In Defense of The “Obama Doctrine”:
A Sober Reappraisal of the Limits of American Power
by John R. Murnane
In a series of interviews with Jefferey Goldberg in the April 2016 Atlantic, President Barack Obama provided a much-needed and sober reappraisal of the limits of American power and a realistic view of U.S. foreign policy based on a careful assessment of priorities, or what Goldberg calls the “Obama Doctrine.” The heart of the president’s approach is the rejection of the “Washington Playbook.” Obama told Goldberg, “there’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses.”1 According to the Playbook, military power and the “creditability” it provides is the principle instrument of American foreign policy; it has been accepted wisdom at think tanks and among foreign policy experts since the end of World War II; Obama has challenged this dictum.
The president’s refusal to bomb Syria after the Bashar al-Assad regime used chemical weapons on civilians was a clear violation of the “Washington Playbook.” Initially, the president seemed to be playing by the rules. Using a very familiar vocabulary, he had warned Syria that the use of chemical weapons would be crossing a “red line,” a move that would almost certainly invite U.S. retaliation. When Assad crossed the line by firing sarin-filled rockets on the rebel-controlled town of Ghouta in August, 2013, the president’s secretary of state, John Kerry, made a dramatic speech calling for military action. Within days of Kerry’s speech, the president geared up for airstrikes. But, at the last second, he pulled back and decided to look for other options. Before authorizing the use of military force in response to Assad’s chemical attacks, the president first asked Congress to weigh in (congressional leaders overwhelmingly rejected military action as did most of the American public).2 As the debate raged on Capitol Hill, the Obama administration entered into a round of negotiations with the Russian and Syrian governments to allow the U.N.’s Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to inspect, remove and dismantle Syria’s vast chemical weapons program. The “Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons” was ratified by the U.N. Security Council on September 14, 2013, and, over the course of the next year, U.N. weapons experts destroyed 600 metric tons of chemicals used to make sarin, mustard gas, and other blister agents. The Syrian chemical weapons program was removed without firing a shot (the timing was very fortunate; much of Syrian territory that was later overrun by ISIS contained chemical weapons stockpiles and facilities prior to the U.N.’s work to eliminate them).3
Before the ink could dry on the U.N. resolution, however, critics attacked the President. The day the U.N. ratified the framework, Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker, ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said “absent the threat of force, it’s unclear to me how Syrian compliance will be possible under the terms of any agreement.” Three days later, Senators John McCain (R-AZ) made a similar statement: “I wish I could see the recent agreement between Russia and the United States to rid the Assad regime of its chemical weapons as a major breakthrough.” During remarks at the quintessential foreign-policy think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., he went further: “Let’s recall that this Russian initiative first arose as both houses of Congress appeared ready to reject the President’s proposed military strikes in Syria, which called into question how credible that threat of force really was. So it is hard to maintain that the Administration entered into this agreement from a position of strength. No one trusts Assad’s sincerity. And there is little reason to have more faith in Russia, especially when President Putin himself still insists that the Syrian opposition was responsible for the August 21 attack. This is why enforcement is so critical. Unfortunately, the Administration’s claim that the threat of force remains on the table rings somewhat hollow in light of the events of the past few weeks.” Others characterized Obama’s handling of the Syrian situation as a “debacle,” the president’s “worst blunder.” Gideon Rose, the editor of Foreign Affairs said “first casually announcing a major commitment, then dithering about living up to it, then frantically tossing the ball to Congress for a decision—was a case study in embarrassingly amateurish improvisation.” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, called it “the most undisciplined stretch of foreign policy of his presidency.”4
What Was the President Thinking?
During Obama’s interview with Jefferey Goldberg, the president said “I’m very proud of this moment. The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus had gone fairly far. The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake. And so for me to press the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically. And the fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I’ve made—and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.”5 Throughout the Atlantic article, the president tried to put the Syrian situation—and his overall approach to the Middle East–into a larger context. There are two major themes that run through the president’s thinking.
