Clash of the Doctrines

12 May 2016, 1128 EDT


Now that the U.S. presidential race has been whittled down effectively to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and after Trump’s much anticipated foreign policy speech last week, we now have a Trump Doctrine, a new Clinton Doctrine—different from Bill Clinton’s pro humanitarian intervention doctrine—to contrast with the often misunderstood Obama Doctrine.

As foreign policy has begun to feature more prominently in the race for the White House, we can no longer beg the question as to which of these would better serve core U.S. national security interests, not to mention the interests of our closest allies—and especially not with the emergence of a new global security crisis seemingly every three months or so, and new ISIS affiliates popping up even more frequently.

Analyzing this trio of foreign policy doctrines, essentially the grand strategy adopted by each of America’s three most prominent political leaders, has been akin to peering through a glass darkly. Analysis has been all over the map, which is at least partially explained by the degree to which this triumvirate has not been particularly clear in laying out their core foreign policy principles. Misperception aside, however, the new Clinton Doctrine appears to stand above the President’s and far above the presumptive Republican nominee’s.

President Obama and his closest aides have long bristled about the phrase “the Obama Doctrine,” and only in his final year in office has he tacitly accepted the use of the term in the landmark Atlantic article by Jeffrey Goldberg with this very title (one of the rare occasions when the President has opined at length about his principles and actions abroad). In-between, analysis of the Obama Doctrine has varied widely.

Early on the Administration cast its over-arching strategic chessboard move as a “pivot to Asia”, meaning the U.S. intended to focus less on the transatlantic region and more intently on the Pacific Rim. European and Middle Eastern allies reacted negatively upon its declaration, and the phrase was rapidly recast as the “rebalance to Asia.” But it was a mistake, as the Chinese soon branded it “containment of China” due to the pivot’s military moves embedded in a wider set of diplomatic and economic moves.

The fresh forces sent to Australia and solidified in Japan, along with new naval basing in the Philippines and Singapore led to a strengthening of hardliners in Beijing and led in part to the rise of President Xi. Since then we have watched Xi exploit the U.S. pivot in altering the traditional Chinese grand strategy of peaceful rise to a more aggressive foreign policy that has threatened American allies and annexed parts of their territory in the East and South China Sea. China’s rise may have been inevitable, but its more aggressive force posture toward the U.S. and its Asian allies was not.

Yet despite the fact that the Obama Administration went on to pivot simultaneously back to the Middle East in his first term and back to Europe in his second, numerous Beltway insiders continue to cast the Obama Doctrine as merely consisting of the pivot to Asia. Goldberg is not one of these, but his lengthy piece comprises a distinctly different but even more crucial analytical flaw.

In his late-second term Atlantic interviews, President Obama takes the opportunity to grouse about America’s “free riding allies” in Europe and the Middle East—ironically the article was printed immediately ahead of Obama’s final trip to those regions. In fact, the resulting diplomatic kerfuffles aside, the President was right: the U.S. has unfairly shouldered a disproportionately large share of the provision of these allies’ security.

However, Goldberg focuses narrowly on U.S. Syria policy, and in so doing he miscasts the Obama Doctrine as one of strategic constraint. In fact the grand strategy the President continues to pursue is mildly activist, even in the Middle East. While the President infamously pulled back from going to war against the Syrian regime with France and the UK—which was thoroughly if erroneously cast by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies as disengagement from the Middle East—he has recommitted to both Iraq and Afghanistan, belatedly focused on Syria, assiduously stayed the course on the Iran nuclear deal, indirectly aided Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen, attacked al-Qaeda there, attacked ISIS in Libya (a term after the U.S. and NATO removed the Qaddafi regime), and actively led a military coalition against ISIS across multiple borders.

While the President took the opportunity in the Atlantic to espouse avoiding interventions that do not meet core national security interests, elsewhere in the region and beyond we see the true Obama doctrine: when U.S. interests are at stake, intervene in multilateral fashion “when we can” and unilateral fashion “if we must.” From the early military operation to kill bin Laden to the recent attempt to shore up conventional deterrence against Russia in East Central Europe, the Obama Doctrine is activist to a degree—despite not providing lethal aid to Ukraine and not dislodging the Assad regime.

