On the Obama Doctrine.

The New York Times recently summarized some of President Obama’s thought as revealed in an important article in the Atlantic.[1]

President Obama believes that Asia and Latin America are far more important for America’s future than is the Middle East.  He believes that some of America’s allies try to draw the United States into Middle Eastern conflicts that have little relation to American national interests.  Then they don’t do anything to pull their share of the weight.  He believes that Saudi Arabia “need[s] to find an effective way share the neighborhood [its arch-enemy Iran] and institute some sort of cold peace.”  He sees parts of the Middle East as plagued by “the malicious, nihilistic, violent parts of humanity.”  He recognizes that Ukraine matters more to Russia than it does to the West, especially the United States.  The same will be true if it comes to a military confrontation.

It’s hard to quarrel with any of that as general principles.  The interest of the United States in the Middle East stems from Cold War efforts to keep the Soviet Union from expanding into a key area from which Europe drew its oil and which provided an important link in world communications and transportation.  An ill-considered, but still understandable American commitment to Israel got layered-on after the Six Days War of 1967.  Today, Middle Eastern oil is far less important; the Soviet Union is dead; and Israel does not face any formidable coalition of enemies.  ISIS poses no existential threat to the United States as did Nazi Germany or Communist Russia.  However, decades of engagement created of powerful traditions and institutions dedicated to dealing with the Middle East.  Inertia, rather than thought, carries on.

More troubling are some of the president’s specific reflections.

In the wake of the recent pair of articles in the New York Times on the overthrow of the Libyan government in 2011, President Obama acknowledged that the intervention had been a “mistake.”  However, that mistake had been motivated in part by his belief that Britain and France would shoulder much of the burden.  “Free riders aggravate me.”  Well, they should.  However, it is up to the President and his senior officials to define what each country will do beforehand.  The president is a lawyer.  This should be second-nature to him.

British Prime Minister David Cameron became “distracted by other issues,” in the words of the New York Times, during the Libyan operation.  What were those other issues?  In August 2011, race relations boiled over as massive rioting swept across several major British cities, including London.  In early 2012 the Scottish nationalists won approval for a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom.  These may have been distractions, but neither was a petty matter.

President Obama is “openly contemptuous of Washington’s foreign policy establishment,” which always ends up favoring “militarized responses.”  That may be true in some cases, but in the case of Libya, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, and the leaders of the intelligence agencies all were—apparently—opposed to intervention.  In the case of Egypt, all these and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were cautious about tossing overboard the dictator Hosni Mubarak.  Those initiatives were on the president.  What of Syria?  Was it the “foreign policy establishment” that persuaded the president to insist that Bashar al-Assad had to go as the part of any solution?  Then, the Russian intervention has shown that there is a “military solution” to the civil war.  It just isn’t the one that President Obama wanted.  As has been so often the case for the president.

[1] Mark Landler, “Obama Criticizes the ‘Free Riders’ Among America’s Allies, NYT, 10 March 2016.

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