Obama doctrine: ‘Don’t do stupid stuff.’ Or, as we call it, ‘realism.’


Foreign policy analysts are fawning over US president Barack Obama’s commencement address today at West Point, many of whom argue that it marks the most definitive summary of the ‘Obama doctrine,’ whatever that may be, of his second term — and maybe even his entire administration.USflag

Max Fisher at Vox proclaimed it one of the most anti-war doctrines in US history in decades. I don’t mean to focus on Fisher in particular but is that really true?

Obama outlined many of the themes that have long marked his approach to foreign policy:

 “America must always lead on the world stage,” he said. “But U.S. military action cannot be the only – or even primary – component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.” Under pressure from critics who say the United States has been rudderless amid a cascade of crises, the president said that those who “suggest that America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away – are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics.”

Obama also announced a new $5 billion fund designed to help allies in the Middle East and Africa fight radical terrorists, and he pointed to the ways in which the United States can assist countries deal with the burdens of the influx of refugees in countries like Lebanon and Iraq. He defended the notion that the United States could provide a constructive role in solving some of the world’s most vexing international hot spots without necessarily committing to military force — including Syria’s ongoing civil war and Ukraine’s recent turmoil.

Despite the polished address, The New York Times reports a clearer version of Obama’s vision on the basis of private conversations and previous addresses:

On a trip to Asia last month, Mr. Obama described his foreign policy credo with a baseball analogy: “You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.” But, he added, the overriding objective is to avoid an error on the order of the Iraq war. In private conversations, the president has used a saltier variation of the phrase, “don’t do stupid stuff” – brushing aside as reckless those who say the United States should consider enforcing a no-fly zone in Syria or supplying arms to Ukrainian troops.

There’s already a name for what Obama has described: realism, or if you like, neorealism. And it’s nothing new. It’s been a pillar of mainstream US foreign policy since at least World War II. You could easily imagine the same themes from Obama’s speech today in any speech from just about any US president, Republican or Democratic, in the last seven decades.

So, for example, here’s an excerpt from former Republican president Dwight Eisenhower’s famous farewell address in January 1961, in which he warns about the dangers of a military-industrial complex:

Crises there will continue to be. In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties. A huge increase in newer elements of our defenses…. these and many other possibilities, each possibly promising in itself, may be suggested as the only way to the road we wish to travel.

A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction. Our military organization today bears little relation to that known of any of my predecessors in peacetime, or, indeed, by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.

Here’s Republican president Richard Nixon, in a September 1969 address to the United Nations General Assembly:

At the end of World War II, the United States for the first time in history assumed the major responsibility for world peace. We were left in 1945 as the one nation with sufficient strength to contain the new threats of aggression, and with sufficient wealth to help the injured nations back to their feet….

Now we are maturing together into a new pattern of interdependence. It is against this background that we have been urging other nations to assume a greater share of responsibility for their own security, both individually and together with their neighbors. The great challenge now is to enlist the cooperation of many nations in preserving peace and in enriching life. This cannot be done by American edict, or by the edict of any other nation. It must reflect the concepts and the wishes of the people of those nations themselves…. Our aim is to encourage the creative forms of nationalism; to join as partners where our partnership is appropriate, and where it is wanted, but not to let a U.S. presence substitute for independent national effort or infringe on national dignity and national pride.

Even George W. Bush, whose first term was dominated by neoconservative hawks, took a markedly more realist turn in his second term, as the influence of his vice president Dick Cheney waned. Here’s an excerpt from a speech Bush gave near the end of his administration in July 2008, during which he emphasizes those ‘soft power’ elements that Obama has trumpeted throughout his administration:

In the long run, though, the best way to defeat the terrorists is to offer a hopeful alternative to their murderous ideology — and that alternative is based on human liberty….

Over the past seven years, we’ve learned that leading the cause of freedom requires combating hopelessness in struggling nations. Combating hopelessness is in America’s security interests, because the only way our enemies can recruit people to their dark ideology is to exploit distress and despair. Combating hopelessness is in our moral interests — Americans believe that to whom much is given, much is required. So the challenge for America in the years ahead is to continue to help people in struggling nations achieve freedom from corruption, freedom from disease, freedom from poverty, freedom from hunger and freedom from tyranny. In the years ahead America must continue to use our foreign assistance to promote democracy and good government. Increased aid alone will not help nations overcome institutional challenges that hold entire societies back. To be effective, our aid must be targeted to encourage the development of free and accountable institutions.

The basics of the neorealist school provide that states operate in an international system that is, despite the growth of stabilizing international organizations, fundamentally anarchical. States, above all, have national interests, and those interests are almost always a greater priority than ideology. You can draw a direct line from George Kennan in the 1940s to Henry Kissinger in the 1970s to Brent Scowcroft in the 1990s to Leon Panetta, Robert Gates, Tom Donilon and Chuck Hagel in the 2010s.

That’s true whether the ideology comes from neoconservatives who argue that the United States can and should use force to reshape Middle Eastern counties into Western-style democracies. And it’s true whether the ideology comes from liberal interventionists who seek a greater US military role around the world to prevent or halt atrocities, from Kosovo to Mali to Libya.

If there’s anything ‘new’ in what Obama describes, it’s that while the United States should be very wary of deploying the ‘hard power’ of military force, it should be markedly less stingy in using the ‘soft power’ of economic, development and diplomatic support. There’s a role for promoting democracy or working to stop atrocities, as many liberal interventionists within the Obama administration would like. But that role shouldn’t be military in nature.

Maybe call it post-realism: the same hard-nosed, interest-based realism as before. But in the 21st century, it acknowledges to other more interventionist schools that moral issues do arise in foreign policy, especially in such a globalized world, tied together by commerce, travel and social media.

Except for a few brief periods in US postwar history, the realism that Obama describes has been the bedrock orthodoxy of US foreign policy. So a straw-man battle between realism and the neoconservatism that reigned between 2001 and 2004 isn’t the real struggle that the United States realistically faces in 2014.

More consistently over the past seven decades, no less true today in the Obama era, the real battle is between rhetoric and reality, a tension that went unaddressed today.

It’s the tension that features when the Obama administration determines in secret the rules for assassinating US citizens in a never-ending global conflict against ‘terror,’ an administration that has deployed any number of covert teams — including not only the Central Intelligence Agency, but the Joint Special Operations Command — without robust Congressional or public oversight.

It’s the tension that features when the Obama administration determines when, where and how it will launch unmanned attacks in a dozen or more countries, sometimes causing even more damage and ill will against the United States, as during a mistaken strike on a Yemeni wedding party last December.

It’s the tension that features when the Obama-era National Security Administration is building some of the country’s most intrusive surveillance systems, even as it asks the American public to trust it, by and large, to police itself.

It’s the tension that features from an outdated ‘war on drugs’ on autopilot that, even as it causes so much unnecessary incarceration in the United States, is responsible for feeding corruption, violence and unlawfulness throughout Central America today.

If Obama wanted to coin a new ‘doctrine,’ he would have addressed those tensions and those issues. As it stands, his West Point address is less a rupture than another acknowledgement that the United States has returned to realism. Obama’s election in 2008, which brought the end of US fighting in Iraq in 2011, the end of US fighting in Afghanistan by 2016 (possibly) and a definitive end to the ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques that even allies believe constitution torture, is largely responsible for that.

But make no mistake, it’s a pivot back to the norm of postwar US foreign policy, it’s a pivot that began largely in the second term of the Bush administration, and it’s a pivot that seems largely unavoidable as 2001 becomes an ever more distant memory.

Photo credit to Spencer Platt / Getty Images.

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