“The Obama Doctrine and 21st Century American Foreign Policy” by Madhu Narasimhan
July 26, 2015
Introduction & Hypothesis
On December 2, 1823, President James Monroe proclaimed that “as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved…the American continents…are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.”2 By going on to state that the U.S. would intervene when confronted with European aggression in the Americas, Monroe created one of the first major foreign policy ‘doctrines’ in the history of the United States. Since then, many U.S. presidents have sought to define their foreign policy approaches with specific objectives or broad, philosophical descriptions of how their administrations would behave on the world stage. Some of these doctrines were introduced in official statements from the Executive Office of the President or the U.S. Department of State, but in other cases, the presidents’ worldviews have been defined as doctrines by external sources, such as journalists or international relations experts. Though President Barack Obama has not explicitly set forth a doctrine, a number of analysts have observed that Obama has cultivated certain unique principles of judgment that he uses to conduct his foreign policy. As time has progressed, these various analyses of Obama’s international relations approaches have coalesced, yielding what could be termed the ‘Obama Doctrine.’ Following the 2011 intervention in Libya, America witnessed a barrage of op-ed pieces that detailed the broader strategies behind this doctrine. Indeed, even the editorials that admonished the ongoing search for the Doctrine admitted that “Obama does…have a worldview, a well-considered approach to international affairs.”3 Hence, based on a preliminary review of the literature, this paper assumes the existence of the Obama Doctrine – as a label, and as a fundamental foreign policy strategy. However, beyond the mere musing of whether the Doctrine might exist, a more specific question can reveal significant truths about the very nature of the Obama Doctrine. Has Barack Obama followed his foreign policy doctrine? In order to research this question, one must first define the Doctrine. In the past, some political cartoons have lampooned it for being an ad-hoc, “make-it-up-as-we-go” approach4, while other commentaries have suggested that it entails a gradual diffusion of American power. Still others claim that the Obama Doctrine is simply a continuation of Bush-era policies.5 In addition to acknowledging the existence of the Doctrine, this paper makes another set of key assumptions for the sake of research. It postulates that the Obama Doctrine consists of three core tenets of 21st century American foreign policy: (1) strong multilateral engagement; (2) limited, calculated use of military force for national security or humanitarian objectives; and (3) strategic modesty in America’s global leadership. (This paper will refer to each of the aforementioned tenets as “Tenet 1,” “Tenet 2,” and “Tenet 3”). Based on the preceding definition, this paper hypothesizes that Obama has, indeed, followed all three tenets of his doctrine when making his most important foreign policy decisions. The theory behind this hypothesis is quite simple: these tenets have been common, recurring themes in the public discourse, journalistic reports and scholarly literature, and Obama’s rhetoric in the past few years. Thus, it is very likely that Obama has applied these tenets to the most consequential decisions of his presidency. Not long after taking office, in his maiden speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Obama clearly endorsed Tenet 1 (multilateral engagement): “It is my deeply held belief that in the year 2009 – more than at any point in human history – the interests of nations and peoples are shared…The time has come for the world to move in a new direction. We must embrace a new era of engagement based on mutual interests and mutual respect, and our work must begin now.”6 Beyond the rhetoric, the Obama Administration has helped organize a range of global summits to encourage multilateral agreements on issues such as climate change, financial regulation, and nuclear non-proliferation. Obama has also sought to strengthen the United States’ partnerships with emerging global powers, such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, and South Korea. Obama’s Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, has also made references to the Administration’s application of “smart power,” a tool designed to increase multilateral engagement through strategic diplomacy.7 Diplomacy and multilateral engagement generally reduce the need for excessive military force, which leads to an exploration of Tenet 2 of the Obama Doctrine. Even in the early days of his political career, Obama emphasized the need for clearer national security objectives, better humanitarian policies, and a more calculated use of military resources. As president, Obama drew upon those principles to publish his 2010 National Security Strategy, in which he stated: “As we fight the wars in front of us, we must see the horizon beyond them…when we overuse our military, or fail to invest in or deploy complementary tools, or act without partners, then our military is overstretched. Americans bear a greater burden, and our leadership around the world is too narrowly identified with military forces.”8 In compliance with that strategy, Obama ended the war in Iraq and announced a phased withdrawal from the conflict in Afghanistan, the longest war in U.S. history. Finally, Tenet 3 of the Doctrine has also garnered wide coverage in the press. For example, following his 2009 inauguration, Obama embarked on a number of foreign trips in order to assure the world that America would be pursuing a humbler course of action during his presidency (in comparison to the Bush Administration).9 Obama drew fire from Washington critics for bowing to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in April 2009 and Emperor Akihito of Japan in November of that same year. On the other hand, others took no issue with these incidents, interpreting them as strategic acts of modesty that would strengthen alliances and preserve America’s influence amidst “the rise of the rest” (i.e. the emergence of new global powers).10 This projection of modesty is also reflected in Obama’s rhetoric, which has been known to include quotes on “dignity promotion” (as opposed to President Bush’s fiery “democracy promotion”)11, pledges to seek “equal partnerships,”12 and quieter-than-usual endorsements of American exceptionalism.13 The preceding examples serve only as a preview of the basis for this paper’s hypothesis. In order to truly test whether Obama has followed his doctrine, the research methodology of this paper will identify some of the most critical foreign policy situations that the President has faced. Such an analysis of the Obama Doctrine would be significant for several reasons. First, it would elucidate the broader worldview of the 44th President of the United States. Second, it would determine whether Obama’s actions actually match the perceived doctrine. Third, this analysis would contextualize the Obama Doctrine through the prisms of history, classical international relations theory, and the future of 21st century American foreign policy. Lastly, given the relative novelty of this topic, this research could potentially have the opportunity to endure on the shelf of Obama Doctrine literature as an early academic contribution.
