The Tragic Failure of the Obama Doctrine

In his 2006 memoir, The Audacity of Hope, President Obama wrote about how America would regain its respect from the world.

“Without a well-articulated strategy that the public supports and the world understands, America will lack the legitimacy and ultimately the power it needs to make the world safer than it is today,” Obama wrote. And yet for all that has been written about the so-called Obama Doctrine, it has never been articulated and clearly not understood, or at least respected, by other nations. As CNN’s Michael Crowley writes about a Wikipedia entry on the topic: “The parade of entries since 2008 includes “dignity promotion,liberal interventionism, “leading from behind,” security by drone, and, most recently, “singles and doubles.

Despite last month’s much-ballyhooed speech at West Point the Obama Doctrine is as ill-defined and illusive as ever. A recounting of his most recent foreign policy engagements is not much help.

He surged into Afghanistan and then speedily withdrew troops. It remains a hotbed of terrorism.

He notified Congress of his intent to deploy troops “equipped for combat” to Libya then backed off and asked Congress for approval. It remains a harbor for jihadists that are destabilizing Africa.

He drew a “red line” in Syria and then subsequently ignored it. As a result Bashar Al-Assad remains in power and continues to gas rebels.

So it goes elsewhere as well – Israel and Palestinians are no closer to peace, North Korea continues its aggressive stance, Russia is testing the mettle of other nations by pushing boundaries in Ukraine, Iran persists in seeking nuclear weapons, and China is establishing hegemony in the Pacific.

But perhaps President Obama’s biggest foreign policy failure, the place where the chimerical Obama Doctrine has shown its greatest flaws, is in Iraq.

The president has long underestimated the al-Qaeda threat in Iraq. In 2011 he said, “So, let there be no doubt: The tide of war is receding.” Perhaps he could delude himself in believing that because he thought that “core al-Qaeda is on its heels, has been decimated. He’s been similarly dismissive of ISIS, an al-Qaeda offshoot. “If a J.V. team puts on Lakers’ uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” he recently said of the group.

The problems stemmed by the Obama Administration’s clear desire to put Iraq in the rearview mirror. He had campaigned on ending the war in Iraq and getting the remaining troops home. But in his haste to accomplish both goals he undermined the fragile democracy and empowered Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has displayed a tendency towards despotism and sectarianism – a lethal combination in the Middle East. Never challenging al-Maliki had severe consequences. As Peter Beinart writes for the Atlantic:

“The message” that America’s acquiescence “sent to Iraq’s people and politicians alike,” wrote the Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack, “was that the United States under the new Obama administration was no longer going to enforce the rules of the democratic road…. [This] undermined the reform of Iraqi politics and resurrected the specter of the failed state and the civil war.” According to Filkins, one American diplomat in Iraq resigned in disgust.

. . . In recent days, Republicans have slammed Obama for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. But the real problem with America’s military withdrawal was that it exacerbated a diplomatic withdrawal that had been underway since Obama took office.

The decline of U.S. leverage in Iraq simply reinforced the attitude Obama had held since 2009: Let Maliki do whatever he wants so long as he keeps Iraq off the front page.

It’s a foreign policy based on nothing more than his initial read of the political landscape. He knew that American voters were war weary in 2008. He was largely right. But the lack of a true, well-articulated strategy has created a power vacuum in an already unstable portion of the world. And the result is that America is once again threatened with war.