The Obama Doctrine Revisited

By: Sam Nami

It was on the 10th of March, 2016 that the now infamous article in the Atlantic titled The Obama Doctrine was published. The magazines national correspondent Jeffery Goldberg, who had previously interviewed the president, sought to document Obama’s foreign policy into one standard ideology. The result was mixed: some on the left liked, most on the right jumped to criticize it. However, when looking back to the campaign of 2008, and reflecting on ideals of hope and change, the 44th president of the United States managed to accomplish a whole row of foreign policy successes that increased the global image of the America after his disastrous inheritance from old “Dubya” Bush.

When the young senator from Illinois took to the campaign platform in 2008, he was immediately shunned as an outcast by many within the ruling establishment and even his own party. He was an African American senator who gained notoriety in 2003 when he publicly referred to President Bush’s Iraq invasion as a “dumb war”. From then on and up until his own run for president, he was seen as a radical figure on the left who would take a “un patriotic” position because he chose his own morality rather than the Washington consensus. It was this key position that divided Democrats in ’08, as the nomination was largely seen as a referendum on the future path of the party. The choice was between an old politically and financially experienced heavyweight Hillary Clinton (not to mention former first lady), and a charismatic junior African American senator, known for his anti-establishment views, Barack Obama. Today many who look back at that moment often express disappointment and claim that the president didn’t deliver of Hope and Change, or even worse; that he said what he needed to say to a frustrated American people without an actual plan to implement those promises. Let’s not mistake that the president has had flaws like any world leader, or any human being for that matter, and they’re more than just minor. From the catastrophic 2011 intervention in Libya, to the continuation of the Bush-era surveillance state, or even the immense drone program which has amounted to nothing more than mass murder of innocent civilians in at least three nations, Obama is in no way a saint. However, what critics tend to miss is that the way American politics is structured, does not allow for a sitting president to unilaterally take action without a usually partisan congress standing in his/her way. In the case of the Obama administration, even people within his own cabinet often didn’t see eye to eye with him and often took advantage of his feckless and consensus-style of decision making. As the former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates explained in his 2014 memoir titled Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, secretary of state Hillary Clinton often found herself standing against the president on most issues and instead taking sides with him (secretary Gates) as the two represented the most pro-interventionist, or as Gates refers to it “hawkish” wing of the white house. It was this inter-governmental alliance played crucial in pushing for a no-fly zone and subsequent airstrikes in Libya in 2011; so much that it’s even questionable that the president had any involvement, aside from reluctantly signing the executive order last minute. In fact Obama so badly regretted the action that only a few days ago when speaking to Fox News’s Chris Wallace, claimed that intervening in Libya was the “worst mistake” of his presidency.

The infamous duo, meaning Clinton and Gates, weren’t the only white house officials to stand in the way of Obama, but Gates’s successor Leon Panetta devoted an entire book just to criticism of the president. His book, titled Worthy Fights, which also took the format of a personal memoir went on in great lengths to speak about how the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq resulted in the escalation of the civil war in Syria, which coincidentally began that same year, and goes on to conclude to say that Obama’s weakness in both countries s blame for the rise of Isis. Let’s also not forget about the biggest challenge to the administration in 2013, Secretary Chuck Hagel, whom made no effort to hide his conflict with the president during his tenure as secretary of state. In February 2014, as tensions between the United States and Russia reached cold war levels over the Crimean crisis, Hagel made a phone conversation with the Russian defense ministry, essentially threatening war if the conflict in eastern Ukraine escalated any further. This was done in a breach of white house policy as it place days before Obama even made a formal address on the issue according to NPR. Let us also not forget that the drone program we hear endless criticisms about was dramatically expanded under Hagel’s direct influence. When addressing the US senate during a hearing in March 2013, he took the time to advocate for an increase in targeted assassinations in Yemen, Somalia, and North Africa with his famous address: “I believe, and always have, that America must engage—not retreat—in the world”. Of course only one new to American politics would interpret this statement as diplomacy, rather than military intervention. It was ultimately a disagreement over how to deal with Isis that brought a climax to the sour relations between the two. His advocacy for a more active fight against the terrorist group, which is a pretty ambiguous stance in itself, is what brought his resignation in 2015. Rumors circulated that Obama even personally instructed Hagel’s resignation, a charge which Hagel to this day never denied.

Unarguably, the most dramatic instance in the Obama presidency, which with hindsight we know now to be a massive success came in August of 2013, following chemical attacks in Ghouta, Syria. The pressure came when almost the entirety of both houses of Congress rushed to call for an intervention in Syria; a scenario that seems all too familiar when examining American actions abroad. Secretary of State John Kerry was the quickest to react from the White House, uttering his famous words: “Assad must go” advocating for a full ground invasion of the country. Had the United States gone into war in Syria over an alleged chemical attack, which to this day evidence is not clear who carried out, there would’ve been an international confrontation with the Russians as well as billions if not trillions of dollars defense spending which would only bog down the United States in another Middle Eastern conflict only two years after the previous one ended (and another one still ongoing in Afghanistan). The shared belief among most international observers today is that an intervention in Syria would’ve caused massive instability, and would’ve required nothing short of nation building in order to get a sovereign government in place again, and we saw how well that process turned out the last time. But who’s to take credit for resolving this international crisis, you may ask? Well, the proposal came to the United Nations Security Council by the Russians who came up with the solution to rid the country of its entire known chemical weapons stockpile as a way to avoid future attacks of mass murder, regardless of which side it may be on. Hence in late September 2013, the UN Security Council passed resolution 2118, which outlined that entire process. But no, the answer isn’t Putin. The true acknowledgment should go to non-other than president Barack Obama himself, for accepting the olive branch put forth by the Russians, in defiance of the foreign policy crowd in Washington. He chose diplomacy and negotiation over the more popular “boots on the ground” option and saved the United States much PR, tax dollars, and human cost, that would’ve been sacrificed as the result of another cataclysmic Middle Eastern war. Less than three years on, the same John Kerry whom famously stated: “Assad must go” now negotiates a peace deal with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov in Geneva. Such would not have been the case if an invasion of Syria had commenced.

So when examining the proposed “Obama doctrine” it’s absolutely true that weakness in policy is a fundamental element. However, as Jeffery Goldberg explained, it’s the same feckless nature of Barack Obama that has over the past seven years pushed him to favor peaceful solutions to global conflicts and defy the foreign policy hawks throughout Washington, be they within his administration or within the opposition-dominated US congress. Ultimately history will judge the 44th presidents mistakes as a result of his succumbing to pressure, rather than an aggressive nature, and his triumphs due to his calm and collective approach as the man was always willing to reach out before confrontation because of his nature. He was the same individual in both instances, an inexperienced idealist, half the time it lead to co-operation and dialogue, the other half it resulted in belligerence as he would take a back seat on White House decisions.



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