Our president has lost his playbook.
Mr. Obama came into office with a foreign-policy vision more clear and focused than most expected. It quickly became apparent that, on the international stage, he would be his own man. But now he is a different man.
The problem is that every pillar upon which the Obama Doctrine rested seems unable to bear any weight. No longer confident in his approach, the leader of the free world has become intensely risk-averse in his second term. Meanwhile, his foreign-policy and national-security teams are left floundering.
Our President's World
Apparently, the Nobel Peace Prize committee was on to something when it bestowed an award on Obama even before he had finished decorating the Oval Office. They anticipated he would try to put his mark on the world in a positive way, and they were right.
When it came time to decide the scope of the surge in Afghanistan, Obama made clear that he was the one in charge. It was no one-off moment. It soon became clear that all the big decisions—from resetting with Russia to getting bin Laden—were being made in the White House. As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton never had to sweat the big stuff. Her term of office wasn't quite as bad as those secretaries relegated to attending funerals and coronations, but she mostly made due with busy work—like an internet-freedom initiative.
Obama was not only in charge; he had a playbook—an underlying doctrine that guided his approach to foreign affairs everywhere.
Obama’s foreign-policy doctrine rested on three tenets.
● Demonstrate a willingness to engage directly with those countries that disagreed with America. If the United States eschewed the more muscular and aggressive foreign policy practiced by the Bush administration, Obama was convinced he could focus on addressing legitimate differences and finding common ground for consensus solutions.
● Play a more restrained role in the world, substituting "smart" power like diplomacy and economic aid for the "hard" power of military force. This practice, he believed, would both reduce global tensions and free up resources for "a little nation building right here at home."
● Manage more issues through international organizations and agreements. Working through forums like the United Nations, he would join in treaties and conventions to help establish legitimate “rules of the road” for the conduct of international affairs. These structures would, in turn, help mobilize efforts to deal with global challenges from global warming to freedom of the seas.
No one could accuse the Oval Office of not following this playbook. Throughout the first term, Obama seemed willing to chew the fat with the head of any adversarial state. Overtures were made, repeatedly, to Iran, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, Russia and China. The administration even mused about holding talks with the Taliban.
The White House also got serious about substituting soft for hard power. A drawdown in Iraq was a forgone conclusion. During the intervention in Libya, the administration proudly described its strategy as "leading from behind." Even before the Budget Control Act of 2011 mandated reduced levels of federal spending, Obama okayed reducing resources for the armed forces by nearly half a trillion dollars. He gave commanders in Afghanistan less than half the forces they needed for the surge, then ordered additional force reductions before their job was half done.
There was much to-do on the international engagement front, too. The United States led the cheer leading for new global-warming initiatives. Obama embraced the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, pressing the Senate to ratify it. The White House also championed the "global zero" initiative, signing the New START agreement with Russia and trumpeting the effort as the first step in ridding the world of nuclear weapons.
Unfortunately, the Obama Doctrine has created more problems than it has solved.
The push to “talk things out” has given the White House little to talk about. After trying to “engage” with Assad, the Administration now finds itself in the awkward role of calling for his removal. The president passed up a chance to champion Iran's Green Revolution, lest it jeopardize talks with the regime. In the end, both the revolution and hopes for a deal with Tehran were crushed. Obama would be hard pressed to point to one initiative in Latin America, the Middle East or Asia that has really paid off.
The much-ballyhooed “Russian Reset” now appears to be a spectacular “engagement” failure. The administration raised talk of goodwill to dizzying heights. But when it came to actually agreeing on anything—missile defense, tactical nuclear weapons, further strategic-arms reductions, Syria or sending Snowden home—Washington got absolutely nothing.
The staggering failure of the Russian reset is even more overwhelming considering all the president gave up to get nothing. The administration scrapped U.S. missile-defense plans for Europe. It championed Russia joining the WTO. It lobbied for repeal of Jackson-Vanik. In the biggest gift of all, Obama signed a New START treaty that required the United States to cut warheads and delivery systems, while requiring Russia to cut, well, pretty much nothing—not even its huge advantage in tactical nukes.
Not only has Moscow shown Washington little deference, it seems have gone out of its way to be as annoying as possible, banning adoptions by American citizens and extending Snowden's extended leave of absence.
In canceling Obama’s scheduled meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin ahead of next month’s G-20 summit, the administration cited lack of "recent progress." That was understatement. Even the administration admits the reset is dead. The president quipped on Late Night television that they were acting like they were back in the Cold War.
Soft-power solutions have not fared much better. Everywhere the United States has pulled back, trouble has followed. Obama trumpeted the withdrawal from Iraq as a signature success. But without a U.S. military presence, the country has slipped back to pre-2007 levels of violence. The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan does not portend a better outcome.
Meanwhile, the Europeans are grumbling about our increasingly indifferent military presence in Europe. For NATO's largest military exercise, Steadfast Jazz, Washington will send only about one hundred troops—about the same number as that massive military power, Estonia.
Even Obama's most muscular military move, the "Asia Pivot," has proved mostly hollow. China has been pressing its territorial claims more aggressively than ever, hectoring Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and India all at the same time. Apparently, Beijing believes it has a legitimate historical claim anywhere a shard of ancient Chinese pottery is found in Asia. In part, the Chinese are so expansive because they—and our Pacific region allies—can count. They know the U.S. military—current and planned—is too small to support any kind of pivot that would change the balance of power in Asia.