The hypothesis presented in this paper required an extensive literature review and a clear model for qualitative analysis. Upon clarifying the parameters of the topic, question, and hypothesis, I determined the key assumptions of the research project. The primary assumption, as stated earlier, is that the Obama Doctrine actually exists, even if it has not been explicitly stated by the Administration. Based on that assumption, I conducted a preliminary literature review, which allowed me to summarize the Doctrine into three core tenets – another set of assumptions. This preliminary review relied mostly on Barack Obama’s books, Administration rhetoric, and a vast body of knowledge that I acquired prior to embarking on this research project. After the preliminary review, with feedback from my academic advisors, I honed the language of the assumed doctrinal tenets in order to give them greater definitional clarity. Next, in the interest of sharpening the focus of my research, I decided to select a few critical case studies to shed light on Obama’s foreign policy behaviors. The war in Iraq seemed to be an obvious choice for various reasons: (1) then-State Senator Obama publicly opposed the intervention as early as October 2002; (2) he emphasized a policy contrast with George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain during the 2008 presidential campaign14; and (3) Obama announced the end of “the long and polarizing war” in October 2011.15 Afghanistan and Pakistan (“Af-Pak”) have served as the other major frontiers of combat in the broader War on Terror. Several crucial events, including the killing of Osama bin Laden, have occurred there during Obama’s presidency, so I included the region as another case study. Obama has also presided over a prolonged international crisis, the Arab Spring (which began in December 2010), and went so far as to order the use of U.S. military force in Libya. While it would be interesting to analyze Obama’s reactions to all of the recent revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East, in the interest of presenting a more rigorous and focused analysis, I limited the case study to Libya. Given that these case studies are centered on four Muslim-majority nations in the Middle East and South Asia, I recognized that this would exclude analysis of Obama’s interactions with other important actors on the world stage, such as China, Russia, or Latin America. However, since much of 21st century (post-9/11) American foreign policy has revolved around tensions originating in that region, I concluded that these case studies are necessary and sufficient to build a framework for the Obama Doctrine. This claim is further substantiated by the fact that Iraq, AfPak, and Libya constitute the majority of military decisions made by Obama as commander-inchief. However, this project also analyzed Obama’s globally-oriented foreign policy speeches, such as his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize lecture, in order to gain greater insight on his worldview. After selecting the relevant case studies, I pursued a comprehensive literature review, poring over online news sources, foreign policy blogs, scholarly articles, and recent books. I ran searches for the “Obama Doctrine” (or similar terms, e.g. “grand strategy,” “philosophy,” “worldview”), the tenets, and the regional case studies on the classic Google search engine, as well as Google Scholar. I then reviewed most of the top ten to twenty results of each search. With the more significant search terms, such as “Obama Doctrine,” I read even more sources. I excluded blatantly partisan or amateur sources, and placed a greater emphasis on the writings of non-partisan international relations experts, White House correspondents, and foreign writers. In addition to these searches, I also sought out numerous particular sources that I had read or heard about in the past. For example, I had skimmed a couple of relevant pieces from The New Yorker before, and I knew that international relations expert Fareed Zakaria had commented on the Obama Doctrine earlier in 2011. (A more detailed list of the types of sources that I consulted can be found in the Appendix of this paper). Since Obama was only inaugurated in 2009, and because he still holds office, the body of scholarly literature (including print sources) on this topic is still in its infantile phase. Hence, I relied most heavily on the recent deluge of journalistic commentary (which did often revolve around scholarly opinion) pertaining to Libya and the Obama Doctrine. In some cases, the Libya articles actually offered insights on Iraq and Af-Pak, as well. In addition to the aforementioned sources, I carefully studied Obama’s speeches, writings (e.g. his 2006 policy exposition, The Audacity of Hope), and Administration talking points. These sources were incredibly useful for understanding Obama through his own lenses, and they offered a sense of his desired projections and message strategies. After compiling all of the available sources, I scoured through them in order to find matches between my assumed tenets and the expert analyses of Obama’s foreign policy decisions. As I read through each source, I pulled excerpts that mentioned terms such as “multilateral engagement,” “international partnership,” “coalition,” “limited military,” “calculated risks,” “national security goal,” “modesty,” and “humility.” In addition, wherever I found “non-matches” or contradictions of my