Evidence aside, a bevy of experienced Beltway insiders seem to get this wrong on a regular basis. However, they are much more adept at criticizing specific Obama foreign policy moves than depicting his overall doctrine. While Obama gets fair marks overall for such things as eliminating bin Laden and leading the fight against ISIS, as well as newfound relations with Cuba and negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran that the longtime American foe is abiding by, in addition to the misguided pivot to Asia the U.S. has failed to mollify Gulf allies and failed to prevent Vladimir Putin’s Russia from outfoxing western allies again and again—e.g. the overdue pivot back to Europe is failing to deter Russia, in part because Putin went to school on the President pulling back from attacking Syria merely 4 hours before French fighter jets were due to begin their first sorties.

If the Obama Doctrine gets slightly above average marks, the Trump Doctrine is dead on arrival: to the degree that there is even any consistency in it, it will certifiably fail if implemented in office. Trump’s grand strategy may not be very strategically sound, but it is neither as activist as “keeping the peace” and “rebuilding the military” sound, nor as fully isolationist as “America first” sounds, though clearly he is the least interventionist of the three leaders.

The internal inconsistency of the Trump Doctrine is pronounced. In his speech he continually promised to ensure “global peace,” rebuild the U.S. military, eliminate ISIS, “contain radical Islam,” and be a reliable ally. In direct contrast, he declared an aim to withdraw from NATO if allies do not contribute a much larger proportion of their own security, declaring “let them defend themselves.” He furthermore promised to close U.S. borders and renege on U.S. trade deals, while describing American interventions in Iraq, Syria, and Libya as “disasters.” Trump repeatedly used “America first” rhetoric and criticized “the false song of globalism.” A single declaration sums up his doctrine’s contradictions: “We are going to get out of nation building and focus instead on instituting stability everywhere.”

Trump made a clarion call to “come home America,” yet promised to bring “peace to the world.” In fact, immediately upon entering office he would have to contend with allies that are not so easily bullied into spending billions more on national defense. Even his closest foreign policy advisors will persuade him to remain in NATO and committed to all trade deals. Mexico obviously won’t pay for a wall on the border, while Trump economic policies make in highly unlikely his administration would have the fiscal funds to pay for one either. Moreover, in order to continue to combat ISIS and al-Qaeda he will not even be able to augment troops numbers or weapons systems purchases. It is categorically unclear how his administration would achieve “peace and prosperity” unless both his prospective foreign and domestic policies undergo significant change.

Beyond any doubt Hillary’s Clinton Doctrine is the most interventionist of the three, not only based on her record as Secretary of State but also the positions she has taken in the campaign. They are more robust than her former boss’s on every major security crisis/challenge with the partial exception of Iran, and even on this Clinton has continually talked tougher about its missile program and new sanctions. Indeed her approach is more robust on Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Ukraine just to name the highest profile ones—under her administration we are more likely to see a stronger European Reassurance Initiative, that would permanently place larger amounts of allied troops closer to Russia in East Central Europe in addition to the military equipment the Obama Administration has begun to place on bases there.

In fact, she aligns more with the activist Secretary of State John Kerry than the President is inclined to. For example, unlike the President Hillary Clinton favored original intervention in Syria when destroying merely two Assad regime air fields would have allowed the Free Syrian Army to achieve its aims on the ground without western troops. Moreover, Russia would not have been able to intervene and destroy the efforts of western and Gulf intelligence agencies in shoring up the moderate Syrian opposition forces. More critical still, ISIS would not have been able to take large swathes of territory much less get created. And the Saudis and others would not have decided the U.S. is a less reliable ally, with the bonus of credibly deterring would be collectors and wielders of chemical weapons.

One other element the Clinton Doctrine would have gotten right speaks to a larger critical foreign policy issue that could not be timelier: the infamous “day after.” In Syria, where Clinton rightfully called for a no-fly zone and safe zone for refugees prior to Putin successfully destabilizing Europe by weaponizing them, had she been given support by Obama at the time of a successful regime change intervention there is little doubt we would have seen the largest UN peacekeeping operation in history on the “day after” the regime fell. Certainly, with the Clinton Doctrine in place we would not have witnessed a civil war cum regional proxy war cum refugee crisis that will not be ending any time soon, which metes out ongoing harm to western security interests on multiple levels.

