The Obama Doctrine: The Feel-Good Fakery of the Liberal-Realists

By Frances McLoughlin


As much as I admire John McCain and like-minded U.S. senators like Kelly Ayotte and Lindsey Graham, I couldn’t help but feel a little galled when I learnt of Susan Rice’s withdrawal from the running for Secretary of State during President Obama’s second term last year. Reflecting on the part these three senators played in driving Ms. Rice to stop her career short of anything higher than U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (in which capacity she earned something of my respect for storming out of the Security Council in the face of Russia’s veto of a UN resolution on Syria), one appreciates just how bittersweet their victory turned out to be. On the one hand, Senator McCain was right to call out Ms. Rice for disseminating falsehoods about the murder of four Americans by, as it turned out, well-armed jihadi militants in Benghazi last year (Ms. Rice had appeared on a number of morning talk-shows to relay the fallacy that those murdered had fallen victim to some anti-American mob protesting a video; her story happened to mesh with the interests of President Obama’s re-election campaign, then trumpeting the United States’ triumph over a supposedly weak and whimpering al-Qaeda). On the other hand, to think that all this commotion precipitated merely the alternative nomination of John ‘I was for it before I was against it’ Kerry gives me reason to believe the good senators may not have had their priorities exactly straight.


Of greater significance, however, was a parallel nomination which at one point opened up one of those queasy parades of bipartisanship which may make for good PR for those involved, but little else. Ever since I heard the news that former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, a politician appraised by ‘realist’ scholars like Stephen Walt, is the next-in-line for the position of Secretary of Defence, I have been surveying the prospects, however remote, of a break with the shameful ‘Obama Doctrine’ of refraining from protecting civilians around the world from mass-slaughter and of giving dictators like Bashar al-Assad, the ruling clergy in Iran, and the Taliban in Afghanistan permission to die another day. As far as I can see, such prospects are non-existent. In fact, an administration with President Obama as commander-in-chief, and prospective Secretaries Kerry and Hagel yabbering on about ‘bringing the troops home’ and cutting military spending, would be the perfect symbol of America’s decline and the world’s descent into a status quo of rogue-states, nuclear proliferation and détente (the term political science gives to the process by which democracies pursue appeasement with tyrannies and oligarchies), as I shall argue.


The sub-title of James Mann’s study of the Obama administration’s first term, The Obamians, was ‘The Struggle inside the White House to Redefine American Power’, a phrase I once thought apt. Yet when one looks back over the past year or so, one finds that what seemed at the time like a struggle was really no such thing; more like a wide-reaching tendency in which the foreign policy objectives of both Republicans and Democrats have appallingly converged. How could one think otherwise, when even the Romney campaign, superficially running against the policies of Barack Obama, was encapsulated and defined by it? Consider it a footnote if you like, but late last year, Robert Zoellick, serving as the head of Mitt Romney’s National Security transition team, published an article expounding the wisdom of reining in American military power in exchange for a more sophisticated awareness of the efficacy of more subtle economic manoeuvring. This, in the same magazine in which just last month appeared an article by a Professor John Watkins on the lessons the United States can learn from Richard III about appeasement—Foreign Policy magazine, that is, in which prominent Democratic-learning scholars hold forth on the virtues of the Obama Doctrine.


The Obama Doctrine may be currently redefining the much-scrutinised application of American power abroad in this post-George W. Bush era, but far from doing so in a courageous and contrarian manner, it is actually little more than a resurrection of an earlier status quo, and admirers and defenders of the president’s policy objectives also reveal themselves to be proponents of this business-as-usual movement. Henry Kissinger called it the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’; Charles Krauthammer diagnosed it as a resurgence of isolationism; the Left mistook it for anti-imperialism. The current crop of liberal-realists in power in Washington is conjuring up an age-old set of policies, albeit for reasons at slight variance with those of their less liberal predecessors. Nevertheless, these policies will have just as disastrous consequences for the United States and for certain parts of the world as did those pursued during the Nixon, Ford, Carter, H.W. Bush, and Clinton years—years alternately liberal, realist, or both. At its core, and in as objective a phrase as I can think of, what this set of policies reflects is a general reluctance to involve the United States militarily in armed conflicts around the globe, in the belief that prudence dictates such a course of (in)action—though, one observes, this reluctance does not necessarily extend to the implementation of shady covert operations or shifty balance-of-power ‘tilts’ towards this or that autocracy, in this or that strategic region.