hypothesis, I made note of it and gave them serious consideration. I also took note when I discovered recurring arguments for new foreign policy principles that I may not have considered within my assumed definition of the Doctrine. Finally, I paid attention to the tone of each source to see if it suggested that Obama’s actions have been unique compared to the foreign policy of previous presidents. The presence of such a tone often indicated that the author believed that Obama was truly forming a new doctrine and following it. In order to distill all of this research information, I categorized each piece of evidence into the appropriate regional case study, and then into one of the three corresponding tenets of the Doctrine. Based on the broader histories of the wars and the strength of the arguments for and against each tenet, I had to make my own qualitative determinations on whether Obama actually followed his doctrine. By starting with the analysis of Iraq, then proceeding to Af-Pak, and finally to Libya, I noticed a natural evolution in Obama’s application of the doctrinal tenets, which made the seemingly complex qualitative study more fluid and cogent. But time and again, in order to clarify this qualitative approach, I had to ask myself: “What is the threshold for proving that Obama followed a particular tenet of his doctrine?”
Given the variability of language and content within each of my sources, I felt that making a statement such as “five out of seven sources supported Tenet 1” would be a simplistic and misleading threshold of proof. Instead, with the Iraq and Af-Pak case studies, the most important threshold was the ability to corroborate the journalistic/scholarly evidence using Barack Obama’s own rhetoric and his Administration’s talking points. For example, where I was unable to identify terms such as “multilateral engagement” as a key talking point in the Administration’s briefings or speeches, I was forced to discount the corresponding tenet. In the case of Libya, though, there was an overwhelming consensus and uniformity within the literature and the Obama Administration’s message strategy. While discussing the methodology of this qualitative review, it is important to note that the Findings section of this paper may not necessarily contain the same amount of sources (i.e. citations) for proving each tenet. The Findings section seeks to provide a sample of quotes that is representative of the body of research literature; it is not meant to be a strict and comprehensive list of excerpts. Many other sources may have been weighed in my qualitative study, and these can be found in the Bibliography and Appendix sections of the paper. My hope is that any replication of this methodology will result in similar findings, provided that the research is conducted within a timeframe that is reasonably close to this paper’s publication date. Though the inherent subjectivity of qualitative studies may be a limitation of this methodology, the careful chronology and specificity of these instructions should reduce variability in the results. When applied appropriately, this comprehensive methodology can reveal the extent to which Obama has followed the Doctrine, as well as the tenet(s) he has prioritized. If necessary, researchers can even revise or augment the assumed definition of the Obama Doctrine. Finally, in addition to providing commentary on the applications of the Obama Doctrine, this methodology can shed light on the deeper implications of the philosophy. I hope that the innovations of this methodology will be useful to future Obama Doctrine researchers as they seek to develop other pieces of unique scholarship pertaining to this topic.
The findings of this paper can be divided into three key case studies of the Obama Doctrine – namely, Iraq, Af-Pak, and Libya. The chart below has been included as a reminder of the three assumed tenets of the Doctrine. The Three Tenets Strong multilateral engagement Limited, calculated use of military force for national security or humanitarian objectives Strategic modesty in America’s global leadership
Tenet 1 Tenet 2 Tenet 3
The Three Tenets & Iraq
Though this paper primarily focuses on Obama’s actions in the first three years of his presidency, it is imperative to begin any analysis of the Iraqi case study with an understanding of Obama’s earlier political career. After all, Obama’s presidential decision to withdraw from Iraq was heavily dependent upon his early years of deliberation on what the war meant for American foreign policy. It was this formative thought process that marked the beginnings of a unique Obama Doctrine. On a crisp afternoon in October 2002, then-State Senator Barack Obama delivered a passionate speech at an anti-war rally in Chicago, Illinois, protesting the Bush Administration’s potential invasion of Iraq. In that speech, Obama kept repeating the refrain “I don’t oppose all wars” and then went on to say: “What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war…I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst…impulses of the Arab world.”16 By spring 2003, the war in Iraq was well under way, and the Bush Administration would go on to justify the invasion by pointing to Saddam Hussein’s humanitarian abuses, connections to al-Qaeda, and alleged weapons of mass destruction.17 As the conflict raged on, several of these justifications fell flat under close examination, public approval for the war drastically declined, and Bush faced “political fallout” in the 2006 midterm elections.18 In October 2006, Barack Obama, who had now ascended to political stardom as a U.S. Senator, released The Audacity of Hope and wrote: “…it’s not too early to draw some conclusions from our actions in Iraq…The fact is…the United States still lacks a coherent national security policy. Instead of guiding principles, we have what appear to be a series of ad hoc decisions, with dubious results…Without a well-articulated strategy…America will lack the legitimacy – and ultimately the power – it needs to make the world safer…”19 Two years later, in the midst of the heated 2008 campaign for president, Obama wrote in an op-ed piece in The New York Times: “Unlike Senator John McCain, I opposed the war in Iraq before it began, and would end it as president…it was a grave mistake to allow ourselves to be distracted from the fight against al Qaeda…”20 Following his inauguration as president in January 2009, Obama gradually withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq. He ultimately announced the end of the war in October 2011 – an action that has been widely heralded as one of the most consequential decisions of his presidency. Analyzing Obama’s writings from the past decade highlights his deep philosophical opposition to this particular war. Firstly, the research suggests that the lack of wide international support for the war seemed highly problematic to Obama. Carl M. Cannon, the Washington Editor of RealClearPolitics, parsed the language in the 2002 Chicago speech, and stated that Obama’s use of the “obligatory phrase ‘without strong international support’ was the key.”21 Cannon also went on to say: “International cooperation was a stance that Obama emphasized for the better part of two years while seeking national office.”22 By pulling U.S. forces out of Iraq, Obama gave a nod to Tenet 1 (the principle that calls for strong multilateral engagement) of his doctrine. In the past, The Economist has pointed out: “Barack Obama’s National Security Strategy, published on May 27th …says…‘the United States must reserve the right to act unilaterally,’ albeit adhering to ‘standards that govern the use of force.’” However, it is important to note that the very same National Security Strategy went on to emphasize: “No one nation – no matter how powerful – can meet global challenges alone.”23 It is safe to suggest, then, that Obama likely gave Tenet 1 serious consideration as he made the decision to withdraw from Iraq. Each successive iteration of Obama’s disapproval of the war also blamed hawkish proponents for their lack of a comprehensible strategy. Time and again, Obama rejected the notion that an Iraqi invasion was linked to America’s national security objectives. It is clear that he was disappointed that the war did not constitute a limited, calculated use of American military resources. In his 2008 op-ed in The New York Times, he stated: “…more than 4,000 Americans have died and we have spent nearly $1 trillion. Our military is overstretched.”24 By pulling U.S. forces out of Iraq, Obama essentially ended the United States’ violation of Tenet 2 of his doctrine. There is not much research evidence from this case study to suggest that Obama had Tenet 3 (strategic modesty in America’s global leadership) in mind, but perhaps it could be argued that the withdrawal itself was a symbol of humble retrenchment. After all, the action was largely viewed as a strategic method to curtail America’s losses in a globally unpopular war. David Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, offered a strong summary for the Iraqi case study: “The Obama Doctrine…is responding to the lessons of…Iraq. It is a reaction against the use of ‘overwhelming force’ to achieve rather…dubious…goals. It is an antidote to ‘shock and awe,’ ‘three trillion dollar wars’ and unilateral conventional invasions if they can possibly be avoided.”25 Withdrawal from Iraq presented Obama with the first major opportunity to display his doctrine. Meanwhile, though, Obama had already set his eyes on a more strategic theater of combat – Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Three Tenets & Iraq Tenet 1 (strong multilateral engagement) Evidence -Obama’s early political career emphasized the lack of international support for the Iraq war -Obama’s 2008 campaign developed this particular criticism -As president, Obama ended the war based on his longstanding criticism Tenet 2 (limited, calculated use of military force for national security or humanitarian objectives) Tenet 3 (strategic modesty) -Obama felt that the war was overextending the U.S. military and distracting America from an important national security objective (defeating al-Qaeda) -Not much evidence in the literature, but perhaps the withdrawal itself was a sign of humble retrenchment
