Let’s first get through the list of problems with the “Obama Doctrine” laid out in Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview, where I would echo many of the criticisms being made of him by others in the foreign policy establishment.
First, while it’s true that there is a “cult of credibility” in Washington which is often overemphasized, credibility nonetheless remains a valuable commodity which President Obama squandered in his red-line drawing in Syria. It was foolish for him to announce that “Assad must go” and not do anything to make this happen in the early days, and to stick to that as a condition for later negotiations.
Second, it is wrong to palm off the blame for the Libya fiasco on Britain and France. Yes, of course, they should have done more, but the United States was complicit in neglecting that country after the fall of Qaddafi as well. It would have been more honest for Obama to argue for not intervening in the first place, given the general inability of either the United States or its allies to create viable states in the wake of toppled authoritarian leaders. Having participated in the action, however, we had an obligation to follow through. He made the same mistake in Libya that Bush made in Iraq.
Third, Obama comes close to conceding a sphere of influence for Russia in Ukraine and the territories of the former Soviet Union. It is true that we could not defend Ukraine from Russia, which is why I always opposed Ukrainian membership in NATO. But the independence and success of a democratic Ukraine is very important, and we could have done much more to support them. This includes military assistance, granting that this is not the real answer to Ukraine’s problems.
Fourth, withdrawing from Afghanistan is not a big achievement. It is very important for the President to make clear that we will retain a viable force presence there for the indefinite future, and to end the fiction that we are still disengaging.
All of that being said, the President made a number of important points with which I completely agree.
First, he is right that the Islamic State and terrorism more generally do not constitute an existential threat to the United States. Indeed, the big problem with terrorism always lies in our tendency to overreact to it, either by doing things like invading Middle Eastern countries or giving domestic agencies too much surveillance authority. The problem is that it is politically impossible to convince the American people of this; Obama’s failure has been in his inability to emote effectively in the wake of attacks.
Second, his relatively even-handed approach to the spreading Sunni-Shi‘a civil war and the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is also correct. We have no intrinsic interest in this struggle; we can only hope to contain it. The Saudis, the other Gulf States, and Israel have been trying to drag us into the Sunni side of this conflict, and Obama is right to want to stay out. Even so, they have managed to pull us into their foolish intervention in Yemen. What we need to do is to contain this civil war as best we can, and play the role of offshore balancer.
Third, Obama is right that, in the long run, Asia has been relatively neglected as a result of our entanglements in the Middle East. China is the most important long-term threat that the United States faces. Unlike the Islamic State, China is a big, rich, and well-organized state that has clear hegemonic intentions in East Asia, and it has been moving in a more nationalistic direction since 2008.
Obama’s problem is that he sees primarily the upside of all those young entrepreneurs in Kuala Lumpur, and not the real and immediate dangers that China poses to Malaysia and many of its neighbors. He has not followed through on the rebalance or moved toward the sorts of investments in air and naval capacities that would make balancing a reality. He should have been more confrontational in the South China Sea.
Finally, the opening to Cuba was a very good thing that will help underpin American influence in the Western hemisphere and promote liberalization of the island down the road. The embargo should really have been lifted decades ago, but better late than never.
I think that Obama’s critics in the foreign policy establishment need to calm down and take a deep breath. The premise that we could have avoided the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis if only we had acted strongly back in 2011 is a counterfactual that may or may not be true. Certainly nothing in our record of recent intervention in the Middle East suggests that we would have been particularly skillful at or capable of keeping a lid on the conflict or steering it to an acceptable conclusion. Like it or not, Obama is in touch with an American electorate that is very skeptical about the wisdom of heavy involvement in that region, following on two messy wars which failed to stabilize the region. In any event, he will soon be history, and the next President will be able to correct his correction of the Bush Administration’s deeply disastrous policies.