By Barry Rubin
Yes, children, there is an Obama Doctrine. The administration has now produced a National Security Strategy.
I’m tempted to say that in this document the Obama Administration does a Dr. Kevorkian on U.S. power. The White House wants to prove most of all that it isn’t the George W. Bush Administration but in doing so it also proves it isn’t the Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan, Bush I, or even Clinton administration, too.
Yes, the worldview looks good on paper, at least to those who put it together and the groupthink they represent. The main theme is that America is not a superpower. It is limited, and this circumscribed power requires bringing in lots of partners. Yet is this an accurate description of the situation or a unilateral dismantlement of American power and prestige? A throwing away of its ability to punish as well as reward, to deter enemies through intimidation?
Of course, every power has very distinct limits as to what it can do. The Vietnam and Iraq wars show that. But that has nothing to do with the need to show leadership. And leadership means putting forward a clear position that combines what a situation requires along with what it is possible to get others to support. To obtain the support of others sometimes requires pressure as well as empathy, flattery, and persuasion.
In a sense, the Obama Administration’s strategy for getting sanctions against Iran did follow that pattern. But it also used too little pressure (look at how Turkey and Brazil behaved), too little speed, and a reluctance to move out in front and bid others to follow.
Oh, and a good strategy also involves acting as if you are stronger than you are sometimes. If you keep running yourself down your friends and enemies might believe you.
By understating what the United States can and should do–arguably in an equal and opposite way to how the Bush Administration overstated it–is, to put it bluntly, like placing a big “kick me!” sign on America’s derriere. In relative terms, Reagan got it right for his time, Clinton came relatively close. Obama is getting it wrong at a time when doing so is very dangerous.
“The burdens of a young century cannot fall on American shoulders alone,” Mr. Obama writes in the introduction to the strategy document. “Indeed, our adversaries would like to see America sap our strength by overextending our power.”
Yet that point is missed. If you don’t want all the burdens to fall on your own shoulders, you have to press others to do their job and pressure them when they don’t do so. By giving up your power to push them, by just asking them politely for help and giving up too much of the initiative, you assure that they do less, not more.
Equally, you don’t overextend precisely so you can concentrate on what’s important, say, pull out of Afghanistan and Iraq to focus on containing Iran in a serious way. You don’t reduce commitments in order to abandon the remaining ones.
A lot of this Obama era world view is intended to counter all the things that the Obamites hate about George W. Bush. Yet while one can certainly argue Bush did not wisely use the resources of American power that doesn’t mean American power itself isn’t there. The remedy for excessive unilateralism isn’t excessive multilateralism, or of going from drawing friend/enemy lines too sharply to seeing them vanish entirely.
While there might be times or situations where such a response did little harm, the present day—with threats from revolutionary Islamism, an aggressive Iran-led alliance, anti-American leftists, and resurgent Russian and Chinese ambitious powers—makes the Obama Doctrine a very dangerous course indeed.
How can one not think of the historical precedent. World War One was bloody and horrible. So Britain and France wanted to avoid another conflict, thus appeasing Germany and ensuring that another world war happened.
Americans were horrified by the Vietnam War and thus became allergic to having a policy that was tough enough, thus leading to paralysis about dealing with the Iranian revolution and ensuing hostage crisis along with other problems.
What’s needed is a smart and balanced policy, not more swings of the pendulum!
Obama argues that America faces no real military competitor at present and global power is increasingly diffuse. Yet these are likely to be temporary conditions. If there’s going to be a vacuum, there are a number of candidates eager to fill it. And his policy makes the emergence of such competitors more, rather than less, likely.
Moreover, Obama’s doctrine calling for bringing in potential competitors (and countries that are either enemies or troublesome) as partners is a case of hiring the foxes to guard the chicken coops. China and Russia, Iran and Syria, Brazil, Venezuela, and Turkey, among others, are naively seen as good buddies. Or, in the words of Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes: “We are deeply committed to broadening the circle of responsible actors.”
Think of that sentence. The United States cannot make these countries “responsible actors.” There’s a reason why responsible actors include countries like Britain, France, and Germany. And the fruit of this mistaken policy is the kind of thing we just saw with the Brazilian-Turkish stab in the back over Iran.