Af-Pak Even as he planned to pull forces from Iraq, Obama announced a new Af-Pak strategy in March 2009, with a “clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda.”26 In accordance with that vision, Obama ordered the deployment of 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan in December 2009, hoping that the surge would bring an end to the war that began in response to the 9/11 attacks.27 The research does not offer substantial support to suggest that Tenet 1 of the Doctrine informed Obama’s judgment as he aggressively pursued his new Af-Pak strategy. Firstly, Obama did not make any extraordinary overtures for multilateral engagement on that front. Secondly, in May 2011, Obama authorized U.S. Navy Seals to take unilateral action to kill Osama bin Laden, the head of the al-Qaeda terrorist network, in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Pakistani officials, including Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, were not informed until after the raid, and they reacted furiously, calling it a “violation of sovereignty.”28 A few days after the operation, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney stated: “We make no apologies…” in response to a question about the unilateral nature of the mission.29 In general, public briefings from the Administration have not emphasized multilateral engagement as a major priority of the Af-Pak war. However, even if Tenet 1 was not a core aspect of Obama’s decision to focus on the AfPak region, Tenet 2 of the Doctrine certainly was. Transferring valuable military resources from Iraq to Afghanistan was a crucial example of defining a national security objective and pinpointing just the right amount – and type – of force to achieve that goal. Michael Williams, a fellow of the Inter-University Seminar on the Armed Forces and Society, wrote in October 2011: “Under President Obama, the use of drones has more than tripled… the effectiveness in decimating the al-Qaida network and Taliban leaders is hard to dispute.”30 David Rothkopf also corroborated this point, partly in reference to the Af-Pak war: “The Obama Doctrine prioritizes the use of intelligence, unmanned aircraft, special forces, and… leverage…to achieve…critical goals…It is about using technological superiority, effective intelligence, surprise, and smart collaboration to make the most of limited resources and do so in a way that minimizes risks to both personnel and to America’s international standing and our bank account.”31 In other words, by intelligently calculating risks and simultaneously altering the way that war is fought, Obama has attempted to maximize the military gains from the strategic Af-Pak mission. But is the mission limited? In June 2011, not long after ordering the surge of troops in Afghanistan, Obama announced a plan for phased withdrawal from the region, citing that it was “time to focus on nation-building at home.”32 This pragmatic reluctance to engage in “nationbuilding” overseas confirms that Tenet 2 resonated with Obama as he made his Af-Pak decisions. Tenet 3 of the Obama Doctrine has not been carefully examined by existing literature, but one Af-Pak instance does stand out. Following the Osama bin Laden raid, Obama decided not to release photographs of the gruesome killing, stating in a CBS “60 Minutes” interview: “That’s not who we are…We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.”33 A Star-Ledger article reported: “The graphic photos could create a security risk to Americans if they were used as propaganda by bin Laden supporters to incite violence…‘We don’t need to spike the football,’ Obama said.”34 This was a classic example of Obama’s decision to cite the American people’s core values and national security as a justification for strategic modesty on the world stage. While trumpeting this hard-earned victory against al-Qaeda may have given the American people a greater sense of short-term pride, Obama recognized the broader strategic benefits of following Tenet 3 of his doctrine. Shifting U.S. forces from Iraq to Afghanistan allowed Obama to begin building on the key elements of his doctrine, even if Tenet 1 (multilateral engagement) was not a very important factor in his decision-making process. However, it was not until the 2011 intervention in Libya that the individual tenets came together to form a combined global exhibition of the Obama Doctrine.
The Three Tenets & Af-Pak Tenet 1 (strong multilateral engagement) Evidence -Obama did not make any extraordinary overtures for multilateral engagement -In fact, the Osama raid was a blatant counterexample to multilateral engagement -Administration talking points have not emphasized multilateral engagement as a priority in this case Tenet 2 (limited, calculated use of military force for national security or humanitarian objectives) -Obama defined a clear national security objective (defeating al-Qaeda) -Transferring military resources from Iraq to Af-Pak was a calculated move -Obama has used intelligent strategies (e.g. drone strikes and special ops raids) in order to make the most of limited resources -Obama hopes to keep the mission limited by initiating a phased withdrawal Tenet 3 (strategic modesty) -Not much evidence in the literature, but one Af-Pak instance stands out -Obama did not release the photos of Osama’s killing (“We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies”) -Obama cited America’s core values and national security as his justification for not releasing the photos; his vision of these core values was marked with overtones of strategic modesty
