Michael KreponThe Obama Doctrine

President Obama has delivered another thoughtful, balanced speech, this time at West Point. His commencement address lent structure to his foreign and national-security policy decisions. It was long overdue, and essential after an exasperated, revealing response last month in Manila to a press question about America’s retrenchment in the world. As reported in the New York Times,

“The president’s frustration flared during the first news conference of his trip, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. He was asked if, by declaring that the United States would protect disputed islands in the East China Sea under its security treaty with Japan, he risked drawing another ‘red line,’ like the one in Syria over chemical weapons.” Here are some quotes from the President’s response:

The implication of the question I think is, is that each and every time a country violates one of those norms the United States should go to war, or stand prepared to engage militarily, and if it doesn’t then somehow we’re not serious about those norms. Well, that’s not the case.

Do people actually think that somehow us sending some additional arms into Ukraine could potentially deter the Russian Army? Or are we more likely to deter them by applying the sort of international pressure, diplomatic pressure and economic pressure that we’re applying?

That may not always be sexy. That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows, but it avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world. Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force, after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous cost to our troops and to our budget. And what is it exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?

At West Point, the President’s habitual guard and balanced demeanor were back in place. The White House’s summary of what might become known as the Obama Doctrine reads as follows:

The President spent most of his speech outlining his vision for how the United States, and our military, should lead in the years to come. The four elements of American leadership included:

1. Using military force when our core interests are at stake or our people are threatened

2. Shifting our counter-terrorism strategy by more effectively partnering with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold

3. Continuing to strengthen and enforce international order through evolving our institutions, such as NATO and the United Nations

4. Supporting democracy and human rights around the globe, not only as a matter of idealism, but one of national security.

The most striking passages of the President’s speech, to my mind, were the following:

The United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century past, and it will be true for the century to come… The question we face, the question each of you will face, is not whether America will lead but how we will lead…

I believe that a world of greater freedom and tolerance is not only a moral imperative; it also helps keep us safe… But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution.

I am haunted by those deaths [of American servicemen and women in Afghanistan]. I am haunted by those wounds. And I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed to be fixed, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.

U.S. military action cannot be the only — or even primary — component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.

America’s friends and allies are unlikely to find the President’s speech reassuring. Nor will the increasingly wide spectrum of the President’s domestic critics be mollified. The New York Times editorialized that “The address did not match the hype, was largely uninspiring, lacked strategic sweep and is unlikely to quiet his detractors, on the right or the left.” The Washington Post‘s editorial carried the headline “At West Point, President Obama binds America’s hands on foreign affairs.” Its most seasoned columnist on international affairs, David Ignatius, wrote that “the speech also showed that he hasn’t digested some of the crucial lessons of his presidency… Obama still wants to time-limit America’s commitment to security and stability.” The Wall Street Journal editorialized, in typical caustic fashion, that “listening to Mr. Obama trying to assemble a coherent foreign policy agenda from the record of the past five years was like watching Tom Hanks trying to survive in ‘Cast Away’: Whatever’s left from the wreckage will have to do.”

The Obama Doctrine is a response to two long, poorly conceived wars which will show little in return for the expenditure of U.S. blood and treasure. A course correction from the ambitious follies of the George W. Bush administration was obligatory. There’s nothing wrong with hitting singles and doubles, and a home run remains possible in nuclear negotiations with Iran (which critics will score as a terrible error). But President Obama has overcorrected, and his framing of policy objectives in a rare moment of public candor is problematic. Even if ground realities are unremittingly and obstinately limiting – as they are — US foreign and national security policies will not be persuasive at home or abroad if they can be caricatured as those of a singles hitter seeking to avoid big errors in the field.

The Obama presidency is in danger of being hemmed in by its domestic critics and foreign nightmares. Thoughtful speeches do not help to get out of this predicament. Thoughtful speeches do not frame terms of debate or have lasting resonance — even if the President’s choices stand the test of time. What resonates and matters are wise choices and putting adversaries on the defensive.

Timothy Geithner’s book Stress Test, about Team Obama’s unsatisfying, but essentially wise decisions to avoid the collapse of the financial markets, recounts the administration’s inability to frame public debate about its successful economic recovery program. Geithner writes, “Sometimes I thought he wore his frustration too openly. He harbored the overly optimistic belief that since his motives and values were good, since his team was thoughtful and well-intentioned, we deserved to be perceived that way.” He concludes that the inability to communicate effectively and to explain economic plans in real time meant that “we lost the country” even though the administration succeeded is rescuing the financial markets and laying the basis for sustained economic growth. The same critique might be applied to health care, as well as to foreign and national security policy.

One major source of public frustration is how little has been gained by trillion-dollar wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The President’s decisions reflect conclusions that significant, longer-term investments in both countries cannot meaningfully affect outcomes. These conclusions reflect those of the public at large, but don’t shield him from criticism that has widely become visceral in nature.

This President delivers thoughtful speeches and makes mostly sound decisions despite being behind in the count – operating in a period of psychological retrenchment, severe partisan division, the absence of traditional Republican internationalism, and a slavish devotion to deficit reduction.

My sense is that we are displacing way too many frustrations on Barack Obama, who has no one around him or on Capitol Hill to deflect these slings and arrows. I believe the President hasn’t tried to hit enough home runs, but that he is right on Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Iran. Syria is his Achilles heel, the open wound of his presidency that infects all other challenges to U.S. international standing. Caution about new US military engagements is essential after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But when caution extends even to the provision of U.S. military assistance in complex circumstances, the administration invites a more consequential, defining setback – one that no speech, no matter how well-reasoned, can re-frame.


