In search of the Obama doctrine
The murmurings are that the Obama administration may soon release its long-anticipated National Security Strategy. When the NSS comes out, the ranks here at Shadow Government will no doubt have plenty of comment. But this article by Spencer Ackerman in the American Prospect on "The Obama Doctrine, Revisited" may serve as a possible preview of ...
The murmurings are that the Obama administration may soon release its long-anticipated National Security Strategy. When the NSS comes out, the ranks here at Shadow Government will no doubt have plenty of comment. But this article by Spencer Ackerman in the American Prospect on "The Obama Doctrine, Revisited" may serve as a possible preview of some of the Obama administration's emerging foreign policy themes. And it certainly serves as a revealing window into the administration's complicated relationship with its left-wing base.
The murmurings are that the Obama administration may soon release its long-anticipated National Security Strategy. When the NSS comes out, the ranks here at Shadow Government will no doubt have plenty of comment. But this article by Spencer Ackerman in the American Prospect on "The Obama Doctrine, Revisited" may serve as a possible preview of some of the Obama administration’s emerging foreign policy themes. And it certainly serves as a revealing window into the administration’s complicated relationship with its left-wing base.
Overall, Ackerman offers a sympathetic take on the international results of the Administration’s first year and a half. (One might even say his take is downright credulous, considering that the only person he interviewed is NSC speechwriter Ben Rhodes — with nary a quote from a single independent analyst, let alone a Republican). Ackerman identifies two main pillars of the Obama Doctrine: global "dignity promotion" and overcoming the alleged "politics of fear" from the Bush years. Yet as he attempts to describe what is meant by "dignity promotion", it quickly becomes clear that he is just putting a new label on some of the main tenets of the — you guessed it — Bush administration. Namely, promotion of human rights and democracy, economic development based on incentives rather than handouts (e.g. Millennium Challenge Corporation), innovative new humanitarian efforts (e.g. HIV/AIDS relief), and economic integration through free trade. Ackerman even cites in this regard the elevation of the G-20 as the primary multilateral economic organization, conveniently neglecting to mention that the first gathering of G-20 heads of state was convened by the Bush White House in response to the global economic crisis.
Yet having re-labeled this part of the Bush Doctrine as Obama’s "dignity promotion," Ackerman struggles to identify many unique or concrete results from it. He wants to credit President Obama’s approach with significant progress, yet many of his examples come across more as wishful thinking than real accomplishment. He twice claims the "reset" has made Russia more "open" or willing to "consider" tightened sanctions on Iran, despite the fact that this alleged Russian openness has led to zero concrete action; Obama’s insipid China visit in November is oddly described as garnering "rave reviews" (?!? well in Beijing, perhaps); Obama’s anemic support last year for Iran’s (now weakened) Green Movement is chalked up as a success, and so on. Ackerman places tremendous weight on the pledge of NATO countries to contribute another 10,000 troops to Afghanistan, not mentioning that over 30,000 (non-U.S.) NATO troops had already been deployed there through the end of the Bush administration. And he skates over the failed Copenhagen Climate Change summit, and disregards the reluctance of the rest of the world to resettle more than a trickle of Guantanamo detainees.
Ackerman doesn’t approve of everything this White House is doing, but what he doesn’t like he blames primarily on Congressional Republicans and their talk radio allies. Ironically, where Ackerman attempts to disparage the Obama administration’s "politics of fear" counter-terrorism policies as just capitulations to the Right, he inadvertently demeans the administration he intends to defend. Reviewing the litany of Bush-era counter-terrorism policies that the Obama team has actually continued, Ackerman writes "the most charitable judgment possible is that the administration picks its battles with the politics of fear very carefully." Which is an insult to the Obama team, by implying that catering to crass domestic politics rather than principle shapes their national security policy. Perhaps an even more charitable — and accurate — judgment is that, after irresponsibly attacking the Bush administration on these same policies during the campaign, once in power the Obama team made a sober assessment of how best to protect the nation from the ongoing jihadist threat and decided to preserve the main architecture of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism strategy.
Ackerman also seems to blame not just Republicans but the American people in general for White House policies that haven’t worked. On the administration’s aspirational principle of "direct negotiation with unsavoury and anti-American international actors," Ackerman laments that "Obama has not yet convinced the public that he should put American prestige on the line for such talks." When perhaps it is not the American people who are the obstacle to such engagement taking place (let alone succeeding), but the manifest unwillingness of the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong Il, Than Shwe, Bashar Assad, or other despots to unclench their fists.
In the main, the Obama administration seems to still be formulating its grand strategy — dialing back some of its initial knee-jerk "anything but Bush" reflexiveness, pursuing a generally responsible course in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and realizing that in geopolitics, soft power smiles need hard power credibility. Almost as interesting as the new NSS will be how it is received by the ambivalent Democratic base.
Will Inboden is the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, both at the University of Texas at Austin, a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.
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