Libya The 2011 crisis in Libya began in February with mass protests against the regime of the brutal dictator, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. This soon led to widespread rebellion and the formation of an anti-Gaddafi National Transitional Council. As the Gaddafi-loyalist forces and the rebels clashed, the country erupted into a violent civil war. With Gaddafi threatening to mass-murder the citizens of his country, “American and European forces began a broad campaign of strikes against the government…unleashing warplanes and missiles in a military intervention not seen in the Arab world since the Iraq war.”35 Following Barack Obama’s decision to participate in the NATO-shepherded air strikes, Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker wrote: “Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine.”36 Since then, a multitude of journalistic commentaries have sprung up to connect Libya to the Obama Doctrine. Here, prior to conducting an analysis of the Doctrine, one must first seek to understand the core similarities and differences between Libya and the other case studies presented in this paper. The Libyan intervention was vastly different from the Iraq and Af-Pak cases in the sense that it was not perceived as an American “invasion.” Rather, it was an international initiative that sought to assist the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring – a homegrown movement of the Middle East and North Africa. Despite this core distinction, though, it is imperative to analyze Libya among the other Obama Doctrine case studies. After all, in addition to Iraq and Af-Pak, Libya is Obama’s one other major military intervention. Furthermore, it is one that Obama himself – rather than a predecessor – conceived and initiated. To clearly comprehend whether the Obama Doctrine was applied to the Libyan intervention, one must begin again with Tenet 1, which calls for multilateral engagement. Prior to conducting any air strikes, Obama ensured that the resolution for NATO intervention had 10 – 0 support in the United Nations Security Council, as well as the “political backing of the Arab League and material support from the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Qatar.”37 Announcing the multilateral attack, Obama said: “Today we are part of a broad coalition. We are answering the calls of a threatened people. And we are acting in the interests of the United States and the world.”38 In October 2011, after months of progress by the NATO coalition, Gaddafi was captured and killed by Libyan rebels, and the revolutionary movement prepared to form a new government. Scott Horsley, a White House correspondent for NPR, commented: “The sevenmonth military campaign that toppled the Libyan leader…marks a high point for the kind of international cooperation that Obama has championed.”39 Ben Rhodes, Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser, said: “…we see a great deal of legitimacy for our actions when we work internationally with other partners and allies.”40 But beyond Tenet 1, did Obama apply his doctrine and find a limited, calculated use for military force? Obama himself attempted to answer that question in October: “Without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives, and our NATO mission will soon come to an end.”41 Michael Williams wrote on Libya: “The Obama Doctrine is based upon the very pragmatic concept that the United States should defend primary and secondary interests when it can… He [Obama] will not intervene anywhere and everywhere, but he will act when he feels the situation requires it and the judicious use of American resources can achieve a limited set of goals.”42 By quickly accomplishing the short-term humanitarian objective (saving innocent Libyans from Gaddafi’s forces) with no troops on the ground, Obama skillfully applied Tenet 2 of his doctrine. Now, as the NATO mission concludes, European allies and the newly-minted Libyan government will share the bulk of responsibility for rebuilding the nation. Anna Fifeld and Geoff Dyer of the Financial Times referred to Obama’s treatment of the Libyan crisis and summarized Tenet 2 beautifully: “…something that might one day be called the “Obama doctrine” is taking shape: a new form of high-tech, low-budget and politically astute intervention, one that maximises America’s influence while minimising the costs.”43 Tenet 3, however, may have been the most important – and interesting – doctrinal component in Obama’s Libya decision. When the war began, one of the President’s advisors described Obama’s actions as “leading from behind.”44 When this phrase was initially revealed by the media, it caused an uproarious brouhaha across America, but Ryan Lizza accurately linked that phrase to Obama’s promotion of Tenet 3 (strategic modesty in America’s global leadership). He wrote in The New Yorker: “It’s a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world. Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength.”45 David Remnick, also of The New Yorker, later echoed those thoughts: “In the case of Libya, Obama led from a place of no glory…Yet a calculated modesty can augment a nation’s true influence. Obama would not be the first statesman to realize that it can be easier to win if you don’t need to trumpet your victory.”46 Obama recognized that the application of Tenet 3 would allow for European allies to step up and become leaders in their own right. As David Rothkopf accurately summarized: “‘Leading from behind’ is an important element of this doctrine. It is no insult to lead but let others feel they too are architects of a plan, to lead without making others feel you are bullying, to lead but do so in a way in which risks and other burdens are shared. Libya is a test case for this approach.”47 The Libyan case study, then, constitutes a fluid amalgamation of all three tenets of the Obama Doctrine: strong multilateral engagement; limited, calculated use of military force for a humanitarian objective; and strategic modesty in America’s global leadership.
