On May 28, President Obama delivered an address to the graduates of the US Military Academy at West Point. His speech focused heavily on the Administration’s approach to foreign affairs for what remained of the his second term in office. The speech featured about as much of the minimally subtle sabre-rattling chest-beating bravado and lofty appraisals of the United States’ capacity and intention to lead the international community as one would reasonably expect from any modern Commander in Chief. However, these remarks also featured an unmistakably subdued tone, a palpable air of cynicism that betrayed the President’s meagre appetite for risky foreign meddling of any sort. Tempting fate is clearly not on Obama’s second term agenda.
The West Point speech marked a significant moment in the Administration’s attempts to translate an increasingly calculated approach and progressively less ambitious worldview into a cohesive foreign policy that will be remembered as the definitive Obama Doctrine. It has become a surprisingly difficult challenge for a President who ascended to the White House on promises to improve the way the United States leads on the international scene and make necessary reforms to combat the rapid decline of the nation’s image in the eyes of the world’s population. In this respect, Obama’s presidency began on a much more confident note, with the Commander in Chief appear to rise to the challenge of maintaining the country’s position of leadership role while modifying the character of its guidance. This was perceived by many as being a return to the triumphant and conscientious American leadership of the golden past. In his acceptance speech for the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, Obama laid the framework for America’s active role in combating evil as global defender of the righteous:
We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.
These remarks were certainly made by a very different President, one displaying very few qualms with the mobilization of the United States’ overwhelming military might in noble leadership of the international community against threats to global order and well-being. While Obama has certainly not shied away from his firm commitment American exceptionalism, explaining in his West Point remarks that it is something that he believes in “with every fiber of [his] being”, he has made a visible departure from the ambitious and moralizing rhetoric that was a trademark of his early Presidency.
Instead of playing the traditional role of advocate for active and benevolent intervention, he has embarked upon what amounts to a grand campaign of damage control, an effort that has helped to shape the attitude of the government in facing contemporary conflicts, most notably Iraq and Syria. Indeed, the most poignant statement to come from the President’s speech at West Point addressed the need to avoid relying on the military as the nation’s primary problem solving tool:
Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.
The difference in tone between these two quotations is dramatic. In lieu of the lofty ideals of “hope” and “change” that propelled Obama to the White House in 2008, it’s becoming increasingly likely that the Obama Doctrine referred to by future generations will have taken on a much less glamorous character.
Obama used the West Point speech as an opportunity to convince the world of the merits underpinning what will likely come to define the foreign policy outlook of his Presidency to future generations. While the White House defines his doctrine as being “both interventionist and internationalist, but not isolationist or unilateral“, the President himself has a far more forthright way of describing his outlook. According to the media, the President himself has coined (and repeatedly employed) the phrase “Don’t do stupid s—” (DDSS) to describe his current approach to the international policy. Spurred on by a particularly adversarial media climate, the cynical tone reflected by the Chief Executive’s willingness to describe his foreign policy outlook in such bleak and candid terms betrays a growing level of frustration and cynicism in the White House.
However, it would be incorrect to consider this as an abrupt about-face in policy. Instead, it should be viewed as an organic transformation in the President’s approach. The current reticence is consistent with many of the President’s recent declarations about wielding American hard power internationally. Take, for example, Obama’s speech in September of 2013, when he explained to the UN General Assembly his desire to shift the United States “away from a perpetual war footing”. Included in the same remarks were appeals for increased levels of multilateral international involvement in Israel and Palestine as well as a remarkably conciliatory overture to the Iranian administration for increased cooperation, instead of submission, breaking with the traditional demanded from leaders in Washington.
These are marked departures from traditional foreign policy dogma and, contrary to his exceptionalist rhetoric, signal the President’s willingness to see the United States adopt a much more modest role in the international order. The humble character of DDSS doctrine is symptomatic of the difficulties inherent in this Administration’s attempt to reconcile the traditional American position as global arbiter, defender of freedom, and promoter of democracy with the groundswell of public opinion in favor of a more restrained role in global affairs. In many ways this is easily understandable when considering Obama as a President tasked with bridging the gap between generations in an atmosphere of unprecedented political polarization.
At the moment, both extremes of the domestic political spectrum (save for the Tea Party, as seen above) are pushing for dramatically reduced foreign involvement while “establishment” Democrats and Republicans continue to criticize the White House for its reticence in Iraq and Syria. The isolationist camp is primarily composed of small-government (“Independent”) conservatives, who primarily view interventionism as something that the United States can’t current currently afford, and young progressive idealists who oppose intervention on anti-imperial moral grounds. Mainstream Republicans and a significant portion of Democratic leadership, as we will discuss in a moment, still believe in the importance of America’s moral imperative and the maintenance of national security through preventative action.