Just review how the Obama administration has conducted itself to date vis-à-vis the rest of the world. Recall that the Obama White House has been intent on pursuing détente with the forces of jihad and tyranny wherever it can. On 4 December last year, the New York Times ran an article which began as follows: “The Obama administration has launched a post-election push to restart moribund peace talks with the Taliban, despite resistance from the U.S. military, mixed signals from Pakistan and outright refusal by the militants themselves, according to U.S. officials”. If these appeasement-seeking ‘signals’ to the enemy weren’t enough of a reversal of the global war on Islamic jihad, consider another ‘tilt’ in this great game of nations, this resuscitated doctrine of Realpolitik. The administration has exercised such masterful diplomacy as to have opened up a drone-base on Saudi soil a decade after the Bush administration was compelled to shift U.S. troops from Prince Sultan U.S. Air Base to Al Udeid Air Base, 45km south-west of Doha, after the Saud family flashed its disdain for the military campaign against their Taliban allies in Afghanistan. The construction of this drone-base was an initiative instigated by John Brennan, the man whom the president has nominated as the next head of the CIA; it was also the latest affirmation of the administration’s full-scale replacement of the Gates-Petraeus COIN strategy with the drone-centric CT-Plus one advocated persistently by Vice President Joseph Biden. The latter eschews a responsible execution of the global war on jihad, preferring instead a hit-and-miss assassination program from Somalia to Pakistan, with the person holding the remote-control for the drone sitting half-a-world away.


This outbreak of establishment-pacifism has been the crux of the Obama Doctrine since virtually day one, despite a 49-year old Senator from Illinois contending, during his 2008 presidential campaign, that Afghanistan, not Iraq, is the real strategic front against global jihad. A 5 January Times article reviewing ex-General Stanley McCrystal’s memoir reported the following:


At an Oct. 8, 2009, video conference with Mr. Obama’s National Security Council, differences again emerged when General McChrystal outlined his goals: “Defeat the Taliban. Secure the population.”


That prompted a challenge by a Washington-based official, whom General McChrystal does not name, that the goal of defeating the Taliban seemed too ambitious and that the command in Kabul should settle instead for an effort to “degrade” the Taliban.


Thus we see that only a year after President Obama’s election to the Oval Office, prominent voices within the White House were of the view that “the goal of defeating the Taliban seemed too ambitious”. The young liberal-realist who labelled Afghanistan rather than Iraq the “necessary war”; who believed that the problems in the Middle East could be obviated by the entity known to a politically-potent portion of the region as the ‘Great Satan’ donning a friendlier face, without hubris—this man, whose war-weary visage we must suffer to see peering down upon us from the world’s only democratic superpower for the next four years, has lost heart, lost the stomach, and ultimately lost the intelligence and the reasons for fighting the War on Terror.


Putting Afghanistan aside, yet another Times article, published 3 December, discussed the unwillingness of the administration to contribute to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union’s proposed campaign to wrest northern Mali back from the clutches of al-Qaeda affiliates and surrogates, President Obama having already publically proclaimed the decapitation of that global jihadi network in May 2011 after a well-publicised raid on a compound in Abbottabad. The article carried the following quote from Mr. Ban Ki Moon from the UN report on the situation there: “Northern Mali is at risk of becoming a permanent haven for terrorists and organized criminal networks where people are subjected to a very strict interpretation of [shari’a] and human rights are abused on a systematic basis”. The current state of AFRICOM, which was unable to dispatch a force to protect staff in the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, says much about the Obama administration’s views on the presence of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. It is clear that despite Ambassador Rice’s 2006 op-ed piece in the Washington Post advocating intervention to stop the genocide in Darfur, the administration really could not care less about intervening in sub-Saharan Africa, either. Indeed, not long after the release of the aforementioned UN report, Ambassador Rice reportedly referred to France’s 3,000-troop intervention plan in that former West African democracy as “crap”, and left it at that, with the United States opting to lead (or, in this case, to simply trail along, providing logistical support) from behind as per the foreign policy paradigm it will most likely leave behind as its central legacy.