The president's declaration of victory in the war on terror fails to convince as well. In a May speech at the National Defense University, he bragged about bagging bin Laden and scattering Al Qaeda. A few months later, he is shuttering embassies and ramping up drone strikes in fear of a new Al Qaeda offensive. So much for having the bad guys on the run.
Nor has Obama been a very successful internationalist. The three trade pacts Congress passed were holdovers from the Bush days. Obama has failed to excite any appetite for endorsing international conventions like the Law of the Sea Treaty or the Disabilities Treaty. And American leadership on global warming has proved tepid.
In the end, however, Obama’s failure to live up to his anticipatory Nobel isn’t what killed his foreign-policy doctrine. After all, his failing foreign-policy record was on the table in the 2012 election, and the electorate didn't seem to care. If the president's reelection mandate meant anything, it meant he could continue to pretend for the next four years that his way of dealing with the world was working. But the Obama Doctrine is now dead, and what killed it was Benghazi.
Libya was meant to be the signature achievement of Obama's way of war. He was out to prove that, with a light touch and tiny footprint, he could accomplish what George Bush couldn't with divisions of troops and trillion-dollar budgets.
The successful attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi proved a transformative moment for the Obama administration. Though the White House has been able to shield high-level officials from culpability for the disaster, it couldn't hide the fact that Benghazi was a disaster. With Al Qaeda running amok throughout North Africa, Libya little better than a failed state and the Benghazi murderers still roaming free, the magnitude of failure was evident to all—and the administration could not cast the blame elsewhere. It was Obama's choice to go. It was his decision on how to go in. And it was his plan that did not survive contact with the enemy.
His doctrine discredited, Obama now doesn't know what to do. Post-Benghazi, he has become incredibly risk averse. The goal now seems to be to just get through the last three years without another disaster that can be laid at the White House doorstep.
So the president continues to dither over what the United States should do in Afghanistan, post-2014. The favored option seems to be the zero option: withdraw all U.S. troops. That way, when the Taliban come back, the White House can claim it’s not their fault, since “everything was fine when we left”—a replay of the Iraq gambit.
Likewise, the administration struggles to find a Syria policy that makes sense. It doesn’t want to risk another Libya, but it’s also sensitive to the criticism of doing nothing. So far, the White House has pursued minimal-risk maneuvers—like asking the Russians to help or sending a few arms to the rebels. Neither gesture is likely to amount to much. It appears we have a Syrian version of the zero option.
Further, the administration's alarmist response to the latest Al Qaeda threat smacks more of panic than prudence. Fear of another Benghazi moment led the White House to shutter a huge chunk of its “smart power” infrastructure on the basis of terrorist “chatter.”
Playing the President
The Obama Doctrine was bad enough. At the end of the day, it could work only if our adversaries chose to cooperate. It ceded the initiative to the other side and offered no alternative if they choose not play by the doctrine’s rules. Predictably, no one—from Putin to the Taliban—has opted to take up the president's offer. But layering risk-averse policies on top of the doctrine only exacerbates risks, encouraging competitors to press their advantage.
One area where this is likely play out to the other side's advantage is in the ongoing confrontation with Iran. What has the attention of the new Iranian president is not the promise of U.S. engagement, but the damage done to his economy—mostly by sanctions forced on the administration by Congress after the administration's outreach failed. Knowing the White House is desperate to get out Afghanistan, Tehran is likely to offer to use their influence to help pave the way for an American exit. In return, it will demand that Obama ignore Iran's efforts to get the Europeans to lift sanctions.
Another potential problem for the president is his own cabinet. Desperate not to get involved in trouble spots, the White House is trying the old magician’s trick of misdirection.
Case in point: the Middle East. Iraq is melting down; Egypt is in bloody tumult; Syria suffers in an endless war; Jordan staggers under the weight of half a million new, angry refugees; Qatar is funding the next generation of Al Qaeda, and Islamists are taking over North Africa. The response? Let the secretary of state turn his time, talents and (best of all) his spotlight on a bright, shiny object: brokering peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.
The White House might view this as an innocuous alternative to dealing with insurgencies, civil wars and all-out wars, but in reality this might be the most risky adventure of all. The last time the United States trumped up hope for Middle East peace, the anger and frustration that arose over the failure to reach a final accord exploded in the Second Intifada. It will be predictable tragedy if, in trying to avoid today’s panoply of bloody Middle East conflicts, the White House blundered into sparking another, messier conflict.
The Next Shoe
The Nobel Prize committee this month announced it has received a petition, claiming more than one hundred thousand signatures, asking that it award the next peace prize to mega-leaker Bradley Manning. Among the justifications offered for this nomination was Manning’s alleged leadership in helping end the war in Iraq.
It is hard to think of a greater insult to Obama and his foreign-policy legacy. Those who heralded his coming to the world stage now take their inspiration from Bradley Manning.
Insults, however, are not what should concern the White House. Far more worrisome are the harsh realities that, after four years of the Obama Doctrine, our friends respect us less, our enemies fear us less, and that virtually everything they’ve tried to do—even the attempts to do nothing—has failed to improve stability anywhere in the world.
-James Jay Carafano is vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at The Heritage Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter: @JJCarafano
First appeared in The National Interest.