Blogs > HNN > What Is the Obama Doctrine?

Oct 29, 2008 9:25 pm

What Is the Obama Doctrine?

It is rather amazing that as the presidential campaign enters its final week, we have only the vaguest sense of what an Obama foreign policy might be like. Obama has at most given us a few glimpses. He professes a general faith in the efficacy of diplomatic negotiations. He has said he wants to reopen the North American Free Trade Agreement, although his chief economic adviser swiftly told Canadian officials that this declaration was simply Democratic party primary rhetoric. More recently, he said in one of the presidential debates that he was against the Columbia free trade agreement, although it would lower Columbian tariffs on U.S.-made goods.

His major foreign policy point seems to be a promise of a rapid military drawdown in Iraq and redeployment to Afghanistan, which he sees as the central front of the war on terrorism. In debate with McCain, he went on to say that he would send American troops into the tribal areas of Pakistan to hunt down Osama bin Laden. This assertion, consistently made over the fall campaign, might fairly be called the Obama Doctrine, at least if we could attach a larger meaning to it. Is it a smart policy? What happens if bin Laden is hunted down and killed or captured? Is the war over? What does the Obama Doctrine imply about the future of American involvement in the Middle East?

Based on what we know now, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a mistake. It was tactically unnecessary at that time and, much worse, undertaken without an endgame plan. That said, it is hard to believe that the status quo of 2003 would have endured to the present day. UN sanctions were clearly along the road to abandonment. US planes enforcing a no-fly zone were being fired on every day with the odds increasingly tilting toward a shootdown or a flameout. The Iraqi regime, we now know, appeared strong but was rotten at the core, banking on the illusion of "weapons of mass destruction" for its survival. If sanctions had been lifted, it likely would have resumed work on those weapons. It seems distinctly likely that US military intervention might have been necessary at some point.

Whether that was the case or not, once we became involved in Iraq, extrication was no easy matter. We could not simply declare victory and go home with no real consequences for ourselves. We could do that in Vietnam, where we had no vital interests; only the Vietnamese suffered. Iraq is at the heart of the Middle East, an area of immense strategic interest for the United States and Western Europe. How do we withdraw from Iraq without appearing to withdraw from the Middle East? How could, say, King Abdullah of Jordan have any faith in our promises? Could the Israelis conclude that the US would always be there in extremis, or would they feel compelled to establish a first-strike capability against Iran?

We should have no great optimism that one hundred percent success in Iraq is possible, but we do seem on the right path and capable of a resolution there that will be more tolerable than the likely consequences of leaving prematurely--internal chaos, an al Quaeda resurgence, and likely Iranian domination of the region south of Baghdad.

A transfer of resources to Afghanistan and raids into the tribal areas of Pakistan seems much less promising than our course in Iraq. What outside force in modern history has been able to establish control in this remote and rugged area? Would it be possible to go about trying it without destabilizing the already-precarious Pakistani government? If the government of Pakistan begins to come apart, just how secure is its nuclear weapons stockpile? How do we even move in forces and supplies without Pakistani cooperation? And other than the satisfaction of capturing or killing Osama bin Laden, what are our long-term strategic interests there?

Where, in sum, does the Obama Doctrine lead us? Away from an area of vital interest into a quixotic manhunt? Or is the whole business about a new “central front” a rhetorical cover for “come home America” isolationism?

I’m sure there are plenty of readers out there with opinions.

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Christopher Fee - 11/5/2008

It looks as if the Obama Doctrine already has its first test. The New York Times reported today that Russia announced its intentions to deploy a new missile system directed at Europe.The Russians announced this yesterday on America's election day.

Christopher Fee - 11/4/2008

A nation's interests drives its foreign policy initiatives. One must be realistic , but a little Wilsonianism is a good thing when it is fighting tyranny.Eastern Europe , Afghanistan , and Iraq seem to favor the electoral process.

Oscar Chamberlain - 11/4/2008

Our political ideals at home are enviable--despite the anger and imperfection of it all. The extent to which those ideals are or even should be the basis of our foreign policy is another question.

Christopher Fee - 11/4/2008

The U.S. is always the Great Satan! I guess democracy and opportunity are evil ideas. Why not eliminate choices while we are at?

