Looking at the Bright Side of the "Obama Doctrine"

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Like a lot of people, I was interested to read the Atlantic piece on President Obama's emerging approach to foreign policy

While I have often been critical of some aspects of Obama's foreign policy, the Atlantic piece serves as a reminder, I think, of how much worse things would like be now had voters made different choices during the elections--both primary and general--of 2008. In particular, I liked the manner in which he usually avoided the sort of empty and counter-productive bluster that American politicians are often so fond of. 

So here are some of the occasions references by the article in which I think that Obama's words and/or actions have made sense to me. If I get the chance, I hope to put up a second part to this post later on this week in which I explore some of the disadvantages that I associate with Obama's approach to foreign policy. 

The not-so red line

A large part of the Atlantic piece related to Obama's decision to walk back his earlier rhetoric regarding the Assad regime's alleged crossing of the so-called "red line." This was a reference to the White House threat the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line" that would supposedly tip the Obama administration toward taking military action against Damascus. 

I had thought that drawing a "red line" was a terrible idea in the first place, so I was quite glad when Obama changed his mind about attacking Syria. 

Loyal JMB readers might remember that I was rather skeptical about the idea of attacking Syria, asking the following questions, among others: 

Of course, not all of my questions would eventually receive an answer:

In any case, the White House eventually walked back from this apparently not-so red line. While some of the administration's critics think that the US "lost face" by not sticking to its guns and getting more involved in yet another war in the Middle East, I thought that the deal that was eventually worked out--having Russia take possession of Syria's chemical weapons--was exponentially preferable to the prospect of a major escalation in the US role in the conflict. In particular, I liked the fact that Obama didn't seem to care what his critics thought about this about-face. Unlike some other politicians who would like to be president, Obama didn't place his own consistency above what he considered to be American interests. 

Here's what they say about these events in the Atlantic piece, with special emphasis on the final sentence: 
For some foreign-policy experts, even within his own administration, Obama’s about-face on enforcing the red line was a dispiriting moment in which he displayed irresolution and naïveté, and did lasting damage to America’s standing in the world. “Once the commander in chief draws that red line,” Leon Panetta, who served as CIA director and then as secretary of defense in Obama’s first term, told me recently, “then I think the credibility of the commander in chief and this nation is at stake if he doesn’t enforce it.” Right after Obama’s reversal, Hillary Clinton said privately, “If you say you’re going to strike, you have to strike. There’s no choice.”
Actually, I'd say there is a choice. And Obama, I think, eventually made the right one. 


I was also critical of the Obama administration's decision to go for regime change in Libya in 2011. At the time, I wondered, why did so many people think it would be a good idea to overthrow another Middle Eastern tyrant when we don't have a real plan for managing what would come next? 

In his interview with the Atlantic, Obama said of the intervention, "It didn't work." 

Regarding Libya, Obama also said: 
So we actually executed this plan as well as I could have expected: We got a UN mandate, we built a coalition, it cost us $1 billion—which, when it comes to military operations, is very cheap. We averted large-scale civilian casualties, we prevented what almost surely would have been a prolonged and bloody civil conflict. And despite all that, Libya is a mess.”
And a mess it is. I'm glad to see that at least one person who was involved in the US decision to get involved in overthrowing Qadaffi is at least owning up to this. 

Libya to world: Remember us?

That being said, I wonder how the people whose lives were upended by these policies must feel when they hear that it was all a big mistake. 


I also liked much of what I read in the Atlantic piece about Obama's attitude toward Russia. I think it's actually a good thing that Obama didn't hyperventilate in response to developments taking place in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Furthermore, I agree with Obama's argument that Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one, so Russia will always be able to maintain escalatory dominance there."

Indeed, I made the exact same point last September: 

And what about Russia's intervention in Syria? In the Atlantic piece, Jeffrey Goldberg notes that: 

In recent National Security Council meetings, Obama’s strategy was occasionally referred to as the “Tom Sawyer approach.” Obama’s view was that if Putin wanted to expend his regime’s resources by painting the fence in Syria, the U.S. should let him.
This, too, is a point that I was making when it first became clear that Russia would be getting actively involved in defending the Assad regime:

It could always be a lot worse... 

Obama has been far from perfect, but I frankly think that if anyone else running for president in 2008 had been elected, the United States would be much worse off today from a foreign policy standpoint. Going to war, or threatening to do so, simply in order to avoid losing face has got to be one of the stupidest and most destructive acts that a politician can undertake. 

While I think that drawing a "red line" regarding Assad's actions in the first place was a bad idea, at least Obama had the sense to walk this back before it was too late. And while American policymaking vis-a-vis Russia has hardly been ideal, there are real differences between following national interests and competing with Russia for the sake of competing. At a time when many of Obama's critics were calling for red meat, the US president was, in fact, presidential in his handling of the crises taking place between Ukraine and Russia. 

Working in an intelligent way to get concrete results might not be the sexiest or most satisfying response to a crisis, but I prefer it over vacuous chest-pounding anytime. 

So, it could be a lot worse. But some things could also be better, about which I hope to write soon. 

Also see: 

10 Questions Regarding Syria

Russia, Syria, and the not-so Great Game

More Thoughts on Russia and Syria

And now what happens in Libya? 

NATO Money and the Libya War

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