Is there an Obama Doctrine? That phrase has been tossed around a lot lately, especially since the publication of Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in The Atlantic bearing the same title. An Obama Doctrine implies some grand, long-term strategy, analogous to “containment” under the Truman administration or “brinksmanship” under Eisenhower. President Obama’s foreign policy is neither “grand” nor a long-term “strategy.” Foreign policy decisions are instead made, on a case-by-case basis, which weighs the cost-benefit analysis of U.S. interests. The closest thing to an overarching “doctrine” may be what the New York Times delicately described as “a saltier variation of… ‘Don’t do stupid stuff.’” The problem with this succinct credo is that it renders the president’s foreign policy essentially unpredictable. After all, who can tell what the president may judge stupid or not, except Obama himself?
Obama was elected as the anti-George W. Bush, whose heady, neoconservative rhetoric led America into two protracted wars, the least popular of which—Iraq—was also the most starkly couched in abstract language. Upon Obama’s ascension to the presidency, he ditched not only Bush’s adventurism, but the idea of having any grand strategy whatsoever. In Obama’s mind, his predecessor did “stupid stuff.” His job now was to avoid that.
The problem with the president’s policy is not so much that he is guided by a wrong principle, but that whatever guides him does not do so with consistency. In 2009 Obama paid lip service to democratic protestors in Iran while simultaneously negotiating a nuclear deal with the regime. Two years later, the president publicly did the opposite—professing support for Egyptian protesters while pressuring former President Hosni Mubarak to resign. This policy lasted about as long as Egyptian democracy. Once the Egyptian people freely elected an Islamist government, the United States felt comfortable propping up a bloody return to the status quo.
Egypt aside, it is Syria that is the most illustrative episode of Obama’s inconsistent foreign policy. For almost five years, Obama has categorically rejected the prospect of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s having any role in Syria’s future. Yet U.S. efforts to support rebel factions have been insufficient, such as with the hyped Pentagon-trained force that eventually amounted to an overwhelming “four or five” fighters.
As the civil war in Syria worsened, the natural concern was that the regime would lean on its longstanding stock of chemical weaponry. To deter the government from doing so, the president publicly drew a “red line” entailing an aggressive U.S. response if the Assad regime resorted to chemical weapons. Just over a year later, the Syrian government did exactly that, brazenly gassing 1,400 residents of the Damascus suburbs. At the last minute, the president copped out of issuing airstrikes. Russia then swiftly entered the fold and volunteered an amenable resolution: the Kremlin would supervise the destruction of the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons stockpile.
This must have seemed like a win-win to Obama—Syrian chemical stocks were eliminated without U.S. intervention after all! However, someone with a more consistent and long-term approach to foreign policy could have pointed to the greater strategic aim of limiting Russia’s sphere of influence. In hindsight, Obama’s approach was naïve. With the implicit blessing of the United States, Russia took advantage of the situation, giving itself newfound influence in the Middle East. The consequence, to Obama’s surprise, was a Russian military intervention, the result of which is that Obama expects Assad to remain in power until at least 2017, according to the Associated Press. All that is certain by then is that Obama, not Assad, will be the president no longer in office.
Obama’s foreign policy strategy poses a tricky problem for U.S. allies. If the president adhered to more consistent tactics, others could anticipate U.S. reactions to international events and plan accordingly—for instance, by relying on U.S. military protection. But with ad hoc decision making as the norm, who can predict what the president may consider U.S. interests in the future?
“Consistency means U.S. rivals can expect a specific policy in retaliation to an unfavorable action, which allows the United States to capitalize on deterrence. Too much predictability can encourage rival nations to engage in provocations they believe they can get away with, but a deterrent marred by uncertainty loses much of its value.”
If this ambiguity is a problem for U.S. allies, it is a golden opportunity for its adversaries. Consistency means U.S. rivals can expect a specific policy in retaliation to an unfavorable action, which allows the United States to capitalize on deterrence. Too much predictability can encourage rival nations to engage in provocations they believe they can get away with, but a deterrent marred by uncertainty loses much of its value. When this happens, unfriendly nations have a freer hand to act as they wish. Russia’s war in Ukraine and China’s creative landscaping in the South China Sea demonstrate how readily rivals will take advantage of this fact. Granted, one called bluff in Syria has not negated all U.S. deterrence. What Obama’s actions in Syria did was show that a U.S. deterrent is not absolute, and can be tested.
The Cold War never turned hot because the Soviet Union knew certain moves—such as seizing West Berlin—would necessarily trigger an overwhelming nuclear response, as dictated by MAD, or mutually assured destruction. Although the USSR could not know for certain whether a president would actually execute this threat, there was a strong enough possibility so as to sustain the status quo for 40 years.
To be fair, there are bright spots to Obama’s foreign policy, among them the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Agreement on climate change. But mixed in with these successes have been abject failures and a worrying inconsistency. If Russia takes a bite into Lithuania, will it be pragmatic for the United States to follow NATO’s collective defense article and respond with force? Or would Obama think that stupid? Until it happens, there is no way of knowing.
“The only definite result of U.S. policy under the Obama administration is what it has produced: unabated anxiety over the Islamic State, a vast and metastasizing Syrian fiasco, and the perception of a crumbling world order.”
The president, as Jeffrey Goldberg perceptively noted, “is gambling that he will be judged well for the things he didn’t do.” This is a misreading of human nature. People do not think in terms of counterfactuals, but consider mostly what they see right in front of them. Possibly, Obama has indeed charted a course clear of long-term conflict. And possibly, his policies may ultimately engender the opposite. The only definite result of U.S. policy under the Obama administration is what it has produced: unabated anxiety over the Islamic State, a vast and metastasizing Syrian fiasco, and the perception of a crumbling world order.
At the time of the Damascus gas attack, the president was contemplative: “What kind of world will we live in,” he questioned, “if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas and we choose to look the other way?” His world, apparently.
Image: President Obama at Cairo University in 2009 giving a speech entitled “New Beginning,” reflecting his aim to end Bush-era tensions between the United States and the Muslim world. (White House, Wikimedia Commons)
Tanner Larkin will be attending Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service in the fall of 2016, where he intends to study international politics. He is from Walnut Creek, California, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.