  1. Anjaan (History)

    The US foreign policy circle is dominated by the hawks intoxicated with raw power. Their arrogance of power is too obvious. For example the recent interview of Susan Rice in Charlie Rose show. She was emphatic in her interview that Russia is no power of any consequence today, as it does not lead any ideological block like the NATO, and that America has no peer in economic and military power.

    Fair enough, Russia is down, but it is certainly not out, and it is certainly not friendless and isolated. Despite all its shortcomings and weaknesses, Russia is a military-nuclear-space superpower and an energy superpower … it is the only alternative source of cutting edge defense tech in the world … the people of the world recognize that Obama is the voice of sanity, and a lone voice in the US power corridor to implicitly acknowledge this fact …

  2. Fred Miller (History)

    The Obama doctrine may be good at hitting singles and doubles, but all the evidence I see suggests that the world isn’t playing baseball.

    We went into Iraq and Afghanistan with a team that could hit ’em out of the park. While we were batting, they went into the parking lot and stole our cars.

    We contracted with a global corporation to hire locals to sell tickets, beer and peanuts. The guy at the ticket booth pocketed the money, and the corporation got us to pay for a new, high-tech ticket booth. The same guy still works there. Now he has air conditioning and deposits the ticket receipts directly into his offshore account.

    Meanwhile, the guy selling beer and peanuts threw a party for his friends. They ate the peanuts, drank the beer and called us satanic when the keg went dry. The corporation told us it was “a successful campaign to win hearts and minds”, so we bought more beer.

    Do we need to hit singles or grand slams? We are still borrowing money to be the military superpower in a world far too small and fragile for military superpowers.

  3. Captain Ned (History)

    Is that post missing its [/sarcasm] tag?

    • krepon (History)

      I do irony, not sarcasm.

  4. j_kies (History)

    On the other hand if the President tires of strategic patience – with reasonable confirmation of Assad’s forces intentionally using Chlorine as War-gas, he could emphatically express our disappointment with a GBU43/B delivered to the headquarters complex responsible.

  5. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    Thanks, Michael. I see that some other commentators, notably Fareed Zakaria and Aaron David Miller, are agreeing with you (and me) that Obama has it pretty much right in foreign policy.

    I keep asking the critics, particularly on Twitter, what they would have Obama do. None has given me even half an answer. At least that testifies to their good sense not to advocate yet another war.

  6. Rene (History)

    I think the main problem with Obama’s speech is that he really articulated what he believes. That’s not a politically wise approach. If he used more aggressive language and kept his current policies, he would face less criticism and better deter US adversaries.

    Apart from his misplaced honesty, Obama’s main foreign policy problem is Syria, as you mentioned. Unfortunately, virtually no one in the US is realistic enough to admit that Syria was wrecked when the West allowed Turkey/Qatar/KSA to arm the rebels. Both Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi have criticized militarizing of the opposition, which was based on the “massive miscalculation” (Annan’s words) that claimed Assad is about to fall. But no one in the US can afford to recognize this reality. No one can recognize that maybe Assad’s regime does have the support of a substantial portion, probably even a majority, of Syrians. No one appears wiling to blame the Saudi policy of using sectarianism to “hit a home run.” Instead everyone is looking at Syria as an ideological battleground: there was a bad guy who did bad things and we failed to stop him. Obama seems to have done the best under the circumstances. He couldn’t stop Sunni regional states from arming the rebels, so at least he tried to moderate their all-in attitude. If he hadn’t, Syria would be even more fractured, disfunctional and chaotic than it is today. But sufficient damage is done. There is a new Afghanistan. Perhaps the next president will invade it.

  7. Gregory Matteson (History)

    “Syria is Obama’s achilles heel”. I’d like to know what any of Obama’s critics proposes? Syria is not just a civil war, but a proxy civil war between the two major branches of Islam. We tilt heavily in favor of Sunni allies in that struggle, and it is obvious to me that we have helped said allies help the Syrian rebels. While doing this we have accrued ever more bitter hatred from Sunni militants. In my opinion, direct intervention by us would be insane.

  8. jeannick (History)

    I would have expected some reference to the “Powell doctrine”
    about the same gist
    but more focused on the use and non use of military force

    War are expensive things ,
    the first function of a military establishment is as a deterrent
    certainly not charging into adventure and walking out a few years later with a wasted treasury and blood on one’s nose

    the Republic finances are in some disorder
    America is facing some issues,not all of them foreign

    Now, two major powers are holding strong revisionist feelings
    Russia feel hard done by and somewhat paranoiac about NATO unrelenting advance plus missile shield in Europe
    China doesn’t accept the post colonial demarcations
    and want some acknowledgment of its newly recovered power

    Managing some new balance is what it’s all about
    it’s the work of a generation

  9. krepon (History)

    From today’s NYT:

    TEHRAN — Speaking from a stage decorated with a banner proclaiming “America cannot do a damn thing,” Iran’s supreme leader on Wednesday asserted that the Obama administration had taken the option of military intervention to resolve conflicts off the table.

    “They realized that military attacks are as dangerous or even more dangerous for the assaulting country as they are for the country attacked,” the leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in an address to the country’s political and military establishment.

    A “military attack is not a priority for Americans now,” he concluded. “They have renounced the idea of any military actions.”

    The remarks by Ayatollah Khamenei, a Shiite Muslim cleric who has the final say in the Islamic Republic’s central policies, amounted to his first public reaction to President Obama’s commencement speech last week at the United States Military Academy in West Point…

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