Shadow Government

Looking for an Obama Doctrine That Doesn’t Exist

Much ink, literal and virtual, has been spilled over the past five years by scholars and pundits trying to ascertain and define the core doctrines of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy. Pick your option and there has been a voice to argue for it — asserting that the Obama administration is motivated by realism, or ...

Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Much ink, literal and virtual, has been spilled over the past five years by scholars and pundits trying to ascertain and define the core doctrines of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy. Pick your option and there has been a voice to argue for it — asserting that the Obama administration is motivated by realism, or liberal internationalism, or prudent interventionism, or strategic restraint, or burden-sharing, or some other manner of identifiable strategy. Or perhaps, as Tom Friedman and Steve Walt have suggested, Obama may have a clear strategy but just chooses not to articulate it. Even in the whiplash-inducing wake of last week’s Syria decisions, an otherwise critical Noam Scheiber still finds a (you guessed it) "Obama doctrine" embedded in the president’s Sept. 10 speech, when he said, "When, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death … I believe we should act."

Perhaps this, or any of the other alternatives, does define the real "Obama doctrine." But I wonder whether the theory that best fits might be a simpler one: that President Obama just is not interested in prioritizing foreign policy in his second term?

I don’t want to believe this is the case, but it does make sense of a lot of things that are otherwise quite puzzling. Most recently, the multiple confusions of the past few months on Egypt (and its coup that wasn’t a "coup") and now Syria actually help resolve these debates. Maybe the answer is much simpler and has been in clear view all along. Maybe there is no Obama doctrine or strategy because Obama does not have a deep interest in foreign policy.

To give credit where it is due, Obama did take office in 2009 with a pretty clear foreign-policy vision: He wanted to denuclearize the world, close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, withdraw completely from Iraq regardless of the consequences, win Afghanistan quickly, improve America’s image in the Middle East, and focus on climate change. Many of these proved wildly impractical and were soon abandoned; the only one he managed to do was to end U.S. involvement in Iraq while also squandering American influence there.

But now in his second term, it often appears that Obama sees national security policy as essentially a distraction from his more substantial interest in domestic policy. He has said as much himself on numerous occasions, such as his recent gripe that "I would much rather spend my time talking about how to make sure every 3- and 4-year-old gets a good education" than focusing on Syria. For Obama, leading the nation’s foreign policy seems to be a necessary role that he carries out dutifully but with little abiding curiosity.

Perhaps I am wrong about Obama’s relative inattention to foreign policy. David Ignatius offers a more generous interpretation that Obama is just cautious, trying gingerly to forge a domestic consensus on foreign policy amid an increasingly fractious and polarized nation. But Ignatius is too generous, primarily because he glosses over three factors. First, Obama’s erratic swings on foreign policy (on Bashar al-Assad, on red lines, on attacking Syria or not, etc.) are not the mark of caution but rather of confusion. Second, Obama himself bears much responsibility for the domestic opposition against any military action. He has said very little over the last few years (with the notable exception of his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize address) to marshal public support for why American leadership is needed, why the use of force is sometimes necessary, and why the United States has a strong national interest in the Middle East. Instead, as Shadow Government‘s Peter Feaver* recently pointed out, "For the past five years, Obama has told the American people that no good thing has come from intervening militarily in the Muslim world and that no bad thing has or will come from refraining from those military ventures — or, in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, unilaterally withdrawing from those ventures." Third, on foreign policy, Congress is actually more united than divided on partisan lines: Most members of both parties are opposed to a strike on Syria. Congressional divisions instead mirror the divisions in the American public and cut across party lines, between a majority from both parties who oppose intervention and a minority from both parties who support it.

Jackson Diehl, a colleague of Ignatius on the Washington Post‘s editorial page, is more convincing when he observes, "Obama will make a doctrine of his gut wish not to spend his time and political capital on the region’s multiple crises. The problem is that the attempt to disengage, to claim that the United States need not take sides in the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites or generals and Islamists, only leads back to the same cycle of passivity and ad-hoc reaction in which Obama is now stuck."

Instead, presidential inattentiveness might well be the key to understanding the bewildering set of twists and turns on Syria, Egypt, the Middle East overall, Afghanistan, Asia (anyone remember the once-heralded and now-forgotten "pivot"?), and many other issues. Five years into his administration, Obama still has not devoted the reflection or attention to developing a coherent strategy and leading the nation as commander in chief and diplomat in chief. Instead he seems to alternate between neglecting foreign policy until world events intervene, and then reacting and improvising until the headlines move on. This lack of inherent interest in foreign policy also might help explain the administration’s predilection — even more than in past presidencies – for primarily viewing foreign policy through the lens of domestic politics. When the issues themselves don’t capture the president’s imagination and preoccupation, they instead become subordinate to political concerns.

I think this inattentiveness to foreign policy also helps explain other puzzles from the last five years, such as:

  • The selection of national security policy cabinet officials whom Obama is not personally close to or closely engaged with (e.g., John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, Hillary Clinton)
  • The infrequency of presidential speeches on national security policy
  • The administration’s lack of creativity or new foreign-policy initiatives. This is why the few major foreign-policy initiatives the White House has pursued, such as the New START arms control agreement with Russia and a new round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, have such a "back to the 1970s" or "back to the 1990s" feel to them.

To be sure, no one can possibly be fully prepared for the presidency. Like his immediate predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Obama also took office with little foreign-policy experience. But unlike his recent predecessors, who once in the White House developed a deep passion for foreign policy and learned from their first-term mistakes, Obama is still making rookie mistakes even in his fifth year and second term in office.

So where does this leave us? Not in a good place. When an American president downplays foreign policy, other leaders will fill the vacuum — even to the point of anti-American autocrats commandeering part of the New York Times editorial page for foreign-policy pronouncements.

An occasional thought experiment used in classes on international relations is to imagine what a world without American leadership would look like — a truly multipolar world where the United States was just another nation. The events of the past few weeks bring us closer to the point where that is not just a thought experiment, but a potential new reality.

*Correction (Sept. 17, 2013): This post originally stated that it was written by Peter Feaver. It was actually written by Will Inboden, and the byline has been corrected. (Click here to return to the post.)

Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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