The Obama Doctrine

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Victor Marakhovskiy

Editor-in-Chief of “Odnako” project, journalist

In a long essay based on a series of interviews to The Atlantic the outgoing president, in fact, dwells on his foreign policy legacy, or “The Obama Doctrine.” To put his ideas in a nutshell, the United States must sustain its hegemony and have others do the dirty work. In fact he presents the policy that we refer to as “managed chaos” followed by an explanation why the US government has shaped it this was.

First, Barack Obama clarifies that there exist four main schools of American foreign-policy thought, which include “isolationism, liberal interventionism, internationalism, and realism”. He dismissed isolationism out of hand, arguing that “the world is ever-shrinking, and withdrawal is untenable.”

Second, he applies the term “liberal interventionism” to describe bombings on humanitarian grounds. This policy was earlier advocated by neocons under W. Bush’s presidency, as well as Obama’s liberal hawks, such as Hillary Clinton and Samantha Power, US Ambassador to the UN. They held sway over him during the entire first term and half of the second. As a result, bombings destroyed Libya and left Syria teetering on the edge of the abyss.

As for internationalism, “I am very much the internationalist,” Obama said in a conversation. “And I also believe that we should be promoting values, like democracy and human rights, not only to our advantage. (Mind that his definition of “internationalism” is different from our traditional interpretation. It does not denote friendship or equality of peoples. For him, it stands for exporting some universal principles to other states. Obama cites “human rights and democracy” as examples. But the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the Obama administration has been readying for two terms in office, can be a much more illustrative example of such internationalism. It is an agreement among twelve Pacific Rim countries, encompassing Japan, Vietnam and the United States, with each participant voicing discontent with TPP. Even in America, economists, including Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize winner, state that such agreements legitimize “corporate conspiracy”, which openly makes different countries subordinate to corporations. That is why corporations, rather than states, reap benefit).

Finally, he deals with realism. Obama uses the word to denote something he has arrived at during his presidency while trying to implement “internationalism”. Namely:

  • The US military may interfere only when “a particular challenge represents a direct national-security threat” (“What I think is not smart is the idea that every time there is a problem, we send in our military to impose order”).
  • The US Army should not interfere if others can intervene and are obliged to. For example, the article states that “President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was one of his greatest frustrations. Earlier Obama saw Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, as the sort of moderate Muslim leader who would bridge the divide between East and West—but Obama now considers him a failure and an authoritarian, one who refuses to use his enormous army to bring stability to Syria.’
  • The US Army should not interfere if it is troublesome. When the interviewer asked Obama, why he refused to put American boots on the Syrian ground to overthrow Assad, the latter answered:When you have a professional army, that is well armed and sponsored by two large states”—Iran and Russia—“…the notion that we could have changed the equation on the ground there was never true.”
  • The United States should exercise control over others, have them do the dirty work. Obama constantly refers to foreign partners – mostly Arab rulers, but European leaders as well – as “free riders” and complained that they “aggravate him”.
  • Whenever the US benefit is insignificant to wage war, while others do not want to engage, then the only way out is to endure. Obama cites President George H. W. Bush’s policy as an example of perfect “realism”. On the one hand, Bush resolutely removed Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait, and, on the other hand, he turned the blind eye to the events in Tiananmen Square, democracy and human rights were trampled over and shortly after the crackdown, just several weeks later, toasted the leaders of China.

How did they arrive at the decision?

When Obama was sworn into office and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he was still an idealist. In late 2010 and early 2011 he was very enthusiastic about the Arab Spring. When Libyan leader Qaddafi was marching his army toward Benghazi, a stronghold of militants, a strong faction, including the British prime minister and the French president, as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice along with Samantha Power, and other “liberal hawks” lobbied hard to start and intervention and prevailed. Obama demanded that the USA should act as part of an international coalition rather than strike unilaterally. The coalition was built and soon they obtained a UN mandate to a no-fly zone. “American bombs fell, and Qaddafi was captured and executed”, the edition quotes Obama. The President concludes this part saying that

– “It didn’t work. The social order in Libya has broken down. Now Libya is a mess” (Messis the president’s diplomatic term; privately, he calls Libya a “shit show”)

Then a Syrian campaign started, around which the essay in The Atlantic actually revolves. There was another clash of liberal interventionism and Obama’s realism.

Back in 2012, when the West accused the Assad regime of using chemical weapons for the first time, Obama famously declared drawing the “red line” which the Syrian government should not cross.

However, in 2013 when they reiterated the accusation, Obama did not dare to start an invasion.  “A deus ex machina appeared in the form of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin”, the edition says. The removal of Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpiles eliminated the need for a military strike. Obama argues, by the way, that it was his idea, not Putin’s one.

Obama’s decision generated top-level hysteria both at home and in Western Europe, said The Atlantic. The elite demanded that Obama should be tough and start bombing. But he refused. This was the moment the president believes he broke with what he calls the “Washington playbook.” And thus, for the first time he acted as a “realist”.

Real world

Thus, the Obama Doctrine portrays US leadership as a possibility to place anyone under pressure, but refrain from sending troops engaging other countries in fighting on the ground instead. It allows the US to achieve its goals. Or, if we quote an official from the Obama administration, “to lead from behind.”

Obviously, many things did not fit into the pattern described by Obama. For example, the Islamic State plunging the whole Middle East into turmoil. Or Russia and China pursuing an independent policy.