First, is to avoid being drawn into protracted wars like in Iraq and Afghanistan, taking careful note of the disastrous policies of the previous George W. Bush administration, policies characterized by a go-it-alone, militarily-heavy unilateralism. As such, Obama has worked with allies and the U.N. to address a range of problems in the region—from Syria’s chemical weapons program, to confronting The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), from civil wars in Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen to halting Iran’s nuclear program (here too, the president scored an unexpected diplomatic breakthrough, signing “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” a nuclear agreement signed in Vienna on July 14, 2015 between Iran and a group of nations called the P5+1–the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, plus the European Union. The agreement calls for Iran to cut its uranium enrichment by two-thirds, retire most of its equipment needed to produce nuclear material, export stockpiles of already enriched uranium, the conversion of key nuclear facilities to research purposes, and allow for oversight inspections by the U.N. In return, economic sanctions will be lifted on Iran—with the exception of arms shipments). In other words, diplomacy (whether applied to Syria, Iran, or the many other problems in the Middle East) is the first line of defense against the kind of all-consuming military commitments the United States has taken on since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon. As Obama explained, “a president does not make decisions in a vacuum. He does not have a blank slate. Any president who was thoughtful, I believe, would recognize that after over a decade of war, with obligations that are still to this day requiring great amounts of resources and attention in Afghanistan, with the experience of Iraq, with the strains that it’s placed on our military—any thoughtful president would hesitate about making a renewed commitment in the exact same region of the world with some of the exact same dynamics and the same probability of an unsatisfactory outcome.”6
A second strand is the president’s sense of priorities. Obama explained that “the world is a tough, complicated, messy, mean place, and full of hardship and tragedy. And in order to advance both our security interests and those ideals and values that we care about, we’ve got to be hardheaded at the same time as we’re bighearted, and pick and choose our spots, and recognize that there are going to be times where the best that we can do is to shine a spotlight on something that’s terrible, but not believe that we can automatically solve it. There are going to be times where our security interests conflict with our concerns about human rights. There are going to be times where we can do something about innocent people being killed, but there are going to be times where we can’t.”7 As part of this hardheaded assessment of U.S. interests, the president places global warming and U.S. relations with China and at the top of the list: “As I survey the next 20 years, climate change worries me profoundly because of the effects that it has on all the other problems that we face. If you start seeing more severe drought; more significant famine; more displacement from the Indian subcontinent and coastal regions in Africa and Asia; the continuing problems of scarcity, refugees, poverty, disease—this makes every other problem we’ve got worse. That’s above and beyond just the existential issues of a planet that starts getting into a bad feedback loop.” On China, he told Goldberg “in terms of traditional great-state relations, I do believe that the relationship between the United States and China is going to be the most critical. If we get that right and China continues on a peaceful rise, then we have a partner that is growing in capability and sharing with us the burdens and responsibilities of maintaining an international order. If China fails; if it is not able to maintain a trajectory that satisfies its population and has to resort to nationalism as an organizing principle; if it feels so overwhelmed that it never takes on the responsibilities of a country its size in maintaining the international order; if it views the world only in terms of regional spheres of influence—then not only do we see the potential for conflict with China, but we will find ourselves having more difficulty dealing with these other challenges that are going to come.”8
Derek Chollet, a former special adviser to Obama and U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, calls Obama’s approach the “long game.” His recent book The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World provides a rigorous insider’s defense of the Obama Doctrine and the president’s approach to foreign policy. Chollet claims that “the defining element of Obama’s grand strategy is that it reflects the totality of American interests—foreign and domestic—to protect global leadership in an era of seemingly infinite demands and finite resources.”9 Foreign-policy traditionalist like John McCain take a much narrower view, rating the Middle East higher on the list of priorities as well as relying on military strength first and foremost. Ben Rhodes, the president’s chief spokesperson on foreign policy matters, summed it up: “The central argument is that by keeping America from immersing itself in the crises of the Middle East, the foreign-policy establishment believes that the president is precipitating our decline. But the president himself takes the opposite view, which is that overextension in the Middle East will ultimately harm our economy, harm our ability to look for other opportunities and to deal with other challenges, and, most important, endanger the lives of American service members for reasons that are not in the direct American national-security interest.”10
Will the Obama Doctrine Go the way of Richard Nixon’s Policy of Détente?
