The Obama Doctrine: The Economist


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DeM Banter: isn’t this a purely historical American view? Throughout history the US has sought this type of doctrine more than any other…in fact, even George W. Bush sought such a “doctrine” prior to 9/11, but as the author states below….the world gets in the way. Perhaps a key would be to develop a coherent strategy that policy makers could point to…a National Security Strategy, to clearly outline interests and red lines for engagement…even at a classified level, there would be value to the NSC and interagency. Budget is the king

The Economist
December 1, 2012

The Obama Doctrine
Barack Obama’s foreign-policy goal in his second term: to avoid costly entanglements

By cynical tradition “abroad” is where American presidents go to seek a legacy, after their domestic agendas have stalled. This is especially true of second-term presidents. As they lose momentum at home, the temptation is to head overseas in search of crises that only American clout can resolve.

At the outset of his second term, Barack Obama seems to be planning the opposite approach. Mr Obama and his team believe that his outstanding task is to secure a domestic legacy. Their fear is that foreign entanglements may threaten that goal. It may help that he secured something of a global legacy on the day he was elected four years ago amid worldwide adulation, peaking with a Nobel peace prize awarded after less than a year in office, essentially for not being George W. Bush.

On the 2012 campaign trail, Mr Obama earned some of his warmest applause when he vowed to bring troops back from Afghanistan, ending more than a decade of war-fighting that has cost thousands of American lives and more than a trillion dollars. Time for nation-building “right here at home”, he constantly declared, to cheers. In a newspaper essay on November 23rd Mr Obama’s former White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, rammed the point home. Democrats need to make America globally competitive, wrote Mr Emanuel, now mayor of Chicago. Whether it means fixing failing schools, potholed roads, snail-like internet networks or a broken immigration system, the second-term mission must be to “come home and rebuild America”.

Yet the world keeps calling. From Gaza to Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Iran, the disputed waters around China or even the euro zone, foreign crises threaten to sidetrack Mr Obama.

The distractions have started already. Republican senators led by John McCain, a former presidential rival in 2008, have zeroed in on briefings given by Obama aides after the September murder of America’s ambassador to Libya, in which the involvement of terrorists with al-Qaeda ties was played down, in favour of (erroneous) early reports linking the murder to protests over an anti-Islamic film. The details are fiddly, but the allegation is clear. Republicans think that Team Obama, weeks before the election, tried to suppress news that undermined the two main boasts of foreign-policy success in Mr Obama’s first term: the use of limited American force to help topple the Qaddafi regime in Libya and the pounding dealt to al-Qaeda by drones and special forces. On November 27th two senators threatened to hold up promotions for officials linked to the Libyan briefings, starting with America’s UN ambassador, Susan Rice, a front-runner to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. Whoever gets the job, Mr Obama risks expending political capital on the row.

Not his job to save the world

Looking overseas, wariness is all. Senior officials say that Mr Obama aims to be “present but not deeply involved” around the globe. They call America an “indispensable catalyst” and the cornerstone of a rules-based international order centred on economic competitiveness (deals on free trade and climate change may get a look-in on those grounds). By winding down the Bush legacy of an all-consuming military response to the September 11th attacks, Mr Obama has freed up “national security bandwidth” to engage with the world in all its complexity. It is an experiment: a macro-policy of engagement that shuns the micromanagement of intervention. On a political note, voices add that muscular action against al-Qaeda has bought Mr Obama space: Democrats are no longer so defensive about national security.

But there is immense caution about larger military commitments. When it comes to Syria, the government thinks 80 to 90 senators are deeply sceptical about direct intervention. But inaction leaves some officials pretty unhappy. A sign came when Turkey recently asked NATO for Patriot anti-missile systems to deploy on its border with Syria. In Washington, some officials hoped that this might be a backdoor route to enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria. Alas, the generals called the idea impractical.

Inside the government, there is debate as to whether Mr Obama’s arms-length foreign strategy will survive contact with a turbulent world. Elements of this debate are familiar. After the cold war’s end, Americans wrestled with whether to accept the role of global policeman. In 1993 Colin Powell (then the top soldier) told the Senate that when the world dialled 911, the emergency phone number, America was expected to answer. It was Madeleine Albright who coined the idea of America as the “world’s indispensable nation” on being named secretary of state in 1996, amid arguments over intervention in ex-Yugoslavia.

Nobody is calling for a return to the sweeping ambitions of the Bush era after the 2001 terror attacks. The current debate resembles that of the 1990s: in these discussions 911 is again a phone number, not a date. Yet the context for the debate is bleak and unfamiliar. Compared with the 1990s, America looks far lonelier. Back then Americans hoped the European Union might become a second global policeman. There was talk of China and Russia becoming “responsible stakeholders” in the new world order. As it turned out, Europe’s highest ambition was to be a global trainer of policemen. Today, broke and inward-looking, the EU cannot manage even that, offering significant help only on sanctions against Iran. Russia is intensely suspicious of American goals, and China is the distilled essence of self-interest. Even devoted Atlanticists are sunk in gloom. The NATO alliance is in “terrible shape”, stretched beyond its financial, military and political limits, says Kurt Volker, a former American ambassador to NATO.

Fresh crises will come. If America is pulled in deeply, it will be against all Mr Obama’s instincts. The president has plans; but they revolve around fixing America, not the world.

3 Replies to “The Obama Doctrine: The Economist”

  1. Hi Bill,

    I haven’t seen one of your musically inspired posts in a while so I thought that I would point out that this one harkens back to the Elwood Blues remark about everyone around the world doing flips and twists trying to get into a genuine pair of American made blue jeans, and that we should bring ’em all home etc.

    Please don’t remind me that a lot of those American jeans are now made somewhere else because that will only start the conversation about how American interests are everywhere and concern everything due to globalization etc. In short the more globalized the economy gets, the more difficult it gets to keep America out of world events, even the little brush fires. You are right, the budget is king, but, the ruler of the budget is the entity that brings the cash to the table, and that means the economy and the businesses that run that economy have a significant influence on where national interest may lie, even if Congress, or the National Strategy doesn’t say so explicitly.

    I think the isolationist approach is done for, and I agree that a strategy that clearly defines the national interest would be very useful. That said, I think that the globalization of the economy and security issues that impact the economy means we ignore those issues at our own peril. What is needed is a sense of balance. Clearly, some domestic issues are high priority. Some foreign issues are high priority as well. Where the fulcrum goes is relevant, and that spot should be pretty transparent (or at least easy to guess). A better solution to the foreign policy issue would be to work with allies to create a solution set agreeable to all (or most) as opposed to just us. We largely do this already, but the Libya example is one where the challenge was how to drag some allies into doing something that they have left to us big dollar guys on the other side of the pond to handle since WW II. They won’t like getting dragged into things by us since it is not their idea, but then again, if they don’t join in, any complaints that the solution attained is solely in the American interest will fall on deaf ears. In my view, it is far better to cooperate and create a better good for all.

    Cheers and Mele Kalikimaka,


    1. Agree Ben, it is al, about balance…intentional balance, not random.
      Music inspired post, I have a couple that just aren’t quite right…but I will get one out this weekend…The Stones….

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