Lorraine Paul - 11/4/2008

Mr Fee, If the US, in its foreign affairs policies, gave social justice to other countries in which it is involved, as well as its own, the matters you speak about may not exist. Or if they do, may not be as worrying as they are at present.

Christopher Fee - 11/3/2008

This is a social justice statement , not a foreign policy doctrine. I guess if we simply treat everyone with warmth and respect, then we have nothing to worry about. We need to think in realistic terms. It is rather naive to believe that our interests will be better served from a position of weakness.

Just what is the social justice answer to tanks , jets , AK 47s , IEDs ...How about a jet airliner or two ? Chemical and biological weapons ? Wahabbism? What about the pirates off of Somalia? Social justice will do nothing to preserve our liberty.

Edrene S McKay - 11/3/2008

You must not have read this article: The Obama Doctrine ( Imagine a foreign policy that promotes human dignity (and the essentials of life that go with it) instead of capitalism and democracy. That's the Obama Doctrine. Unlike the Bush Doctrine of unilateral, pre-emptive action against our perceived enemies, the Obama Doctrine promises to get to the root of terrorism before it erupts into violence. Once people have human dignity (and the food, water, electricty, housing, education, and employment upon which it is based), amazing things can happen. A free enterprise situation that serves the local population (for example:, not foreign investors, and a democratic form of government based on popular sovereignty, not power elites, might even grow out of this foreign policy. If this sounds like a costly endeavor, think about the alternatives. We can always continue to do it George Bush's way: The cost of the war in Iraq thus far has been in the neighborhood of $568,046,884,387.

Christopher Fee - 11/2/2008

The few foreign policy comments that the Democratic candidate has made seem to indicate isolationist inclinations on his part.

First, he reportedly favors a 25% defense spending cut . The Democratic candidate also advocates a halt or major slowdown in new defensive technology development according to reports.

Next , the Democratic candidate supposedly supports the elimination of U.S. defensive measures in Eastern Europe . While it is unlikely that Putin is currently fueling his tanks , this type of action will certainly provide Russia with tremendous leverage against her still developing democratic neighbors. It has been less than three months since Russia invaded democratic Georgia.

Third, Obama seemingly misses the point in Afghanistan. This nation needs more schools , roads , real agricultural improvements ,and continued economic development to eliminate the long-term appeal of the Taliban and bin Laden-led Wahabbi radicals.

Further, the threat of an attack on Pakistani soil without their permission is simply irresponsible. It could lead to a civil war in an already volitile nation possessing nuclear weapons . This region does not need further instability.

Also,the seemingly domestic-related economic policies can only weaken and further isolate the United States. The corporate and capital gains tax increases will drive businesses and investments abroad and cause even more domestic job losses. Any attacks on NAFTA and free trade in general will result in retaliatory tariffs and policies against U.S. products and labor.

Only time will tell what will happen , but these types of policies may very well relegate America to second rate status if these occur over a prolonged period. At best, the U.S. will experience great difficulty negotiating with other countries from such a weakened position.

Lorraine Paul - 11/2/2008

Sorry my 'explanation' seems rushed, but it is early morning for me and I am definitely not a morning person! LOL

Lorraine Paul - 11/2/2008

Thank you for courtesy and understanding, Mr Chamberlain.

Oh Dear! I will try not to give you a long explanation, or at least not a boring one!

It has much to do with our geographical situation. A meagre, overwhelmingly white, migrant population situated far from 'home', amongst lands which contain 'the other'. Until almost halfway through the 20thC we relied Britain for protection if the day ever came when 'the other' invaded us.

Unfortunately, when that day came Britain failed to heed our call for help, in fact, they tried to keep out military to protect Britain. Luckily we had a Prime Minister at the time who rose to the challenge (where are such politicials nowadays?). Prime Minister Curtin turned towards the US for military aid. After consultations with the US it was decided that General MacArthur would assume control of all Australian troops.

This was a huge shift in our foreign policy.

Ever since the end of WWII successive Australian governments have clung to the alliance with the US. New Zealand is also part of this alliance, but unlike Australia, has, from time to time taken a more independent stance. For example, no nuclear ships may dock in New Zealand ports. Further, they refused to be part of the 'Coalition of the Willing' in Iraq and/or Afghanistan.

