Confusing Foreign Policy
Can you describe the Obama Doctrine?
I tried to figure it out. Usually, presidents do not come out with a broad statement written on a piece of paper that defines their entire foreign policy view. Rather, a trend develops in decision making over the course of a presidency that develops into a hard ideology applied to foreign policy and national security issues.
By now, we all know about the Bush Doctrine. Boiled to it’s simplest core: The United States will fight global terrorism on foreign lands rather than waiting to be attacked and we reserve the right to start a pre-emptive war anywhere in the world if we believe another nation poses an imminent danger to the Untied States or our interests.
When President Obama took office in 2009, it was widely asserted that the Bush Doctrine was dead, no longer the guiding foreign policy philosophy. It was also granted that it takes a president time to develop his own broad philosophy.
More than three years into the Obama presidency, it is not clear that there is a philosophy. Last month, the Pentagon released details of it’s quadrennial review which aims to dramatically reshape the American military. The President put his finger print on a policy that will reduce the manpower of the force, shrinking the Army and Marine Corp in favor of smaller, joint special operations teams, light aircraft, and drones. It shifts the defense focus from the Middle East and Eastern Europe toward Asian, specifically China and North Korea.
But a shift in focus and tactics is not a doctrine. It is not a guiding principle for addressing major global problems or determining the circumstance by which the U.S. would employ military force to achieve a policy objective.
The beginnings of the Obama Doctrine seemed to be forming in the summer of 2009. Honduras staged a coup of it’s leftist President, Manuel Zelaya, a man who by all accounts was horrendously corrupt and no friend to U.S. interests. Around the same time, Iran held rigged elections in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected President despite widespread reports of fraud. Thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest the shame election, led by the growing Iranian youth who are more educated and modern than previous generations. Rather than seize these opportunities to promote democracy and take the side of young, freedom seeking reformers; the Obama administration did nothing in Iran as protesters were brutally assaulted for the world to see and they opposed Honduran reformers altogether.
- The Obama Doctrine appeared clear. Do nothing. Don’t intervene under any circumstances, regardless of American interests or the safety of freedom loving reformers. Don’t take sides in the conflict. Ignore it. It was a return to isolationism.
However, as this isolationist policy was playing out publicly, the Obama team vastly ramped up the Afghan war effort and explosively increased drone bombings in Afghanistan, Pakistan to Somalia. Although classified, it is assumed that major covert operations were taking place across the region in addition to what was made public.
This would certainly contradict any idea of isolationism. This was intervention on a modern, ferocious level.
Then came the Arab Spring and Egypt. As with Honduras and Iran, there was silence for a long time from team Obama. Then, when it was clear Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was at his end, the Obama administration eagerly began to side with the rebels and gave a full-throated endorsement to those who risked their lives for reform.
Problems cropped up in Yemen and Bahrain. Again, silence from Obama. But Libya was a different story. With Muammar Qaddafi poised to rain fire on rebels in Benghazi, Europe urged the United States to help destroy the formal Libyan military and aid the rebels with weapons and ammo. While the United States refused to lead the effort, Obama ultimately committed significant resources to the conflict and took a victory lap after Qaddafi’s fall.
Now, faced with an uprising in Syria that has gone on for over a year with the intensity of government sponsored killings reaching massacre proportions, what is the United States policy? Thus far, only empty words and meaningless, toothless UN resolutions that can’t get Security Council traction.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration happily pulled active combat forces from Iraq and is starting a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan despite limited progress on the 2009-’10 surge objectives.
On Iran, the United States has been more aggressive using economic pressure and the veiled threat of military force.
- Why did we commit forces to Libya to prevent a massacre when we refuse to have anything to do with a similar situation in Syria?
- Why are we being so aggressive with Iran now, when we handled them with kid gloves 2 years ago?
- Why would we add 30,000 troops to secure gains in Afghanistan only to withdraw everything before most of the objectives of the mission were met?
- Why would we help push an old ally in Hosni Mubarak over the edge in support of rebels who are hostile toward the west when we won’t support freedom seeking Iranian activists?
U.S. foreign policy has always been riddled with inconsistencies and hypocrisy. How can we openly trade with repressive Communist China but embargo Communist Cuba? How can we be close with a repressive Saudi regime for economic purposes, but we embargoed Burma for holding political prisoners and repressing human rights?
I don’t discount the silliness in those rigid, structural foreign policies. However, each President has to put his own stamp on the policy of his time. When a new crisis breaks out, what are we to expect from President Obama’s White House team? When do we intervene and why? When we choose not to intervene or only chip in around the edges, what circumstances are present that lead the President to make that choice?
The international community is confused and scared because for the first time in a long time, they have no idea what America will do. They ridiculed us for being too aggressive in the past, but at least they knew what to expect and how to react. Not having a clue how the U.S. will react to a crisis is much riskier.
Other countries may be more willing to gamble and take stupid risks if they can’t figure out the American position (see Israel thinking about bombing Iran). It forces leaders to assume facts and craft responses on those wild assumptions.
We don’t want world leaders working on assumptions. It inevitably leads to misunderstandings, mistakes and war.
President Obama needs to clearly lay out a world view and set down a standard for American intervention, the type of intervention we would consider and the circumstances that would trigger it.
He’s had 3 years. How much more time do you need? The world won’t wait forever for President Obama to make up his mind.