As regards the Islamic State, Obama’s justification is quite simple. In early 2014 Washington’s analysts told the US president that ISIS was of marginal importance, believing that it was a flash in the pan. Only when IS militants occupied northern Iraq, everybody realized that the US intelligence had underestimated the threat.

Regarding Russia and China, Obama supposes that America can deal with both powers effectively. He promises that, “If you look at how we’ve operated in the South China Sea, we have been able to mobilize most of Asia to isolate China in ways that have surprised China, frankly, and have very much served our interest in strengthening our alliances.”

Considering Russia, Obama persistently sees it as a weak and flailing country. “Unlike China, they have demographic problems, economic structural problems, that would require not only vision but a generation to overcome,” Obama said. “The path that Putin is taking is not going to help them overcome those challenges. But in that environment, the temptation to project military force to show greatness is strong, and that’s what Putin’s inclination is. So I don’t underestimate the dangers there.”

Moreover, he sends mixed messages by describing Putin as “a scrupulously polite politician” and stating that “he is not completely stupid”. As The Atlantic maintains, “Putin is constantly interested in being seen as our peer and as working with us, because he’s not completely stupid. He understands that Russia’s overall position in the world is significantly diminished. And the fact that he invades Crimea or is trying to prop up Assad doesn’t suddenly make him a player. You don’t see him in any of these meetings out here helping to shape the agenda. For that matter, there’s not a G20 meeting where the Russians set the agenda around any of the issues that are important.”

Remarkably, Vladimir Putin, who allegedly does not play first fiddle in world politics, is the most frequently mentioned world leader in the article. Obama reiterates that under Vladimir Putin Russia has made terrible mistakes, thus “pushing itself from a cliff into an abyss”.

As for the participation of the Russian Aerospace Forces or VKS in the Syrian War, Obama states that “they are overextended. They’re bleeding, and their economy has contracted for three years in a row, drastically.” As The Atlantic magazine puts it, in recent National Security Council meetings, Obama’s strategy was occasionally referred to as the “Tom Sawyer approach.” In other words, “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”. It implies that in the end the US rather than Russia benefits from this situation. However, nobody specifies what kinds of benefits are meant.

As regards Crimea’s return to Russia, The Atlantic points out the following. “Russia’s invasion of Crimea in early 2014 has been cited by Obama’s critics as proof that the post-red-line world no longer fears America”.

– Critics say that Vladimir Putin watched you in Syria and thought, “He’s too logical, he’s too rational, he’s too into retrenchment. I’m going to push him a little bit further in Ukraine.”

– “I don’t think anybody thought that George W. Bush was overly rational”, Obama snaps. “And as I recall, because apparently nobody in this town does, Putin went into Georgia on Bush’s watch, right smack dab in the middle of us having over 100,000 troops deployed in Iraq… And the notion that somehow Russia is in a stronger position now, in Syria or in Ukraine, than they were before they invaded Ukraine is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of power in foreign affairs. Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence. Russia was much more powerful when Ukraine looked like an independent country but was a kleptocracy that he could pull the strings on.”

Still, “Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one”, Obama says. “The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-nato country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do”.

– “Is it fatalism?,” the interviewer asked.

– “It is realism”, Obama answered.

What does it mean?

There are some reasons to assume that realism in the Obama Doctrine is an implicit recognition of the fact that America has failed to act as the world policeman. It means that the US still can wreak havoc but it is not able to manage it, not to mention its incompetence to predict the outcomes of its activities. As a result, there is nothing left for the US leadership but to pretend that its failure to manage the world affairs is America’s major force.

This approach can explain everything.

For instance, it enhances our understanding of the US indifference to the fate of the incumbent Ukrainian authorities, whose only function, by the way, is to weaken Russia’s positions. Now the Ukrainian government is capable of preventing Russia from honoring its commitments, but in the future Russia will inevitably dominate this region.

In this context, we should also remember the US reluctance to combat the Islamic State. It is one thing to conduct bombardment against legitimate regimes, thus compelling leaders to fulfill some vague obligations, insisting on their resignation and making them cave in to America’s demands. However, it is different when it comes to resisting a militant network, against which air campaigns are highly ineffective. Only boots on the ground can help to get the upper hand, but this strategy is as costly and dangerous.

In fact, the Obama Doctrine mainly aims to convince the rest of the world that America is still in the preeminent position in the world and, therefore, one must follow its instructions rather than act on its own. For instance, the US has succeeded in pushing Europe into imposing anti-Russian sanctions only to lose tens of billions dollars.

And in fact this doctrine fails to deliver the intended result in many parts of the world.

That is why in his final year in office the US president keeps repeating the mantra that the only power able to act decisively “makes a terrible mistake” and “does not set the agenda”. And it is “bleeding”, “overextended”, with the economy “destroyed”, and contracting “for three years in a row, drastically”. It also “has economic structural problems that would require a generation to overcome”.

One more idea should be added to this mix.

Hillary Clinton is Obama’s most likely successor. She is considered a “liberal hawk” with by far more aggressive rhetoric.

However, it does not imply that she will abandon the attempts to “lead from behind”. Most likely, she will pursue the same policy. That is she will try to weaken the too unruly countries with the help of the still obedient ones by exploiting the once-tamed European and Asian establishment.

Ironically, the taming was possible previously, when America was able to really punish the disobedient and its deeds matched the words.

It is still possible that her influence on subordinate states, primarily European ones, is limited to the current leaders, the ones that have clearly demonstrated their weakness to counter global challenges and that are likely to quit politics in the near future.

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