowing terrorist organizations from strengthening in the region. John Kerry has threatened to remove U.S. aid to Afghanistan, and has warned that if the Karzai government does not hold real elections, then Western governments should consider withdrawing their support.

Obama's Legacy

Then there is the policy that may define Obama's legacy, it’s the use of drones as a substitute for war. This brings us to Obama's last foreign policy appointee, John Brennan. In the last four years, the U.S. drone program has decimated the ranks of Al Qaeda and other terrorist networks from Pakistan to Yemen. The use of unmanned combat drones allows the United States to strike enemies without putting U.S. lives at risk or U.S. troops on the ground but has also soured world opinion on the United States; while dead terrorists today guarantee a safe tomorrow, dead civilians guarantee a threat well into the future. As Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counter-terrorism, Brennan has been instrumental in forming and executing the most controversial policies of both the Obama and Bush administrations. He has championed the use of drones, and the policy of extra-judicial execution, which gives the United States the power to kill people, even U.S. citizens, without trial or a declaration of war as long as it is perceived that they are a threat to national security.

The U.S. drone program is a perfect example of the safety of the United States being guaranteed by a policy that cuts against some of its key values. Perhaps this was a brilliant short-term goal, as the U.S. has avoided entering into yet another prolonged war, but there are now serious and growing doubts that this policy can be effective long-term. It's unclear whether Hagel or Kerry will seriously push Obama for change on this issue, but it's pretty clear that as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan would likely help ensure that the CIA continues to become a ruthless terrorist-killing machine. A change of course, then, will have to come from other members of the administration.

The foreign policy of the United States was badly broken when Barack Obama took office. The nation was entangled in a web of struggling counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism efforts, diplomacy had been nearly abandoned by the previous administration, and policy was largely reactionary. As he enters his second term, Obama must further distance himself from the policies of George Bush, and to reassess his own approach to new challenges as well. Syria is a disaster, Israel and Iran are closer than ever to war, Iraq is struggling and Afghanistan may be following suit. It will likely fall on the shoulders of the Secretary of State, John Kerry, to find a new path forward on many of these issues. If he is not up to the task, the United States could soon find itself snared in the middle of new quagmires.

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