In the recent past Australians have matured, unfortunately, politicians of both major political parties have not kept pace with the populace. Especially the gone but unlamented Little Johnnie Howard! Who had the distinction of not only his party losing the last Federal election but lost his own seat as well! It appears he now swans around the world enjoying his very high 'pension' and denouncing Australia to right-wing think-tanks! LOL

The people of Australia do not see an 'enemy' in 'the other' mainly because 'the other' is quite often a member of their extended family. As an aside, last Thursday I had the honour of standing up as a witness to my second cousing when he married his beautiful Vietnamese bride....

Now all there is to do is for us to become a Republic by cutting ties to the British throne. Something that would have happened over six years ago if that meddling little toad, John Howard, had not been such a reactionary!

I hope this explains it a little better. If not may I suggest a rather lengthy tome called 'The Fatal Shore' by an ex-pat Australian called Robert Hughes.

Oscar Chamberlain - 11/2/2008

I'm inclined to be sympathetic, but if what you say is true, why do Australians keep electing those politicians?

Rick Lundgren - 11/2/2008

The reason for Iraq II was because Bush II want to finish was Bush I didn't.

If anyone cares to read what Obama's or McCains will look like I suggest going to

Lorraine Paul - 11/1/2008

When are Americans going to realise that the rest of the world really, really doesn't want them rampaging around 'protecting their interests'? Or as most of us see it, 'protecting the interests of the US ruling elite'!

Go away! Or at least go away until you realise that you are not the only country inhabiting planet earth. That quite often 'your' interests and not in the interest of most of the rest of us.

The majority of Australians are sick and tired of our politicians sending our young men and women off to fight wars in support of American hegemony. All in the name of "alliance". An alliance which has benefitted the US more than its 'allies'!

We do not need any more 'empires'!

maria fernandez - 11/1/2008

your aricles in this email string are to influnce your readership. Your attempt to bias Obama just undermines the integraty of this organization which always tilts too much to the right.

Raul A Garcia - 10/31/2008

Obama is stating that we are spending foolish money in Iraq, but we must now spend it in Afghanistan. Is the latter going to be cheaper? What is the cost of those "if necessary" cross-border attacks into Pakistan? Why is the poppy/opium trade still flourishing in Afghanistan? Will it be revealed someday, like the WWII Coventry "sacrifice" to protect radar technology from Germany, that several nukes were smuggled into Syria or Iran? Albright, apparently to be in Obama's cabinet, strongly hinted that he will be tested early on- will it be crisis management again?

Oscar Chamberlain - 10/30/2008

Two thoughts:

Forethought certainly would have been useful in 2003.

McCain, though knowledgeable, has no clear doctrine either.

Jonathan Dresner - 10/30/2008

Based on what we know now, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a mistake. It was tactically unnecessary at that time and, much worse, undertaken without an endgame plan. That said, it is hard to believe that the status quo of 2003 would have endured to the present day.

It's hard to believe that it could have been managed worse, in terms of timing, international support, post-war planning, occupation tactics, strategy, political relations or social engineering, not to mention profiteering and dollar imperialism.

OK, that said, here we are. The Iraqis want us to leave soon. They have a government, they have more or less finished their ethnic cleansing (except in the north, and we're not going to do anything about that any more than we did anything about the ethnic cleansing in Baghdad, etc.), Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia are engaged in the process (competing interests will never entirely go away, of course, but we can keep them talking), and the US military is not the best conduit through which to carry out reconstruction and economic infrastructure projects.

Not all "vital interests" are military targets; it seems clear that, continuing the military emphasis in Iraq would be counterproductive to our interest in long-term stability and good will.

It also seems fairly clear that the Afghanistan/Pakistan issue is grossly overdue for an infusion of resources, attention, not to mention planning and thought.

Raul A Garcia - 10/30/2008

I am afraid it will be "crisis management"and we should not be gambling this way- our economic policies by nature involve necessary risk-taking but our foreign policy should be more concrete and have plenty of forethought. Alas, as Madeline Albright said the other night, she expects early "tests" on the young president (of course he must be elected first). Obama styled himself very much like Kennedy- he certainly had plenty of tests. To save taxpayer money I suggest his proposed administration members buy plenty of airline tickets beforehand with all the shuttling they foresee.