It’s interesting that the Middle East, a traditional proving ground for imperial ambition, has functioned as a catalyst for the President’s new doctrine of restraint, increased multilateralism, and reliance on the developing world to establish its own security apparatuses. Pundits, however, like the National Journal’s Kaveh Waddell, were quick to point out how ill-suited the DDSS approach is to contemporary conflict. While Waddell bases his judgement (and title of his piece: “Iraq Is a Terrible First Test for Obama’s New Foreign Policy”) on more situational tactical and military factors, such as the combat ineffectiveness of the Iraqi military, there are multiple reasons why Iraq is in fact a very appropriate “first test” for the application Obama Doctrine.
The current situation in Iraq and Syria is an almost perfect representation of the sort of ambiguous and volatile conflict zone that the United States is likely to face in the 21st century. The commitment of armed forces carries with it a huge political risk and virtually no assurance that the conflict won’t become a protracted affair. Unreliable regional actors are subject to sudden disappearance alliances and shifting alliances carry the risk of a sudden inversion of the tactical situation. Even a comprehensive tactical success would bring almost no tangible reward in terms of spoils, political capital. or any sort of goodwill, and would certainly not guarantee a cooperative future regime.
It is for precisely these reasons that Obama’s revised conception of America’s role, as defined by the DDSS doctrine, is a much more appropriate fit for the current situation than the cavalier moral crusades favored by the previous administration. It demonstrates the President’s willingness to confront the challenge of finding a happy medium between War-on-Terror inspired neo-imperial adventurism and the irresponsible and callous inaction that has allowed for events such as the Rwandan genocide of the 90s. The recent remarks made by the President during his weekly address on August 9 illustrate this policy-in-motion and prove that it is possible to reach a calculated plan of action that takes into account both America’s assumed moral imperative and its predilection for reckless military interventionism:
The United States cannot and should not intervene every time there’s a crisis in the world. But when there’s a situation like the one on this mountain—when countless innocent people are facing a massacre, and when we have the ability to help prevent it—the United States can’t just look away. That’s not who we are. We’re Americans. We act. We lead. And that’s what we’re going to do on that mountain. As one American who wrote to me yesterday said, “it is the right thing to do”.
While the Administration can be rightly criticised for not acting swiftly to prevent the escalation of the conflict in Syria or the spread of ISIL throughout the region, its hesitance is not a direct result of DDSS policy. The situation was and is extremely delicate. Backing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki may very well have been a poor decision and the lack of support to moderate resistance groups in Syria almost certainly was. However, the lack of Executive action can not be attributed to a policy that is, at its core, “both interventionist and internationalist”. If anything, the failure of the United States (and the West, more broadly) to act effectively and judiciously in Iraq is a failure to apply the principles of DDSS. On the whole, this new blend of international interventionism and cautious multilateralism being pioneered by the current administration is a sure step in the right direction for the United States.
While prudence and multilateralism is often far less political appetizing to American audiences (or, at least, offers up no shortage of ammunition for one’s political opponents) in the short run, it inevitably becomes far more appealing in the longer term and even more so when viewed in retrospect. Unfortunately, the partisan dynamics of the American political scene have completely disincentivized the pursuit of the rational yet unspectacular within the executive branch.
This is especially acute during important periods of the election cycle, as we are approaching now. It comes as no surprise, then, that rather inevitable Democratic presidential nominee. Hillary Clinton. has roundly criticized the concept of DDSS doctrine as a display of weakness in leadership. Couched in a rather more valid and substantial criticism of the administration’s lack of support for moderate Syrian rebel forces (which she tenuously attributes to the rise of the Islamic State), Clinton dismissed the notion of DDSS by saying that “great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle“.
Now, this may simply be a superficial appraisal of the phrase in question, or an attempt to distance herself from an unpopular Democratic incumbent, but it’s equally likely that her comment was made in light of her opposition to a reduced American role in the international community. Clinton believes “that America needs a leader who believes that the country, despite its various missteps, is an indispensable force for good”, a conviction that likely reveals her membership in the Democratic party of a bygone era. Another example is Clinton’s staunch support for Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which runs contrary to the rapidly diminishing levels of unconditional support for Israeli among young Americans. Nearly a decade and a half older than President Obama, who based his campaign heavily around his appeal to younger Americans, Hillary Clinton likely faces a stiff challenge in convincing young voters of the necessity of America’s role as global policeman (though persuading the general population may prove less difficult).
The response of the Obama administration and its allies to Clinton’s criticism was quite sharp, though it seems that no lasting damage was dealt. Still, it seems as though Clinton’s foreign policy, as seen by Millennial voters, leaves a lot to be desired and it’s no secret that the gulf between the opinions of American voters and establishment politicians is only widening. As the generation of young people who were raised during the expensive and unproductive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan become young voters, the number of ardent moral crusaders like Clinton will only diminish. While Democratic Party heavyweight centrist Hillary Clinton can certainly continue to promote staggeringly hawkish foreign policy, it is in her best interest to adopt a position that builds upon the trail blazed by President Obama towards a smarter and more nuanced future of American policy-making.