Standing in the White House Rose Garden, President Barack Obama made a plea of support for his deal for limiting the Iranian nuclear program in the summer of 2015:
If Congress kills this deal, not based on expert analysis and without offering any reasonable alternative, then it’s the United States that will be blamed for the failure of diplomacy. International unity will collapse and the path to conflict will widen. The American people understand this, which is why a solid majority support a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue. The words of President Kennedy said let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate. The American people remember that at the height of the Cold War, presidents like Nixon and Reagan struck historic arms control measures with the Soviet Union, a far more dangerous adversary, despite the fact that that adversary not only threatened to destroy our way of life, but had the means to do so. Our agreements were not perfect. They did not end all threats, but they made our world safer. A good deal with Iran will do the same.11
Obama was right to evoke Cold War presidents in garnering support for his attempt to negotiate in the face of a dangerous situation and under intense pressure from an angry opposition. Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan each went through a similar ordeal. Richard Nixon’s negotiations for arms control with the Soviet Union nearly 50 years ago and in the wake of the disastrous war in Vietnam (not unlike the one launched on Obama’s predecessor’s watch) sparked a debate about the character of U.S. foreign policy similar to the one taking place as the Obama administration comes to an end: a debate between diplomacy versus force, a debate revolving around two different propositions. On the one hand, is the belief that people everywhere have common interests, particularly in the nuclear age, the other is that the world is made up of immutable conflicts that require force to solve them. Nixon stunned the world with his reversal as president (he had made his name as a fervent anti-communist, only to negotiate some of the most dramatic breakthroughs with the Soviet Union and Communist China in history). His two immediate successors (Ford and Carter) tried to follow in Nixon’s footsteps but were overwhelmed by a conservative-led tsunami of protest. Another ardent anti-communist led the attack, Ronald Reagan. After a stunning reversal during the second term of his presidency (1984-1988), however, Reagan concluded arms deals with the Soviet Union that went even further than Nixon’s. The icon of the conservative movement was attacked by members of his own party—using some of the same tactics and tropes used to discredit Obama over Iran (referring to diplomacy as a form of “appeasement,” evoking the specter of Munich where the allies refused to stand up to Adolf Hitler).12
Nixon’s strategy worked. The opening to China induced Soviet cooperation on arms control, while U.S.-Soviet agreements convinced China it had to cooperate with the United States, given the growing hostility between the two communist giants at the time. The Chinese were suspicious of Soviet intentions and both nations massed large armies on their common boarders in Asia, clashing on several occasions. More Soviet troops in Asia, meant fewer troops in Eastern Europe, the cockpit of the Cold War. Such a reallocation of Soviet military power took the pressure off of the United States in the aftermath of Vietnam.
Over the longer term, détente paved the way for the transformation of China after Mao’s death in 1976. Deng Xiaoping—who became the Chinese leader after Mao—established trade relations with the West; the Chinese economy exploded, becoming the fastest growing economy in the world and lifting more people out of poverty than any society in history (1978-present). In the process, the U.S. and Chinese economies have become intertwined. Nixon realized that some type of growth in Chinese power—economic or otherwise—was inevitable given the size of China’s population (the largest population in the world) and its geographic position (in the heart of the Asia-Pacific region, the hub of world trade for millennia).
