A White House Commentator-in-Chief
Is there an Obama Doctrine of any sort?
The Atlantic’s just-published series of interviews with President Barack Obama on his foreign policy provide considerable insight on what continues to be an enduring puzzle of this presidency: Is there an Obama doctrine of any sort? What strategic convictions, if any, shape this president’s approach to national security? And, most pointedly, what explains Obama’s refusal to change course, over seven years into his presidency, in the face of the failures of many of his signature policies?
On this last question, Peter Feaver rightfully identified one of the main reasons that emerged from the interview: Obama’s intellectual addiction to strawman caricatures of his critics. This refusal to address the real criticisms of his policies, rather than constructing and flailing away rhetorically at strawmen, reveals inadvertently how the president can continue to insist on the merits of his Syria and Russia policies. Similarly, Brian Katulis offers a customarily insightful take on the Obama interview, highlighting the president’s refusal to articulate what his policies stand for, rather than just declaiming what he is against.
I want to highlight another aspect of the interviews, which is Obama’s engagement with history. The use of history in policymaking is a longstanding interest, as per this taxonomy I developed in the Journal of Strategic Studies, and animates the mission of our Clements Center for National Security here at University of Texas in Austin. Reading through the interview, President Obama makes numerous historical references, and appears to use history in three ways: to avoid errors, maintain an awareness of past misdeeds, and to serve as a source for leadership role models.
In the category of history offering a reminder of mistakes to avoid, he continues, not surprisingly, to seize on the Iraq war as the iconic error. But while virtually every foreign policy expert and sensible person would agree that the many tragic miscalculations surrounding the Iraq war should be learned from and not repeated, here Obama’s Iraq fixation seems to function more as an intellectual straitjacket than as a historical insight. Thus, his simplistic application of the “no more Iraq’s” mantra helps explain the debacle of his Libya intervention, his Syria passivity, his own abandonment of Iraq in 2011 to sectarian governance and conquest by the Islamic State, and his gratuitous concessions to Iran in the nuclear deal.
Turning to history as awareness of past misdeeds, this passage from the interview is revealing:
[Obama] consistently invokes what he understands to be America’s past failures overseas as a means of checking American self-righteousness. “We have history,” he said. “We have history in Iran, we have history in Indonesia and Central America. So we have to be mindful of our history when we start talking about intervening, and understand the source of other people’s suspicions.
Again, here Obama takes a historical insight and vastly overdetermines it to rationalize his foreign policy inadequacies. To state the obvious — or rather, to restate a staple of undergraduate U.S. history classes and faculty lounge lamentations against “American imperialism” — yes, the United States was involved in the 1953 Iran coup, the 1954 Guatemala coup, and offered Cold War support for authoritarian anticommunist rulers in Indonesia and Central America. And yes, some citizens in those regions cite those actions as reason to be wary of American policy today. But Obama’s invocation of those historical lessons neglects two important points. First, anti-American leaders of countries like Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba, manipulate and distort those historical episodes to bolster their own demagoguery and stir up opposition to contemporary American policy — so it does little good for the president of the United States to cater to those distortions. Second, and more important, the majority of citizens in those regions want more American involvement and support, not less. The Green Movement in Iran in 2009, for example, cried out for U.S. support. The Syrian rebels have spent the last five years begging for American aid. The populations of Southeast Asia clamor for more American commercial, diplomatic, and military engagement. The people of Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Cuba, want more American involvement in their desires for more prosperous, peaceful, and free nations.
President Obama’s implicit use of history for role models is especially intriguing, given his mention of President George H. W. Bush and former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft as worthy of emulation. In this he is largely correct: Bush and Scowcroft are two of our nation’s greatest statesmen, and the passage of time has only further burnished their reputations. But while Obama’s citation of this history is commendable, his interpretation of it is questionable. He seems to gravitate to Bush and Scowcroft’s dispassionate analysis and appreciation of limits, while disregarding their larger strategic vision, confidence in American power, and appreciation of history. Bush and Scowcroft — and let us not forget Secretary of State James Baker and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney — together were able to deftly manage the peaceful end of the Cold War and the successful use of force to expel Saddam Hussein’s military from Kuwait, because they embraced a set of strategic assumptions that President Obama does not seem to share. For example, they believed American leadership was essential to the preservation of global order, and appreciated that America’s historic alliances needed to be prioritized and maintained. They also knew that America’s allies and partners would get involved only if we first acted, and that diplomacy and force were integrated tools of statecraft rather than antinomies. They understood that American credibility was a precious geopolitical currency, hard won and easily lost.
In contrast, the interview notes that “Obama generally believes that the Washington foreign-policy establishment, which he secretly disdains, makes a fetish of ‘credibility’ — particularly the sort of credibility purchased with force,” describes “his efforts to off-load some of America’s foreign-policy responsibilities to its allies,” and paints a picture of a president too impatient with and dismissive of historic American partners like Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Britain, and France. (There are also abundant tactical and operational ways that Obama has not emulated the George H.W. Bush administration, including Bush’s deep personal engagement with foreign leaders, and his well-functioning, inclusive, and unified national security interagency process). Perhaps the most tragic manner in which the Obama presidency differs from that of Bush 41 is also the most consequential: Unlike the global situation that Bush bequeathed to his successor Bill Clinton, Obama’s successor will almost certainly be inheriting a world less stable, less free, and less safe.
There is a final aspect of the article that merits comment. Throughout the interview, in describing the substantial challenges he has faced and the manifest complexities of the world crisis, Obama sounds detached and distant, more a commentator than commander-in-chief. And there is a disquieting refusal to take responsibility for his own actions and inactions, even as he is quick to blame a host of others, including the intelligence community, the military, his advisers, Congress, America’s allies, and just about anyone or anything but himself. This is exemplified by his odd passive-voice description of the Libya war — a war he oversaw, and failed to successfully conclude: “Obama says today of the intervention, ‘It didn’t work.'”
This presidential passivity brings to mind another historical observation: The greatest American presidents understood their limits, yet appreciated the power they wielded amid the uncertain dramas of history, and took responsibility for their action and inaction. Such were the ways of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry “The Buck Stops Here” Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan. One hopes that in his final months in office, Obama will take note of this lesson of history.
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