Jeffrey Goldberg’s fascinating article taps into President Obama’s thinking about foreign policy and reveals its wellsprings. In that sense, he does more to help the president define and explain “the Obama Doctrine” than previous efforts by the White House itself, captured in those memorable lines “don’t do stupid shit” and “leading from behind,” which do not do justice to a doctrine that is both complicated and far-reaching in its implications for American foreign policy.
By his own reckoning, Obama’s most radical departure from the “Washington playbook” came on August 30, 2013, when he decided not to enforce his self-declared red line against the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria. For Obama that was a defining moment and, as he told Goldberg, even a proud one. Most of his closest foreign-policy advisers—including his national-security adviser, secretary of state, and vice president—had warned him that he was putting the credibility of the United States on the line.
The Obama Doctrine
But the president was caught between two conflicting imperatives.
The first was his determination to deter the use of weapons of mass destruction, which stems from his belief in the importance of promoting a rules-based international order. A priority for Obama is protecting the global commons from the threats of terrorism, pandemics, climate change, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. For him, that takes precedence over a return to geopolitical competition with revisionist powers like Russia, China, or Iran. The Paris climate-change accord, the elimination of the Ebola threat, the Iran nuclear deal, and the war against ISIS all result from Obama’s shift in focus from regional to global threats. Demonstrating diplomatic deftness, mobilizing the international community behind effective sanctions, and applying force where necessary, he has succeeded in protecting American interests and promoting an international order that serves the global community.
The second and far more controversial imperative for the president was resisting being dragged into another war in the Middle East, a region where he believes American interests should be downgraded. In his view, the current oil glut and achievement of American energy independence render the protection of Middle Eastern oil reserves, and the maintenance of the free flow of Gulf oil at reasonable prices, important but no longer vital U.S. interests. Prolonged military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the United States a vast amount of blood and treasure, with little to show for it. As Obama tells Goldberg, Libya proved to be a “shit show” in part because of the obduracy of tribalism, which U.S. power can do little to overcome. The Cold War is over, significantly reducing the strategic need to counter Russian intervention in support of the Assad regime, which, in any case, has always been a Russian client. In his interviews with Goldberg, Obama argues that Vladimir Putin’s military operation in Syria has come “at enormous cost to the well-being of his own country.” In short, he thinks Russia may have reaped some short-term gain, but will pay with long-term pain.
As for America’s Middle Eastern allies, despite their constant bellyaching, they should be able to withstand the mounting chaos with the support Obama is still willing to provide, but without the more robust military action they demand. If Egypt and Saudi Arabia are destabilized, it will be because of their own policies of suppression or headstrong interventionism, not because of Obama’s failure to enforce red lines or send in American troops. Indeed, he even tells Goldberg that Saudi Arabia should “share the neighborhood” with Iran.
Obama’s jaundiced view of American involvement in the Middle East reinforces and justifies a third imperative: the “pivot” away from the Middle East toward Asia. This stems from his recognition that the rise of China and India as the two most consequential powers of the 21st century requires the United States to shift its focus. Bolstered by the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (assuming it passes Congress), and the deployment of forces and strengthening of alliances to counter Chinese assertiveness in the South and East China Seas, Obama’s rebalancing of America’s foreign-policy priorities will likely prove to be the most important change in strategy since Richard Nixon’s opening to China.
But the true test of the Obama doctrine is how it performs at moments when its goals come into conflict. Obama’s decision not to enforce his red line and strike Syrian regime targets was a clear choice in favor of avoiding involvement in the Syrian Civil War over deterring the use of weapons of mass destruction. But it came at a cost, and not just to American credibility: Some 1,500 Syrian civilians died as a result of Bashar al-Assad’s sarin attack in August 2013, but they represent a tiny fraction of the 470,000 Syrians that have been killed since the civil war started. And that shocking death toll is compounded by the suffering of 9 million displaced Syrians and 5 million refugees, some 2 million of whom are knocking on Europe’s doors and threatening to split the EU apart.
The president’s determination to avoid American military engagement in the Middle East has had other consequences as well. It has required Obama to relinquish America’s role as the dominant power responsible for maintaining order in a deeply troubled region—a role that the United States has played for more than five decades. The unraveling of the American-dominated Middle Eastern order began with the overthrow of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak—one of its pillars—in February 2011. Although the Obama doctrine at that point was still in its formative stages, the fact that Obama supported Mubarak’s overthrow put all America’s regional allies on notice that something profound was afoot.
Obama’s decision, at the end of that year, to terminate the American troop presence in Iraq was consistent with his commitment to end U.S. involvement in Middle Eastern wars. But its consequence was to leave Baghdad in the hands of a Shiite government under Iranian influence, and to leave Iraq’s Sunni territories vulnerable to an al-Qaeda resurgence that soon morphed into ISIS.
Obama’s efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons might have been interpreted by some in the region as an indication that he was still willing to play the role of protector of the region’s order. But that would be a misreading of his intentions. He was adamant about blocking all Iran’s paths to a nuclear weapon not because failing to do so would have further destabilized the Middle East, but because it would have decisively undermined the non-proliferation regime, a critical pillar of his global agenda.
Obama’s preference for a global goal over a regional one created an opening for Putin. In the midst of the red-line episode, the Russian leader convinced Assad to surrender most of his chemical weapons, thereby rescuing Obama from his dilemma while rescuing Assad from the consequences of American force. Putin repeated this play in lending Russian support to the U.S.-led nuclear negotiations with Iran.
The Russian president had come to understand that the Obama doctrine provided an opportunity to pursue his own geopolitical ambitions in the Middle East by cooperating with Obama’s global agenda. Not surprisingly, Obama tells Goldberg that he finds Putin “scrupulously polite … constantly interested in being seen as our peer and as working with us, because he’s not completely stupid.” Putin calculated, correctly, that the Obama administration would acquiesce to Russian military intervention in Syria to prevent the overthrow of a longtime Russian client, as long as it helped Obama with his global, anti-ISIS, counterterrorism agenda.
For many critics in Washington and the Middle East, Obama’s doctrine represents a welter of strategic mistakes. These critics note that Russia and Iran have rushed to fill the vacuum created by America’s abrogation of leadership in the region. Many humanitarian interventionists see the doctrine as a betrayal of American moral values. For America’s Middle Eastern allies, it has spurred a major recalculation. Little wonder that they’ve all beat a hasty path to the Kremlin.
But for the president himself, all this is a logical, even welcome outcome: If Putin wants to assume the role of restoring order in a chaotic region, let him have at it—Obama is confident Putin too will fail. As for the fragile Syrian ceasefire made possible by U.S.-Russian cooperation, if it holds, the president will be able to reduce one of the most troubling collateral consequences of the Obama doctrine: the suffering of the Syrian people.