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. Continue reading
According to the Washington Post, the Obama Administration is meeting to “reassess” US policy toward the Syrian conflict. Hezbollah’s intervention appears to have tilted the balance in favor of the Assad regime. Sectarian violence is on the rise. This has, naturally enough, led to hand-wringing about growing Iranian influence throughout the region.
Defenders of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy sometimes stress its general commitment to prudence and deliberation. John McCain and Lindsey Graham may call for ‘strong’ and ‘decisive’ US commitments at the drop of a hat, the argument goes, but the Obama Administration knows better. Except, of course, when it doesn’t. Or, perhaps, when the costs seem relatively low. As Michael Crowley observes (see also an old post of mine), “The unfortunate truth is that Obama didn’t intervene in Libya despite great risk. He did it because it was a relatively low-risk venture. Whatever you think should be done, the same can’t be said about Syria.”
The problem, of course, is that “prudence” and “deliberation” can translate into “hoping for the best.” This looks to have been the case with the Syrian civil war. If the Obama Administration considers gains by Hezbollah and Iran intolerable, then perhaps it should have adopted policies that took that contingency far more seriously.
With the increased likelihood that Assad will fall, even were he to hang on until a Gaddafi-style bitter end, pressure is mounting on the U.S., Europe, and Turkey inter alia to come up with a game plan for the post-endgame. The good news is progress is rapidly being made: stepped up aid from the U.S., aid from Europe, intelligence sharing among Turkey-Jordan-US-Europe, and direct training of Syrian opposition forces.
All of this may be enough to tip the balance against the Assad regime, leading to its end sooner rather than later. But it is not nearly enough to handle the widely expected chaos once the endgame is reached. What about playing the Russia card? The greatest fear is that extremist al-Qaeda affiliated groups will get their hands on a variety of weapons caches in the capital and elsewhere, let alone a full-blown civil war that would seriously destabilize the entire region. Special forces from the aforementioned countries will be needed, but they will likely be operating in an incredibly volatile if not thoroughly unstable environment.
Mitt Romney is back in the news with more than a little schadenfreude, talking about how he would be better not only to deal with sequestration but also with Iran. Or so he claims. But had he become president, it would have been interesting to see the Romney Doctrine in action—a foreign policy lodestar distinctly different from the Obama Doctrine.
Normally foreign policy experts talk in terms of grand strategies—sets of guiding principles for an administration’s foreign policy—but occasionally in the world of ideas a particular set of strategic principles gets defined as a doctrine. Here, for example, is something I published a couple of elections ago on the Palin Doctrine.
But in reality there is no clear process by which this occurs, nor any specific criteria that a certain set of principles must meet to get deemed a “doctrine.” A general rule of thumb holds that a leader’s strategic outlook must be a sizable departure from his or her predecessors’ and internally consistent. Once someone in the media uses a term like “the Bush Doctrine,” thereafter a tipping point may be reached in the public sphere when, voila, the world has a new doctrine on its hands.
A variety of commentators listened to President Obama’s Inauguration speech and, having heard few words devoted to foreign policy, declared that the second term of this Administration will be marked by less activism on the global stage. The draw downs from Iraq and Afghanistan readily reinforce this view, as do a variety of academics peddling recommendations for a new grand strategy of restraint. I am more circumspect, for inauguration speeches are by nature more domestic in focus. More importantly, America’s national security interests have not changed fundamentally.
The Obama Doctrine of robust burden sharing—being multilateral when we can, unilateral when we must—will continue to cope with a world that may be in rapid flux but has little propensity to generate the stability and security that would justify a restraint-based grand strategy. Al-Qaeda was quiescent in one form, but in its new decentralized affiliate-based form it is anything but. With the global campaign against terrorism continuing amid a constellation of constrained economic resources, robust burden sharing is an appropriate grand strategy; moreover, it is here to stay (at least for the duration of this Administration and likely well beyond).
Opponents of the President have had a heyday with the unintentional phrase “leading from behind.” Ever since an unnamed Administration official spoke these tongue-in-cheek words to The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, critics have twisted them and/or ascribed their own meaning more along the lines of “retreat to the back.” Some grew so agitated, they practically fell over themselves in their clarion call for robust American leadership practically at all costs—case-in-point a certain presidential candidate’s “No Apology” book that aptly captured this sentiment, and a certain senator’s delight in singing “Bomb-bomb-bomb Iran.”
That Europe is caught up in a major financial crisis isn’t news to anyone. Standing right at the crossroads, the Eurozone will either muddle through and risk another crisis onset in the near term or having scraped through its worst crisis in decades take strong steps on the necessary medium and long-term reforms.
But what our British friends may not realize is how the vaunted special relationship is also coming to a crossroads. Prime Minister David Cameron’s large-sized gamble on the UK’s future European destiny has sent ripples of worry across the West, not least in Washington. The US’s senior Europe diplomat Philip Gordon made this abundantly clear. The Obama Administration’s view coalesced in 2011 in the run up to Cameron’s shaky performance at the emergency EU summit in Brussels.
Quite a weekend, the opening of Zero Dark Thirty in the U.S. reminding everyone of the interventionist elements of the Obama Doctrine (see my next post) and a full-fledged French intervention in Mali, not to mention U.S. assistance with a French hostage liberation operation tucked away on the inside pages.
Washington, D.C. is a funny place these days…all but two of the think tanks here are obsessed with the rise of China and just about the entire U.S. foreign policy establishment is choking on economic austerity and therefore fully inclined to doubt that our government or any other can afford much in the way of armed interventions these days.