Obama Doesn't Have a Presidential Doctrine—He Has a Demi-Doctrine

News Abroad

Christopher McKnight Nichols is the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in U.S. History at the University of Pennsylvania.  He is author of Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age (Harvard Press, April 2011) and Senior Editor of the forthcoming Oxford Encyclopedia of American Military and Diplomatic History.

President Obama is shaping a new vision of America’s foreign policy.  It involves a limited, ethical, and coalition-oriented U.S. global presence.  Such a position aims to combine recent multilateral actions in Libya with unilateralism in Pakistan, pending troop reductions in Afghanistan, and likely new commitments elsewhere.  It is nuanced. It seeks to present U.S. global activism as a shared “burden” of membership in the international community.  It defines threats on an individual basis.  Though it upholds aspects of President George W. Bush’s foreign policy commitments and goals, it explicitly casts itself in opposition to Bush’s national security strategies, which were characterized by preemption and unilateral regime change, painting them as costly and unwisely aggressive.

This is Obama’s Demi-Doctrine.  It is “demi” because it is less than a fully elaborated doctrine but closer to one than it might at first appear.  It has refocused U.S. military and intelligence assets on the threat from Al Qaeda while also recognizing the need for building diplomatic bridges, seeking genuine multilateralism, and avoiding overreach by drawing down troops in Iraq and preparing to do so in Afghanistan.  This “half” position does not bind America to any one-size-fits-all model for international relations. It posits no singular definition of the “nation’s interests.”  In those respects it is fundamentally unlike such “full” doctrines as President Truman’s Doctrine opposing communism everywhere (1947) or President Monroe’s Doctrine prohibiting foreign powers meddling in the hemisphere (1823).

Still, the tenets of the Demi-Doctrine aren’t entirely new.  In fact they have a long history.  As a policy stance it began with the first modern American debates over foreign engagement and expansion a hundred years ago.  At that time philosopher and anti-imperialist William James argued for taking all peoples and places on their own terms.  He maintained that the nation should pursue “moral suasion” over “savage ambition” in foreign affairs, acting more as an exemplar than as a crusader.  Obama’s new multilateral, case-by-case approach to U.S. involvement abroad builds on such views.  It blends internationalist, isolationist, realist, and idealist arguments. And it has roots in pragmatism and anti-imperialist rhetoric.  It encompasses Woodrow Wilson's idealism, draws on WWII-era beliefs about the international obligation to protect human rights, and builds on Cold War ideas of collective security (such as embodied in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization).

But just because Obama’s “new” American foreign policy has a history and has merits does not mean it does not have costs.  Again and again over past decades, American interventions—particularly when linked to multilateral military coalitions and aimed at humanitarian ends—have had negative, sometimes catastrophic, and often unintended consequences.  Relatively limited U.S. commitments of military and diplomatic force abroad have ranged from the unilateral actions in the Philippines in the late nineteenth century to various interventions during and after the Spanish-American War, through much more recent multilateral involvement in Bosnia and Somalia in the 1990s.  Engagements such as these, which involved humanitarian rationales, have been deeply problematic.  Few succeeded.

In the Philippines, American troops battled their former revolutionary allies in a war that lasted from 1899 through 1902.  That island nation did not receive independence until 1946, despite the democratic rhetoric of rapid independence issued by President McKinley when the U.S. annexed it in 1899.  In Bosnia, it took roughly four years, until the U.S. joined with NATO in 1994, to use air power and troops on the ground for “international peacekeeping” to prevent mass killings.  Still, as atrocities and war stretched over almost a decade, U.S., NATO, and international actions and pressures heightened to eventually push heinous Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic out of power and toward peace.

But what exactly is “victory” or even an “exit strategy?”  Humanitarian missions are complicated.  Their ends are difficult to define.  But inaction can be worse.  Can splitting the difference be effective?

Herein lies the rub for what seems to be the underlying consistency in the Demi-Doctrine.  It takes for granted that the inglorious historical lack of U.S. intervention regarding atrocities and genocides, most notably in Armenia early in the last century and in Rwanda in the 1990s, represents nothing less than a national (and international) shame.  At its core lies an idea championed by such Obama policy advisors as Samantha Power, Secretary of State Clinton, and by the U.N. of a broadly attractive—yet quite vague—concept of the U.S. and UN/NATO “responsibility to protect” oppressed and endangered individuals and groups around the world.

Citizens, as well as pundits and politicians, are unclear about this as a mission.  Those seeking a singular policy paradigm or clear boundaries to current interventions cannot find one.  If anything, what they see they do not like.  A recent Quinnipiac poll underscores this point and illuminates an isolationist tendency:  54 percent of those polled said the U.S. “should not be involved” in Libya.  A mere 33 percent agreed that the U.S. was “doing the right thing” in Libya.  Americans are rightly skeptical of overreach in the name of humanitarian intervention.  But what are we to make of this trend and how does it fit with Obama’s decisions?

The main challenges for twenty-first-century post-Bush U.S. foreign policy are two-fold.  First, at home, policy requires far more transparent explanations not just about when and where to intervene but also regarding why and how engagements will end; doing so may shore up support for continuing U.S. engagement abroad.  Second, globally, the nation’s multiplying and unwieldy commitments are most evident today in Libya (and Afghanistan).  But they also appear starkly in Syria and Egypt, as well as in Jordan and Bahrain—all nations with ties to America and places of non-intervention (so far).

In the case of Libya, the U.S. took multilateral action with NATO under a United Nations resolution and with support of the Arab League.  Assuming Gaddafi’s threats were credible, the no-fly/no-drive zone near the rebel-held city of Benghazi may well have saved many lives.  While the initial goal of protecting civilians has largely been met, at least for now, the collapse of Colonel Gaddafi’s dictatorial regime is proceeding slowly.  NATO has stepped up attacks to destabilize the Gaddafi government.  U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has called for a cease-fire.  The central conundrum for the U.S. in Libya, however, results primarily from two factors:  first, America struggles to help a fractious coalition in which it has ceded control to NATO; second, though regime change was initially disavowed by President Obama it is clearly the main goal given the latest heightened NATO bombing campaign.  In turn, international allies cast increased NATO involvement as “required” given the relatively weak and unstable Libyan rebel forces on the ground.

This is what many of those polled by Quinnipiac University are responding to.  As the Obama administration confronts domestic critics, recasts a new multilateral foreign policy and stands poised to announce a large scale pull-out of troops from Afghanistan, and in the wake of recent efforts in Libya and the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, Americans should be mindful of Arkansas Democratic Senator William Fulbright’s antipathy to the “arrogance of power.”  As he put it in 1966, “Power tends to confuse itself with virtue … conferring upon it a special responsibility for other nations—to make them richer and happier and wiser, to remake them, that is, in its own shining image.”  This Vietnam era attitude is one that Obama and his advisors take to heart.

As they have for over a century, complex visions of multilateralist foreign policy continue to coexist uneasily with American impulses toward using power to reshape the world unilaterally or via direct international leadership.  So, we should pause to consider one final related historical tendency:  hubris generated by military and diplomatic successes has tended to inflame interventionist inclinations.  Just as Franklin Roosevelt learned a great many foreign policy lessons from the diplomatic and political failures of Woodrow Wilson’s idealistic internationalism at Versailles and with the League of Nations, Barack Obama suggests that he has learned from the flaws of George W. Bush’s unilateralist and doctrinal national security strategy and nationalistic rhetoric.  The jury is still out.

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