The SALT I negotiations with the Soviet Union resulted in two major treaties: the ABM treaty (or the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty) and The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty or the Interim Agreement, meant to last for five years while a more comprehensive agreement could be reached (SALT II). The Nixon era agreements locked in a rough nuclear parity between the U.S. and the Soviet Union through a complex set of compromises.13 Aside from the technical nature of the SALT agreements, Nixon’s 1972 visit to Moscow had tremendous psychological impact, shifting the “us” versus “them” paradigm of the Cold War. After Nixon, the idea that the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. could agree on these matters became ingrained. In Finnish historian Jussi Hanhimäki words “détente created an expectation that Soviet and American leaders could, should, and would meet each other on a more or less regular basis to discuss ways of reducing the danger of nuclear war and developing other formal links.”14
In short, the Obama Doctrine may go the way of détente. It is doubtful that a President Donald Trump would calibrate U.S. foreign policy with the attention to detail that Obama has—and where he stands is uncertain.15 If Hillary Clinton wins the White House, the Obama Doctrine is probably in trouble as well. As Molly O’Toole recently argued, “As Clinton puts more distance between her foreign policy and President Obama’s, his national security legacy may prove short-lived.16 If so, it will only prolong the day of reckoning. The U.S. must learn to cooperate and work with the international community—the problems that face the world are too complex and cannot be solved by resorting to the same old “Washington Playbook.” U.S. policy cannot be predicated on a limitless use of American military muscle and involvement in every corner of the globe. Such an approach is destined to bankrupt the country and, in many situations, is likely to exasperate conflicts rather than solve them. On that, the President is right.
1. Jefferey Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine: The U.S. President Talks Through His Hardest Decisions About America’s Role in the World,” The Atlantic, April 2016, p. 76.
2. See CNN poll on Congressional Support for Military Action Against Syria “How They Will Vote” at http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2013/09/politics/syria-congress-vote-count/house.html and http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2013/09/politics/syria-congress-vote-count/index.html. On public opinion see, Pew Research Center report “Public Opinion Runs Against Syrian Airstrikes: Few See U.S. Military Action Discouraging Chemical Weapons Use,” at http://www.people-press.org/2013/09/03/public-opinion-runs-against-syrian-airstrikes/
3. For a comprehensive overview of Obama’s handling of the Syrian chemical attacks, see Derek Chollet, The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and redefined America’s Role in the World (New York: Public Affairs, 2016).
4. Bob Corker quoted in Amanda Sakuma, “Seize and Destroy: Syrian Chemical Arms Deal Reached,” MSNBC, September 25, 2013. Visited September 28, 2016. See, http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/seize-and-destroy-syrian-chemical-arms-deal
Richard Haass quoted in Chollet, The Long Game and Gideon Rose quoted in Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine,” for John McCain’s comments see, “Remarks by Senator John McCain On Syria at the Council On Foreign Relations,” Senator John McCain homepage. Visited, September 28, 2016, see
5. Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine,” p. 76.
9. Chollet, The Long Game, Location 132 Kindle Edition
10. Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine,” p. 29
11. Pam Key “Obama Likens Iran Deal to Historic Reagan Arms Deals,” Brietbart, April 2, 2015. Visited September 28, 2016, see, http://www.breitbart.com/video/2015/04/02/obama-likens-iran-deal-to-historic-nixon-reagan-arms-deals/
12. For an indebt study of détente, see Jussi M.Hanhimaki, The Rise and Fall of Détente: American Foreign Policy and the Transformation of the Cold War (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2013).
13. Richard Rhodes, ArsenalsofFolly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race (New York: Vintage Books, 2008) gives a good overview of the SALT negotiations under Richard Nixon.
14. Hanhimäki, p. 174.
15. See “Donald Trump on Foreign Policy,” On the Issues: Every Political Leader on Every Issue for a sense of Trumps contradictory statements on foreign policy. http://www.ontheissues.org/2016/Donald_Trump_Foreign_Policy.htm
16. Molly O’Toole, “The Obama Doctrine Has No Heir in Hillary Clinton,” Defense One, January 24, 2016. See, http://www.defenseone.com/politics/2016/01/obama-doctrine-has-no-heir-hillary-clinton/125334/
Dr. John R. Murnane completed his doctoral work in U.S. foreign policy at Clark University, Massachusetts, under the direction of Prof. Douglas J. Little. He taught history in a New England prep-school for 20 years and is now a volunteer at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. He has published on History and foreign policy in the History Teacher, World History Connected and the New England Journal of History. He is currently working on a book on U.S. foreign policy since 1941.