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Why There Is No Obama Doctrine

Trying to discern contemporary U.S. grand strategy presumes a coherence that simply isn't there.
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It has become a media ritual in Washington. A few months after a president takes office, pundits start debating whether the new White House occupant has a foreign-policy “doctrine.”

This preoccupation is another example of either the increasing sophistication of American journalists or of the intellectual pretensions of our pundits—not unlike their use of the term “narrative,” once employed mainly by literary scholars, or their frequent references to a professional economist’s favorite, “moral hazard.”

What pundits really have in mind when they ask whether this or that president has a foreign-policy doctrine is whether he has, well, a foreign policy. But it’s not clear what political scientist Colin Dueck means when he discusses the foreign-policy doctrine of President Obama: he seems to be using the terms “doctrine” and “grand strategy” interchangeably, as in the title of this book, The Obama Doctrine: American Grand Strategy Today. This confusion is evident from the first sentence, where Dueck suggests that every modern American president “has a foreign policy doctrine” and then goes on to critique the grand strategy of President Obama. So what is it: doctrine or grand strategy?

We’re not engaged in semantic nitpicking here, but recalling some basic stuff we studied—and in the case of Dueck and yours truly, have taught—in Foreign Policy 101.

In general, adding “doctrine” to the name of the president assumes that he made a series of decisions and statements that amounted to a coherent foreign policy and reflected a certain view of the international system—like President Harry Truman’s doctrine, which he announced to Congress on March 12, 1947, when he pledged to contain Soviet threats to Greece and Turkey and asked Congress to appropriate financial and military aid to those countries. That address was seen as the basis of American foreign policy during the Cold War, which assumed that Washington would provide support for other nations imperiled by Soviet communism.

Most of the presidential doctrines that followed—like those named after Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Carter, and Reagan—were variations on the Truman Doctrine and responded to the perceived Soviet threat during the Cold War. The Nixon Doctrine referred to a statement that President Nixon made during a press conference in Guam on July 25, 1969, when he tried to explain his decision to start a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, asserting that “the United States would assist in the defense and developments of allies and friends” but would not “undertake all the defense of the free nations of the world.” Both the Eisenhower and the Carter Doctrines focused specifically on the protection of U.S. interests in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf in the face of Soviet aggression, while the Reagan Doctrine asserted the commitment by the Reagan administration to overwhelm the global influence of the Soviet Union.

A grand strategy comprises the “purposeful employment of all instruments of power available to a security community,” according to British military historian B.H. Liddell Hart. For example: the grand strategy of the Roman Empire and the U.S. grand strategy during World War II or the Cold War.

Grand strategy consists not only of military means but also diplomatic and economic instruments of power. Think of a grand strategy as a basic color (green) and a foreign-policy doctrine as a shade of that basic color (lime green). Hence containment was the central component of American grand strategy during the Cold War, and the coherence and consistency of each of the presidential doctrines reflected their reliance on that grand strategy.

What Dueck fails to recognize is that since the end of the Cold War, Republican and Democratic presidents, Congress, and the rest of Washington have not been able to come up with a coherent U.S. grand strategy to replace the one that was pursued during confrontation with the Soviet Union. And that lack of a grand strategy explains why none of the three post-Cold War presidents has been able to draw the outlines of a consistent foreign-policy doctrine. Instead, Washington under these presidents has been pursuing a series of ad hoc responses to foreign threats and crises that pundits like Dueck have been mislabeling as doctrines.

The main goal of these three presidents has been to maintain the global status quo and allow the United States to sustain its global primacy. And they embraced an outdated version of the Cold War grand strategy that committed them to containing potential challengers to U.S. primacy.

One can and should critique the foreign policy pursued by President Obama. Dueck actually does a good job pointing out the White House’s incoherent responses to the so-called Arab Spring, including the decision to support the ouster of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, the messy regime change in Libya and mishandling of the civil war in Syria, and the mismanagement of relations with Russia and China.

Where Dueck goes wrong is to assume that Obama, or for that matter Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, has operated on the basis of a reasoned doctrine that was grounded in well thought-out grand strategy.

It’s true that Bush and his aides did try to introduce what was supposed to be a grand strategy in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and that included elements of a doctrine, such as pre-emptive action and democracy promotion. But Bush eventually retreated back to the same kind of non-doctrine pursued earlier by Clinton and later by Obama: one of muddling through, adapting to a very complicated international system where problems are not susceptible to black-and-white solutions and neat answers, or doctrines.