The Left may not like Chuck Hagel, who is, after all, a Republican, but I did catch M.J. Rosenberg pontificating in an op-ed piece in Al Jazeera English the other week under the headline: ‘Choosing Hagel sends an important message’. To whom? To the Neocons, of course. I would be careful what I wished for if I were on the Left. Reading the American Left/libertarian press has been something of a reassuring experience these past few days, especially the radical CounterPunch newsletter, in which the director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Centre for Defense Information wrote after Mr. Hagel’s shockingly unprepared appearance before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee the other week that,


[t]he Hagel nomination to be secretary of defense is surely now in trouble. The Republicans had their way with him so easily that they surely will widen the offensive-and its offensiveness-to make it a major partisan food fight. The White House has already put out a statement defending Hagel with a defensiveness that clearly denotes its concern, and it must now know it has a problem.


Stephen Hayes summarised the fiasco in the Weekly Standard, pointing out that,


[b]y the end of the day, Hagel had declared the Iranian regime the “legitimate, elected” government of the Iranian people (it’s not); he’d refused to acknowledge that the Iraq surge was a success (it was); he’d declined several opportunities to declare the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist entity (it is); and he seemed not to understand the relationship between the Budget Control Act and the coming sequester (the first created the second).


Even for senators who came into the hearing expecting to support Hagel—out of respect and admiration for his military service or deference to presidential prerogative—any one of these bizarre misstatements might be enough on its own to generate doubts about Hagel’s understanding of his prospective job and the world. Taken together, they might be disqualifying. …


Hagel, to his credit, apparently understood just how poorly he was doing. If senators voted only on the basis of his performance before the committee, it’s hard to imagine anyone supporting him. As his testimony drew to a close, Hagel anticipated and tried to answer two of the main objections senators surely have to his confirmation, first acknowledging his own ignorance and then touting as an asset his own powerlessness.


“There are a lot of things I don’t know about,” he said. “If confirmed, I intend to know a lot more than I do. I will have to.” Moments later, Hagel adopted the minimalist argument his advocates have lately advanced as part of their case on his behalf. “I won’t be in a policymaking position.”


It is exactly as people are saying: Mr. Hagel is not even a second-rate nominee for Secretary of Defence. But then again, as the man said himself, once he’s given the job, he’ll be sure to work his best in order to try and qualify for it. Is this really the best President Obama can do?


Barack Obama has so far portrayed himself as a politic man of compromise. His first term was bedecked with relics of Democratic administrations past—the late Richard Holbrooke, say, or Hillary Clinton—and overtures to the legacy of the administration he took over from (namely, by retaining Robert Gates as Secretary of Defence). Now, for his legacy-defining second term, the president reveals the personnel who will uphold his personal vision of how American power ought to rub up against world affairs (as if the United States were second-rate power with little to no interest in, say, the event of Syria becoming a totally failed-state). If Mr. Hagel does end up getting the job, however, President Obama will wind up with a Secretary of Defence who really doesn’t know what he’s doing, and who, in light of this hearing, has been found dangerously lacking when it comes to both his command of foreign affairs and managerial expertise. This will, in turn, translate into a blemish on the president’s hitherto (more or less) smooth-sailing reputation. Until now, the 44th president of the United States has been the moderate ‘nice guy’ whom just about anyone can love. On the threshold to his second term, however, he has entered the ring for what seems like the first time in his political career, and by coming down firmly on the liberal-realist side of things, has made a conspicuously dumb decision in nominating an incompetent mediocrity for a crucial position in his administration.


If this doesn’t look impressive now, it certainly won’t look any better in the history books. At the time of writing, the political fate of Chuck Hagel is still opaque. All I can hope for now is that this appalling farce of a nomination be revoked, and that the president advances a capable (if still liberal, as is his prerogative) candidate like Michele Flournoy instead.


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