The Three Tenets & Libya Tenet 1 (strong multilateral engagement) Evidence -The U.S. conducted the mission as one component within a NATO/European framework -Obama ensured 10 – 0 UNSC support, as well as political backing and material support from the Arab League -Administration rhetoric clearly emphasized multilateral engagement Tenet 2 (limited, calculated use of military force for national security or humanitarian objectives) -Obama defined a short-term humanitarian objective (helping the Libyan rebels fend off Gaddafi’s forces) -Air strikes only: no U.S. military personnel on the ground -Low-cost engagement with quick success, followed by a transfer of responsibilities to Libya and Europe Tenet 3 (strategic modesty) -“Leading from behind” (Obama encouraged Europe to step up in the coalition) -Obama did not trumpet the outcome as an American victory
Discussion & Conclusion
Synthesizing the Findings
Reflecting on a synthesis of Iraq, Af-Pak, and Libya, it is obvious that Obama did not apply all three doctrinal tenets in every case study. The hypothesis of this paper, then, was not wholly accurate. However, Obama did apply Tenet 2 to all three major foreign policy decisions, which suggests that it may be the most important principle of the Doctrine. This would seem logical. Now more than ever, the American commander-in-chief must carefully weigh the risks of military conflict in order to preserve the United States’ political and fiscal power in this era of waning influence. In just the first decade of the 21st century, the United States became mired in two extensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the national debt exploded beyond the $14 trillion mark48; and the country was forced to confront the emergence of other global powers, including China, India, and Brazil. Based on that history, it is reasonable to suggest that the Obama Doctrine’s primary aim is to define pressing national security or humanitarian objectives that can be achieved with limited, calculated military force. This emphasis on Tenet 2 allows for the U.S. to limit its burdens while accomplishing its most crucial international goals. Where possible, Obama also seemed to couple his application of Tenet 2 with multilateral engagement and strategic modesty. This gives rise to the idea that there may be an evolution in Obama’s application of the Doctrine from Iraq to Af-Pak to Libya. In the Bush Administration’s treatment of the Iraq war, Obama found a lack of international support, an overextended military (in the place of a clear national security objective), and perhaps even a certain unilateral arrogance. These characteristics were antithetical to his doctrine, leading him to harshly criticize the Iraq war during his 2008 campaign. Eventually, after taking office, Obama was finally able to withdraw forces from the war. This was the first action that highlighted his doctrinal principles. By defining the defeat of al-Qaeda as a crucial focus for America, Obama then zeroed in on the Af-Pak region with a limited, calculated mission. Tenet 2 was the most serious consideration, and given the nature of confidential intelligence operations and secret raids, multilateral engagement may not have been as important in this case. Libya – the first and only war that Obama helped conceive – gave him the opportunity to deliberate for several weeks while he orchestrated support for each of the doctrinal tenets. The literature that this paper examined unanimously agreed that Libya was the Obama Doctrine’s true testing ground. While it is possible that the Libyan intervention was simply an isolated incident, it seems more likely that it was an evolutionary product of the doctrinal lessons that Obama learned from Iraq and Af-Pak. Carl M. Cannon of RealClearPolitics emphasized that “he [Obama] didn’t have to” contrast the record in Libya with that of the other wars, largely because those lessons were so chronologically obvious.49 Obama’s insistence on multilateral engagement, limited military force, and strategic modesty in the aftermath of the intervention could not have come out of thin air. Rather, they had to have originated as a result of Obama’s former actions (i.e. Iraq, Af-Pak) as commander-in-chief. However, this paper cannot conclusively state that Libya was more than an isolated incident until researchers can observe the future evolution of the Obama Doctrine. Though the President did follow all three tenets in the United States’ most recent war, one cannot be certain of the Doctrine’s applications until Obama takes further action as commander-in-chief. Analyzing the Doctrine through the lens of Obama’s role as “commander-in-chief” is actually quite important. Based on this caveat, for future research, this paper would recommend framing any hypothesis in the context of military interventions.
The Early Origins of the Obama Doctrine Another important question may arise as a result of these findings. What were the origins of the Obama Doctrine prior to the Iraqi case study? Pinpointing those early origins of the Doctrine is largely beyond the scope of this paper, but a brief treatment could be useful in spurring further research. It is quite possible that Obama formed his doctrine over time, initially reacting to the American foreign policies that he experienced during his formative years. Some of these early experiences, such as Reagan-era policies or the United States’ alliance with Indonesian President Suharto, were briefly described in The Audacity of Hope and Obama’s personal memoir, Dreams from My Father. (However, this research project did not conduct an in-depth analysis on how those policies may have influenced the formation of the Doctrine). Later, President George W. Bush’s doctrine of unilateralism, anticipatory attack, and large-scale preventive war organically led Obama to form his own principles in response to the 24 Iraq war. From that point on, the evolution of the Obama Doctrine has already been described in this paper.