Indeed, when it comes to foreign affairs all policymakers are muddling through these days, creating policy through incremental adjustments. Which is why some of the criticism that Dueck directs at Obama also applies to policies pursued by Bush during his second term. Consider their approaches to Iraq (setting a timetable to withdraw U.S. troops), Iran (refraining from using military force to end its nuclear program), Israel/Palestine (trying but failing to make peace), Russia (diplomatic responses to its military aggression in Georgia and Ukraine), and China (diplomatic and economic engagement); and recall that the pragmatic Secretary of Defense Robert Gates helped both presidents adjust to changing realities.

thisarticleappearsDueck still insists that there was no continuity, and after outlining different strategies embraced by various American presidents—retrenchment, regime change, accommodation, offshore balancing—he argues that there is in fact an Obama Doctrine, a grand strategy of “retrenchment and accommodation” that the White House has been pursuing in order to “allow the president to focus on securing liberal policy legacies at home.” According to Dueck, international powers like China, Russia, and Iran—as well as ISIS—have interpreted the Obama Doctrine as one of U.S. disengagement from the world, creating a power vacuum that they are eager to fill.

But then Dueck qualifies his own thesis by noting that even during the Cold War the United States never followed only one strategy at a time—even Truman didn’t always follow the rules of his own doctrine—and that the norm has been “hybrid” strategies that “vary by time and place, and combine the advantages (or disadvantages) of pure strategic types.” Those hybrid strategies evolved at a time when all presidents endorsed the Cold War’s grand strategy of containment.

So perhaps there is more to Obama’s foreign policy than retrenchment and accommodation, as Dueck himself admits: an exercise in regime change in Libya; escalation of the use of drones for targeted killings; the hunting down and elimination of Osama bin Laden (a less accommodating policy vis-à-vis Pakistan than that of Obama’s predecessor); the employment of economic sanctions against Russia; containing Beijing through a U.S. “pivot” toward East Asia and a regional free-trade area that excludes China; providing military assistance to the Iraqis and other players fighting the Islamic State; a determined diplomatic effort aimed at freezing Iran’s nuclear military program.

But according to the caricature of the president and his foreign policy that Dueck draws, “Obama does not really believe that conflict is at the essence of world politics,” and he subscribes to the notion that “genuine and over-arching international cooperation is possible”—as though presidents cannot be both tough and accommodating in pursuing foreign policy. 

You see, reflecting “a style he seems to have first fully developed as a community organizer in Chicago,” Obama believes that promoting international cooperation can be achieved “through the mutual accommodation of interests and led by American example.”

And what is exactly wrong with that? It sounds very much like the kind of policy that was advocated by President Reagan, who at one point during his presidency sounded like he was ready to nuke the “evil empire” and at another point seemed to be seeking to work out with the Soviets a scheme to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

The closest that Obama came to enunciating a “doctrine” was at the start of his second term in office, when he a delivered a commencement speech at West Point that aimed to lay out pieces of his foreign policy vision and challenge the policies of his predecessor, which were based on the assumption that the United States had the right and the obligation to take unilateral preemptive action.

In that context, President Obama’s proposal to invest more in “nation building” at home than abroad was aimed at countering President Bush’s expansive and expensive foreign policy. The change had less to do with the requirements of Obama’s liberal domestic reforms, which included a health-care program once advocated by Mitt Romney and the Heritage Foundation.

In his West Point speech, President Obama essentially argued that he would re-embrace the foreign policy principles that have guided all U.S. presidents in the post-1945 era except his Republican predecessor.

“When issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States, when such issues are at stake, when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us, then the threshold for military action must be higher,” the president told the graduating cadets at West Point. “In such circumstances, we should not go it alone,” he stressed. “Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action.”

This set of principles—more judicious use of military force and greater reliance on diplomacy and alliances—didn’t qualify as a full-blown doctrine but did serve to distinguish his policies from those of his predecessor. Indeed, Obama spent most of his first term in office trying to clean up the mess that President Bush had made in Iraq and the Middle East and repair relationships with governments around the world.

Dueck is right to say that President Obama’s foreign-policy record hasn’t been a success story. But at a time when the international system was going through major changes and the American public was opposed to new military deployments, his efforts to resolve some crises through diplomatic means—in Syria, Ukraine, and Iran—seem to be a cost-effective way of protecting U.S. interests. The best criticism of these policies is that they may have lacked a strategic coherence at a time when the United States needed to develop a new grand strategy.

Dueck doesn’t buy that, maintaining that Republicans need to come up with an alternative to the Obama Doctrine that reflects what he calls “Conservative Realism.” But what Dueck advocates is essentially nothing more than a strategy aimed at protecting the status quo, the “preservation of American primacy” through a “forward military presence on the Eurasian continent.” Ironically, that is exactly the strategy that President Obama and his two predecessors have been pursuing since 1992.

Leon Hadar is a senior analyst with Wikistrat, a geo-strategic consulting firm, and teaches international relations at the University of Maryland, College Park.