We’re going to be seeing a lot more of this.
Moreover, it isn’t just a matter of being “responsible” but of analyzing the nature of regimes, their aims, and their self-perceived interests, too.
But reading this doctrine has allowed me to understand something I never fully grasped before. Why does the Obama Administration focus on engaging enemies? Because it is precisely, according to the Obama world view, the “bad boy” powers which must be appeased. After all, since the United States is conceived as weak and overextended, the ones threatening to disrupt everything are too strong to oppose, they must be coopted.
That is why “appeasement” is a correct word here, more than I ever realized before. These countries are being offered partnership from a standpoint of weakness, a situation in which even if their price is very high they must be paid off because there is no alternative. What saves the United States and perhaps the world here is that the real enemies (and neither China nor Russia belong in that category) are so confident and extremist that–as we have seen in Iran’s case–they will inevitably set the price too high for even the Obama Administration to meet.
Imagine a Western town full of outlaws and with a weak sheriff. The sheriff can deputize the criminals in the belief that this would make them “responsible actors.” Of course, as you probably guess, they would use their badges to rob, rape, and murder even more effectively. Some of them–like China and Russia–will be more restrained. Others–like Iran and Syria–won’t.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, following orders and perhaps biting her lip, explained the doctrine this way: “We are shifting from mostly direct application and exercise of American power to one of indirection, that requires patience and partners, and gets results more slowly….In a world like this, American leadership isn’t needed less, it is needed more. And the simple fact is that no global problem can be solved without us.”
Hillary, judging from the opposition to Iran nuclear weapons’ project, slowly seems to be never or, at best, much too late. How much will you pay your enemies to pretend to be partners? And suppose certain countries don’t want to solve global problems but merely to take advantage of them? Do they still need the United States?
That’s why it is so important to study the words being spoken so closely. Just listen to that sentence again: “No global problem can be solved without us.” Yet isn’t this like saying, to pick an example, a British prime minister in 1938 saying: Peace in Europe cannot be preserved without us. The huge assumption here is that the other side shares your goals.
If Obama and his colleagues feel the United States is overextended, it is partly because they misidentify the threats and reject the best ways of dealing with them. Thus, the Doctrine says that nuclear weapons are the main threat to America, followed by climate change, dependence on fossil fuels, and cyber warfare.
This is dangerous claptrap. Without denying a threat posed by any of these, one could point out that there is no big threat from nuclear weapons (especially compared to the 1950-1990 period); that climate change as a threat is not yet proven nor is the ability of countries to do anything about it given the realistic options they have; that a combination of drilling and technology can deal with the energy problem; and that cyber warfare is still a very speculative threat.
Compare that with Iran taking over much of the Middle East; Russia rebuilding its empire, terrorism spreading in scope and intensity; and China gaining hegemony over large parts of Asia. I’m not saying those things are going to happen but they are greater threats than Obama’s list.
In a move that fully qualifies him for the Nobel Prize for Chutzpah, Obama warns that the high budget deficit is a major threat to U.S. strategic power. Since his policies have been so responsible for creating this problem and his administration shows no real sign of changing those policies one can only gasp at the audacity of this statement.
There’s a lot more of interest. The paper says:
“While the use of force is sometimes necessary, we will exhaust other options before war whenever we can, and carefully weigh the costs and risks of action against the costs and risks of inaction.”
Sounds great. But how about the use of power politics, threats, leverage, sticks? Well, once you assert America is weak and overextended, how are you going to convince anyone that they better do what you want? Obama’s posture makes the idea of containing Iran, for example, unthinkable. Once you announce you have no teeth, your enemies will naturally conclude that your bark is worse than your bite.
“Indeed,” Obama writes, “our adversaries would like to see America sap our strength by overextending our power.”
Yes, but those adversaries are equally happy to see you voluntarily throw away America’s strength by denying it and hiring them to run the nursing home for what you see as a pitiful, helpless giant.
One day there might be another president who is neither a Bush nor an Obama, who will stand up straight, get rid of the wheelchair and canes, and say–to paraphrase Mark Twain–reports of America’s demise are greatly exaggerated.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books.
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