Some of the more thoughtful conservative critics of President Obama's foreign policy posit that he has no strategy for the United States. They frequently say that the United States is "weak" and that the nation's posture toward foreign events is "adrift." A few years ago I wrote about President's Obama's foriegn policy by also noting that it was lacking an overall doctrine or Grand Strategy. For me, at least, this was good thing. A feature, not a bug:
You'll notice a commonality: Whenever a president gets a doctrine named after himself, the United States ends up in a messy, unnecessary war. Furthermore, it overcommits our resources and prestige, and sometimes our very lives, to the grand designs of what are sometimes megalomaniacs with too much power. We are better off without a doctrine.You'll note in the video above or the transcript, in which the president is updating the press on his actions with respect to the situation in Crimea, that the president considers flexibility a fundamental asset in handling international relations:
That is why I am quite glad President Obama doesn't appear to have one. He handles each foreign policy situation on a case-by-case basis, carefully balancing U.S. interests and human interests as they appear. There is no philosophy to build on, nor any fundamental belief to adhere to. This allows the president to be flexible rather than, well...doctrinaire. I am not necessarily saying the president is making the correct decision in each matter nor am I saying he is making all the wrong ones. I am saying that he hasn't boxed himself into a one-size-fits-all approach and that therefore he is more likely to make the correct one.
According to my guidance, the State Department has also put in place restrictions on the travel of certain individuals and officials. These decisions continue our efforts to impose a cost on Russia and those responsible for the situation in Crimea. And they also give us the flexibility to adjust our response going forward based on Russia’s actions.Please read below the fold for more on this story.
Closer analysis over the years uncovered something in the president's foreign policy repertoire I didn't expect: a doctrine of sorts!
A brief perusal of recent foreign policy of events under Obama's presidency reveal a quiet doctrine, not trumpeted on high with lofty rhetoric and chest thumping, but a doctrine that is consistently practiced nonetheless. Furthermore, it has proven cheaper, more successful at advancing American interests, and has steadied the nation's standing in the world. Even among those who have good reason to fear American Power. It is a foreign policy that fits the times. It is a leaner form of American global engagement: realistic, flexible, cost-minded, and places diplomacy, not military force as its central component. When military force is used, it is done covertly, secretively, and most important, briefly. Beset with a public that is war weary and more concerned with domestic challenges, the Obama Administration's foreign policy still seeks to preserve American Internationalism and avoid isolationism. However, it is an Internationalism sans the substantial costs in blood and treasure that more ambitious doctrines in America's past have demonstrated.
During the 2009 crisis in Honduras, President Obama called the military coup there illegal, but insisted on resolving the matter through negotiation and diplomacy through the Organization of American States. This proved the correct course of action despite calls among conservatives for stronger, heavy handed intervention. During the 2011 Arab Spring and the upheaval in Egypt, President Obama maintained a position of quiet study while watching events unfold, moving adeptly to deal with the situation as it occurred rather than immediately buttressing Mubarak as many conservatives demanded. Mubarak was doomed, as he had lost support among the people and in the military. Had Obama followed conservative advice, the US would find itself supporting an unloved dictator in the Middle East, yet again. Instead, the president correctly let events unfold without risking a great deal of military power or money.
However, President Obama will use military power when it suits his view of American interests. In the 2011 Libyan Civil War, President Obama chose to intervene militarily in concert with other NATO allies. However, American engagement was brief, limited to special forces and naval air power. No American lives were lost and there was minimal financial expense. The aftermath of the Libyan policy is debatable. That country today is a tremendous mess. President Obama was quite clear he wanted the United States to play a very limited role in Libya's rebuilding. But if the goal was to remove the Gaddafi regime from power, that was accomplished very quickly and without tremendous cost. That was most certainly not the case with Iraq and the lofty yet unattainable grand strategy of the Bush Doctrine. The president's use of military power is designed on small footprint activity: heavy reliance on special forces and covert operations, the use of unmanned aerial drones, and the use of Naval and Marine tactical capability rather than the more massive war postured Army and Air Force. Of course, the signature military accomplishment under President Obama was the killing of Osama bin Laden by special operations forces. That is the quintessential example of the Obama Doctrine on the use of force: cheap, quick, and lethal.
To be fair, President Obama hasn't always been judicious with force, as his large and completely failed buildup of forces in Afghanistan has demonstrated. That was a classic case of a president inheriting a situation and continuing it rather than ending it. While the president insisted on a measured, steady, and complete withdrawal from Iraq, he did not do so initially in Afghanistan despite that war's historic length. The president did correct this and has recently announced it is considering complete exit from that country. If there is one exception to the president's doctrine, it is his Afghanistan surge. He has ended that and continues to withdraw forces. If the president follows through and completes a total military exit from Afghanistan, his mandate and rationale for becoming president in the first place will be fulfilled. But more importantly, he will have set in place an high standard for future military adventures. It makes for a stark contrast with George W. Bush and his grand ambitions for nation building in the Middle East along with his failure to capture bin Laden. Billions spent, many lives lost, total waste. In contrast, we could have taken him out with a small team of special forces and some old school intelligence work.
In Ukraine, the president is dealing with the situation as is, rather than trying to further some grand strategy against Moscow. Conservative critics wish to make Russia, for some reason, the number strategic enemy of the United States simply because Russia has a brash, tough guy as its leader. They wish the United States to make Russia into a Jeffersonian democracy, and limit Russia's influence in Eastern Europe. But this is a very stupid way to make policy, as the president is demonstrating. Russia is the least of the United States' strategic problems. China, robust, expansionary, advancing, and gifted by a leadership class that is adroit, intelligent, united and determined to make China number one is far more dangerous as a potential adversary. Russia's incursion into Ukraine is a sign of Russia's weakness, not President Obama's. Quite properly, the President is right to use a few limited diplomacy tools against Russia for show, but otherwise pay little attention its foray into Ukraine. Russia will soon find out that Putin has screwed up for reasons that have nothing to do with the West or the United States. Instead, the president is quite properly strengthening American military capability in the Pacific where there are significant American interests and security issues, especially in the new realm of cyber. Ukraine is not the main game. It isn't even a sideshow.
Overall, what we have seen from this president is what one could call a return to classic internationalism, with its reliance on diplomacy and soft power tools. But there is a notable difference in the way President Obama operates that should serve is a guide for future presidents: let events play out before reacting and maintain flexibility. Avoid military occupations and nation building. When using force, make it quick and lethal. Critics may call this leading from behind, but it is intelligent for a great power with limited resources to behave this way. The United States no longer has the wealth or appetite to "bear any burden" at any cost, at any place on the globe, for any amount of time. The nation has numerous domestic problems that are weakening it at its core, from crumbling infrastructure to an underfunded and overpriced education system. The nation can't afford grand global ambitions without the internal strength and resources to back them up. In Ukraine, and everywhere else for the foreseeable future, the United States should maintain the Obama Doctrine toward the world: no grand ambitions, patience, flexible diplomacy, and light military engagement.