Obama’s Dangerous Doctrine

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Robert G. Kaufman Professor of Public Policy, Pepperdine University
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Judging from his recent lengthy interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, President Obama has learned nothing in the past seven years from the serious, serial failures of his foreign policy. Instead, Obama radiated a preternatural, delusional, and typical self-confidence expounding on the efficacy of his Obama Doctrine, which he has followed faithfully since 2009.

The Obama Doctrine combines the worst features of the  morally obtuse anti-war left, unrealistic realism, and naïve multilateralism. The president views the so-called arrogance of American power as a greater danger than the threats emanating from devils and dictatorships abroad. Likewise, Obama rejects American exceptionalism while routinely apologizing for American sins abroad, which he has exaggerated and often imagined. Like unrealistic realists, Obama  ignores the importance of ideology and regime type in identifying friends, foes, threats and opportunities. This fallacious premise explains why he eagerly engages virulently anti-American adversaries such as Putin in Russia, the militant mullahs of Tehran, the repressive, aggressive leadership in China bent on achieving hegemony rather than stability in the world’s most important geopolitical region, and Castro’s totalitarian tyranny in Cuba.   

This accounts for the President’s unwillingness to admit that the danger of Islamism, choosing to conciliate rather than confront it. Obama’s persistent unwillingness to distinguish democratic friends from rogue regimes that are foes accounts for his default inclination initially to deem the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt a legitimate partner for peace rather than a mortal enemy of Israel implacably hostile to America’s legitimate interests.

The fallacy of moral equivalence between freedom and tyranny accounts for the president striving assiduously to put distance between the United States and decent democratic allies such as Israel, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. Also, his ill-advised decision to return the bust of Winston Churchill to Great Britain while denying the existence of an Anglo-American special relationship. Finally, Obama’s congenital obtuseness to democracy’s virtues and dictatorship’s vices accounts for his derelict  disinterest in nurturing the strategic partnership that President George W. Bush initiated presciently with a decent, democratic India sharing U.S. interests in defeating radical Islam and ensuring China faces a robust deterrent to its imperial ambitions.   

Like other naïve multilateralist, President Obama champions  international institutions such as the United Nations — organically inclined to gridlock — serving increasingly as the arbiters of when and how the United States should use force abroad. Essentially, that would make  strong and effective American military action hostage to the French, Russians, and Chinese, who wield a veto on the UN Security council.    

The Obama Doctrine dubiously envisages as inevitable and desirable America’s decline from preeminence to becoming just one of several great powers.   His unremitting assault on the defense budget illustrates in high relief his fervent embrace of declinism. If President Obama has his way, the United States Navy will soon shrink to pre-world War I levels, the Army to pre-World War II levels, and the defense budget to under 3 percent of the GDP — a figure less than what the U.S. spent in 1940 woefully unprepared for the perils to come. Nor does the Obama Doctrine consider it worthwhile to research, develop and deploy an effective missile defense even as Russia, China, and Iran increase their military capabilities prodigiously, including their ballistic missile forces.   

Ultimately, President Obama has  repudiated the grand tradition of muscular internationalism regnant in American foreign policy since World War II, especially the most successful versions — the moral democratic realism emblematic of Presidents Truman and Reagan. The Obama Doctrine commits the cardinal error of audaciously ignoring the lessons of history. Typically, the greatest threats arise when adversaries such as Iran, China, Russia, and ISIS perceive the United States as disengaged internationally and unprepared militarily.

After World War I, American withdrawal did not make the world safe for democracy but for Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism. After World War II, the United States did not make the same mistake. American power proved indispensable for winning the Cold War and extending the democratic zone of peace. Stephen C. Brooks, G. John Ikenberry, and William C. Wolforth encapsulate nicely the benefits arising from the United States remaining militarily preeminent and deeply engaged in the world. It helps prevent the outbreak of conflict in the world’s most important regions, keeps the global economy humming, and makes international cooperation easier. Neither President Obama nor a favorably disposed Goldberg understand that the Obama Doctrine risks casting all this away, imperiling both American ideals and self-interest, rightly understood.

The Obama Doctrine exalts restraint at the expense of vigilance, defines America’s interests too narrowly, impedes the resurgence of American power by making a hardly inevitable American decline a self-fulfilling prophecy, and relies excessively on American soft power rather than hard power that the President’s massive defense cuts have diminished. Since 2009, the United States and our democratic allies have experienced only a foretaste of much worse to come unless we summon the wisdom and the will  to reverse the perilous gravitational pull the Obama Doctrine has established. Witness the descent of the Middle East into Hobbesian violence and chaos. Witness the the increasingly brazen defiance of Putin in Ukraine and Syria. Witness the increasingly belligerent behavior of China in the Pacific, terrifying America’s democratic allies in the region and even some of our traditional enemies such as Communist Vietnam.   

Aristotle held prudence — practical wisdom — as the paramount virtue of a statesman. Prudence entails choosing the right ends and the right means to achieve them. The Obama Doctrine has failed on both counts. The reckoning is near.