Other Inferences Beyond the three case studies, the early origins, and the evolution of the Obama Doctrine, the current research may allow for another inference or two. One important inference is rooted in the question of where the Obama Doctrine belongs on the spectrum of classical international relations theories. Is Obama an idealist? Some analysts might point to his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech – in which he stated “let us reach for the world that ought to be”50 – and claim that his thought leadership is innately idealistic. However, others believe that Obama views the world as it is: a harsh international relations landscape where nations jostle for rank and power. For example, Peter Baker of The New York Times once wrote that “if there is an Obama doctrine emerging, it is one [that is] much more realpolitik than his predecessor’s.”51 Perhaps both perspectives are partially true. Obama advisor Ben Rhodes said in October 2011: “I think you see idealism and realism come together in Libya. We acted on our highest ideals in preventing a humanitarian catastrophe. But we also acted realistically. We didn’t overextend ourselves. We took the time to build a coalition so that others were sharing the burden. And in that way we were able to protect our interests and our ideals.”52 This paper infers that Obama begins from an ideal worldview and then aims to satisfy the three doctrinal tenets. The tenets themselves are probably a combination of idealism and realism, given that they have the potential to endorse humanitarian missions in the same breath as calculated national security objectives. Most importantly, though, Obama is always pragmatic about the application of his doctrine. Where applying the Doctrine is possible based on the realistic circumstances of the situation, Obama makes the effort. The Libyan case justifies this inference: because he presided over the intervention even prior to its commencement, he was able to account for all of the doctrinal tenets. However, where such an application may not be possible because of conflicting goals, Obama prioritizes national security and realist objectives. That may explain why Obama was willing to forgo Tenet 1, multilateral engagement, in his major Af-Pak decisions. In March 2011, The Independent published a piece stating: “This US president is a pragmatist – he will act when he believes it is in the national interest to do so.”53 In a CNN interview, Fareed Zakaria stated succinctly: “I think Obama is somebody who is a realist-idealist. He tries to balance idealism with the realities in the world. He…believes you have to be pragmatic.”54 Perhaps what is especially unique about this sense of pragmatism is that it could potentially be characterized as an approach of “triangulation,” much like President Bill Clinton’s vision of domestic politics. This would imply that the Obama Doctrine cannot be pigeonholed into any particular position on the classical international relations spectrum; rather, it draws ideas from both ends of the spectrum in order to carve out its own niche. The diagram below offers a visualization of this concept:
The Classical International Relations Spectrum
Triangulation creates a centrist point that is above any traditional paradigm. In this case, the strategy draws upon a vision of a more perfect humanity, as well as an astute sense of power political realities; this makes it difficult to place the Doctrine anywhere on the spectrum itself.
The combination of the three tenets in the Obama Doctrine is an innovation in American foreign policy, and it may well represent a departure from the Bush Doctrine policies that were evident in the Iraq war. By shifting America’s focus from Iraq to a limited national security objective in Af-Pak, Obama accorded respect to his doctrine. Then, drawing on the development of the Doctrine in Iraq and Af-Pak, Obama envisioned and executed the ideal application of all three tenets in Libya. This potential evolution suggests that pragmatism complements multilateral engagement; limited, calculated use of military force for national security or humanitarian objectives; and strategic modesty in America’s global leadership. Indeed, it is this pragmatism that makes the Obama Doctrine truly unique. It allows for the President to be nondogmatic even as he follows his fresh approach to foreign policy. At this point, beyond the previous applications of the Doctrine, what are the future implications of Obama’s worldview? Obviously, much of this remains to be seen in the years to come. But if the short-term success of America’s mission in Libya proved anything, it is that the United States can, indeed, form legitimate international partnerships in order to achieve its foreign policy goals without overextending itself. As the U.S. slowly adjusts to the stark realities (e.g. “the rise of the rest”) of the 21st century, the Obama Doctrine just might serve as a meaningful prescription for repositioning the country in the changing global order. The United States does not have to accept cumbersome foreign burdens, fiscally-draining interventions, and political decline in the coming decades. Instead, with an enduring commitment to focused objectives, shared global responsibility, and humble but real leadership, perhaps the Obama Doctrine can pave the way for the 21st century to remain an American century.
Author’s Prior Knowledge
Since 2004, I have followed Barack Obama’s political career very closely, researching his schedules, speeches, and policy initiatives on a daily basis. I have also volunteered and served as a student leader for the 2008 and 2012 Obama for America presidential campaigns. From October to December 2011, I served as an intern at President Obama’s White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. These experiences helped me cultivate foundational knowledge on President Obama’s worldview prior to writing this paper. However, it is important to note that I have strived to maintain the strongest codes of scholarly integrity (e.g. careful methodology) in order to reduce any impact that my political affiliation could have had on this paper.
Types of Sources News, Blogs, and Journalistic Commentaries: (Note that this category includes numerous scholarly sources, such as the publications of international relations experts Fareed Zakaria and David Rothkopf). The American Prospect, BBC News, CBS News, Chicago Tribune, CNN, The Economic Times, The Economist, Foreign Policy, The Guardian, Houston Chronicle, The Independent, The New Yorker, The New York Times, NPR, RealClearPolitics, StarLedger, The Telegraph, Time, Voice of America, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Washington Times Academic Journals: American Foreign Policy Interests, Foreign Affairs, Journal of Conflict and Security Law Books: Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, Stanley A. Renshon’s National Security in the Obama Administration: Reassessing the Bush Doctrine, Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars Obama Administration: “National Security Strategy;” Presidential Speeches & Remarks (Summit of the Americas Opening Ceremony – 4/17/2009, Cairo University – 6/4/2009, Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance – 12/10/2009, End of Combat Operations in Iraq – 8/31/2010, Libya – 3/28/2011, On the Way Forward in Afghanistan – 6/22/2011, On Ending War in Iraq – 10/21/2011); U.S. Department of State document on the Monroe Doctrine; The White House Blog; The White House Briefing Room (Online)
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