Getting the “day after” right is something Clinton also would have performed better in Libya compared to the current administration. I recall well, having worked under her at State in the first term, that the U.S. was expecting Germany and the EU to mount a post-conflict stability operation that the Germans would bankroll in expiation of their UN Security Council abstention sin. The EU attempted to build consensus to do this, but ultimately failed. But more than likely it would have made marked progress and helped stave off what is a disappointingly dangerous status quo.

Clinton has gotten hammered on Libya for the controversial way in which U.S. foreign policy agencies handled the killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi, but in fact she has been right all along about the imperative of assisting the new post-Gaddafi Libya. Most observers forget that it took a long time for the governance and security situation there to deteriorate, in particular that there was ample time to mount a largely civilian stability operation ensuring that the militias in Libya would have been either disarmed or subsumed in a new national Libyan army, and certainly would have avoided their gradual accumulation of sufficient influence to dominate Libyan political leaders.

The failure of western allies to follow up NATO’s successful military operation in Libya has been costly. First, it has allowed for the gradual spread of instability to the point of a civil war breaking out with various Gulf allies supporting various factions. Second, it accounted for the failure to secure the massive caches of Gaddafi regime weapons. A secret western allied operation was required to secure and destroy merely the small amount of chemical weapons. However, the conventional arms spread across the region rapidly in the hands of various nefarious groups. One of these was the Tuareg group that used the weapons to destabilize Mali, requiring a sustained and costly French intervention there. Third, it allowed for the extreme Islamic militias to ally with ISIS and begin wreaking havoc to the point of requiring yet another U.S. air operation to destroy its main training camp this year.

The new Clinton Doctrine espouses intervention in such cases, which would have worked in Libya, did work in Mali, and would likely work at least better than the status quo in Syria (as outline above). It also would have provided lethal weapons to Ukraine that would have prevented Russia from successfully assisting the pro-Russia rebels with major military operational help to the point of not only seizing Crimea, but occupying a third of the country. More importantly, this would have more successfully deterred Putin from intervening in Syria. By failing to support Ukraine’s attempt to prevent serial Russian violation of its sovereignty, the Obama Administration squandered the West’s ability to deter Russia in conventional weapons terms.

Under a Clinton Doctrine, allies will be cajoled to bear more of their security burden—a measured but insistent approach that likely would have greater effect than either Trump’s bullying or the Obama Administration dropping the ball. The latter failed for example to negotiate the new military aid to Europe, inducing reciprocal allied contributions in exchange for the increased U.S. contribution. Instead, it made the decision in private and announced the two aid packages unilaterally, which are not large enough on their own to restore conventional deterrence in Europe and are thus effectively stillborn.

The Clinton Doctrine doesn’t get perfect marks, but it bests the Trump Doctrine by a long shot and also outshines the middling Obama Doctrine by at least an order of magnitude. By inducing greater burden sharing, intervening early enough, and getting the “day after” broadly right, the Clinton Doctrine best serves core U.S. national security interests.
An activist foreign policy is called for strategically because of the resilience of ISIS and al-Qaeda, the resurgence of Russia, the aggression of China, the threat of North Korea, the fecklessness of Europe, the Iranian missile program, the regional war in Syria, and the failure of allies to step fully up to the plate and work hand-in-hand with the U.S. to solve and/or manage these problems. The danger on the Pacific Rim represents possibly the largest failure of the Obama Doctrine. While the Trump Doctrine would coddle both China and Russia, the Obama Doctrine led to China not only hardening due to the original pivot, but also being less deterred having watched the meager U.S. responses to Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria.

Had the Clinton Doctrine already been in place, more or less the U.S. would have kept the Saudis and GCC happy; deterred Putin from intervening in Syria; removed the Assad regime from power, with the UN shepherding a governance transition; transitioned Libya into a more stable albeit still struggling country; failed to strengthen the hardliners in Beijing; induced Europe to provide for a greater share of its security; and negotiated a successful Iran deal.

Given the seriousness of these issues and the high stakes surrounding them, the general unstable state of the world underscores the need for foreign policy to play a more prominent role in U.S. presidential races.