Stop Searching for an Obama Doctrine

By Fareed Zakaria

Every few months, commentators find a new grand strategy that animates Barack Obama. First he was the antiwar candidate, because his rise in the Democratic primaries had much to do with his early and consistent opposition to the Iraq war. But even some on the right, including Robert Kagan, pointed out that he was interventionist on other issues, such as Afghanistan. Some criticized his multilateralism, pointing to his offers of engagement to all comers, from Iran to Russia to China. More recently, watching his vigorous outreach to Asian countries threatened by China, the scholar Daniel Drezner concluded that the new grand strategy was one of “counterpunching.”
So what is the Obama Doctrine?

In fact, the search itself is misguided. The doctrinal approach to foreign policy doesn’t make much sense anymore. Every American foreign policy “doctrine” but one was formulated during the Cold War, for a bipolar world, when American policy toward one country — the Soviet Union — dominated all U.S. strategy and was the defining aspect of global affairs. (The Monroe Doctrine is the exception.) In today’s multipolar, multilayered world, there is no central hinge upon which all American foreign policy rests. Policymaking looks more varied, and inconsistent, as regions require approaches that don’t necessarily apply elsewhere.

Obama does, however, have a worldview, a well-considered approach to international affairs. His views have been straightforward and consistent. From the earliest days of his presidential campaign he said that he sees the basic argument in American foreign policy as “between ideology and realism” and placed himself squarely on one side. “I have enormous sympathy for the foreign policy of George H.W. Bush,” he explained in a May 2008 interview with David Brooks. In a 2008 interview with me on CNN, he reiterated this admiration but also praised Harry Truman, Dean Acheson and George Kennan for their tough-minded internationalism. Then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told the New York Times in April 2010, “If you had to put him in a category, he’s probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41.”

Commentators have made much of his response to the Arab Spring, especially the May 19 speech in which he outlined a broad policy of American support for democracy in the region. All American presidents have supported and should support the spread of democracy. The real question is: Should that support involve active measures to topple undemocratic regimes, especially military force? On this point, beneath the rhetoric you can see a pragmatism at work again. After being caught unawares by events in Tunisia and Egypt — as was most everyone, including the leaders of those countries — the Obama administration saw that the protests in Egypt were going to succeed and acquiesced in the inevitable. It took Ronald Reagan two years to turn on Ferdinand Marcos. It took Obama two weeks to urge Hosni Mubarak to resign.

The fashionable criticism is that Obama does not have a consistent policy toward the Arab Spring. But should he? There are vast differences between the circumstances in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Saudi Arabia; American interests in those countries; and our capacity to influence events there. Take the case where American interests and values most starkly collide, Saudi Arabia. Were the administration to start clamoring for regime change in Riyadh, and were that to encourage large-scale protests (and thus instability) in the kingdom, the price of oil would skyrocket. The United States and much of the developed world would almost certainly drop into a second recession. Meanwhile, the Saudi regime, which has legitimacy, power and lots of cash that it is spending, would likely endure — only now it would be enraged at Washington. What exactly would a more “consistent” Middle Eastern policy achieve?

In Libya, the administration confronted a potential humanitarian crisis in which Moammar Gaddafi’s domestic opposition, the Arab League, the United Nations and key European allies all urged international action. It found a way to participate in a multilateral intervention but has been disciplined about keeping its involvement limited. Syria is different, with a regime more firmly and brutally in control. And while I wish President Obama would voice his preference that President Bashar al-Assad should resign, it is worth noting that the same critics who want Obama to say this also criticize him for calling for Gaddafi’s ouster when he does not have the means to make it happen. Or perhaps they want us to intervene in Syria as well, which would bring the war count to four.

In all these cases, what marks administration policy is a careful calculation of costs and benefits. The great temptation of modern American foreign policy, from Versailles to Vietnam to Iraq, has been to make grand declarations — enunciate doctrines — that then produce huge commitments and costs. We are coming off a decade of such rhetoric and interventions and are still paying the price: more than $2 trillion, not to mention the massive cost in human lives. In that context, a foreign policy that emphasizes strategic restraint is appropriate and wise.

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