I Still Have No Idea What The Obama Doctrine Is

John Amble

Last week, President Obama gave what was billed as one of the most momentous foreign policy addresses of his presidency. He was expected to lay out his vision for America’s next chapter on the world stage. Much ink has been spent in seeking to define, defend, and disparage the Obama Doctrine over the past five and a half years. But as we approach the midpoint of his second term, and even after this much-heralded speech, I still don’t know what it is.

In the address, Obama duly spoke of the United States as the preeminent power at the apex of the global geopolitical landscape. America, he says, “is and remains the one indispensable nation.” And he’s inarguably right. We do in fact have the strongest, best-trained, and most expeditionary military force in the world — and the greatest base of resources with which to put it to use. He acknowledges such at the outset: “Our military has no peer.” That fact alone endows us with a huge degree of global influence. But the precise magnitude and the nature of that influence is determined by the ways in which we choose to exercise it. And this speech gave no indication as to how the president intends to do so.

At the extreme ends of the spectrum of ways in which power can be put to use, he is comfortable staking out a position. On small-scale deployment of military resources and application of political influence in limited circumstances: “When a typhoon hits the Philippines, or schoolgirls are kidnapped in Nigeria, or masked men occupy a building in Ukraine, it is America that the world looks to for help.”  But such endeavors are inexpensive and relatively easy given our global military footprint, and come with few political costs. On large-scale undertakings à la Iraq, Obama argues that “some of our most costly mistakes [come]…from our willingness to rush into military adventures.” Such wars, he makes clear, he is intent on avoiding to the greatest degree possible. Again, a rather safe position.

But what about the middle ground? What about deployments of small forces with aggressive rules of engagement rather than in purely advisory roles? What about the politically difficult decision of whether to send a brigade-sized contingent to help stabilize a country instead of, say, simply augmenting an existing and domestically uncontroversial special operations presence? These are the sorts of questions that a doctrine — some unifying and consistent sense of our goals and willingness to pursue them — is meant to answer.

The boilerplate language that comprised the bulk of the speech was particularly bland. As expected, Obama gave an overview of current strategic and geopolitical challenges, arguing that they must be met, but offering little in the way of a vision of how to meet them. On the Syrian civil war, Russian aggression in Ukraine, and the ongoing battle against terrorism, the most substantive comments either proclaimed new, middle of the road half-steps, or defended past incoherent policies.

The key to confronting each of these challenges, Obama argued, is partnership: building and strengthening alliances. But the fact that little was said as to how these partnerships can or should act in order to confront the challenges not only suggests a resistance to the notion that we, as the world’s preeminent power, should lead among our allies, but renders the argument itself little more than a platitude.

Alongside such platitudes in the speech were the straw men.

Today, according to self-described realists, conflicts in Syria or Ukraine or the Central African Republic are not ours to solve … A different view from interventionists from the left and right says that we ignore these conflicts at our own peril; that America’s willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos, and America’s failure to act in the face of Syrian brutality or Russian provocations not only violates our conscience, but invites escalating aggression in the future.

He suggests that these two extremes, isolationism and interventionism at all costs, are the only alternatives to his own vision, which is thus left as the obvious best path. This is a gross simplification. (He also offends many actual self-described realists by conflating them with dogmatic isolationists.)

Candidate Obama became President Obama on the back of his ability to out-talk anybody else on stage. As an orator, he is a once-in-a-generation talent. He pairs charisma with perfect cadence, and eloquence with a keen ability to convincingly portray his positions as more reasoned and sensible than those of his opponents or critics, which he simultaneously and subtly redefines. But this was not a campaign speech. The nation expected a sober and forward-looking statement of American foreign policy — an expression of leadership, not a debate performance.

This is not to say that the President’s foreign policy over the past several years has been an abject failure. Claims to that effect smack of pure partisanship. But increasingly, arguments in defense of the Obama Doctrine — or really, claims that such a doctrine exists — appear equally politically motivated. There have been foreign policy successes under this administration, and there have been significant failures. But no discernible thread ties together these successes and failures. Apologists will invariably point to Obama’s predecessor as an example of the dangers of too much doctrinal rigidity. But even for those who agree with that claim, it doesn’t logically follow that having no doctrine is the answer.

Pragmatism, of course, is key. As a realist, I fully subscribe to the notion that every foreign policy decision should involve the weighing of a variety of factors that combine to form our national interest. But bouncing from priority to priority with no coherent strategy with which to achieve our many geopolitical objectives ensures mixed results at best. This speech was an opportunity, with America and the world watching, to break from that pattern. Unfortunately, it was an opportunity missed; there is little indication that the ad hoc quality that has defined American foreign policy decision-making of late will be shed anytime soon. I still don’t know what the Obama Doctrine is.

John Amble is the Managing Editor of War on the Rocks.  A former United States Army officer, he has been featured in print and broadcast media in the U.S. and Canada.  Follow him on Twitter @johnamble.

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