Jacob Heilbrunn

The Obama Doctrine

Jacob Heilbrunn

In recent decades, we've had the Carter doctrine (Persian Gulf), the Reagan doctrine (arming rebels to rollback communism), and the Bush doctrine (democracy promotion, or depending on your viewpoint, crusade). Now comes the Obama doctrine. Though the progenitor of it is disavowing any intention of creating a doctrine, claiming that Libya is "unique."

No, it isn't. As Rory Stewart points out in the March 31 London Review of Books, Libya doesn't meet the criteria of genocide or ethnic cleansing. The West intervened not because it had to but because it could. And Obama, confronted with advisers who remembered Rwanda (Hillary Clinton) and Bosnia (Samantha Power), decided that he wasn't going to go down in history as the president who fiddled while Benghazi burned. So he sent in the Air Force, created a multilateral coalition, and then gave a speech justifying it all.

The speech earned the praise of Robert Kagan as "Kennedy-esque." In this view, Obama has shouldered the responsbilities that come with being president. Grown in office. Ready to make the big decisions. Understands the importance of American leadership. Moral values. And so forth.

It's not entirely clear that Obama himself sees it that way. He's being coy. Or trying to avoid arousing great expectations of American aid to other insurgent forces. "It's important not to take this particular situation and then try to project some sort of Obama Doctrine that we're going to apply in a cookie-cutter fashion across the board," he said on Thursday. But as Doyle McManus observes in an astute column, Obama is definitely flirting with a doctrine, even if he doesn't want to admit it. According to McManus,

the president and his aides also see the revolution in the Arab world as the most important event of Obama's time in office — as important, perhaps, as the end of the Cold War in 1989. They are already working on a larger policy to help it come out right, including a big international aid program — one they hope will be funded partly by Arab oil states — to help Egypt, Tunisia and other new democracies succeed. They won't call it a "doctrine," but it will almost certainly look like one. From here on out, they say, this will be the centerpiece; this will be what Obama's foreign policy is about.

There is a problem. It sounds as though the administration believes that its promotion of liberty in the Middle East can be predicated on the assumption that events will develop peacefully. But what if they don't? What if the Arab revolutions have the effect of prompting an internal crackdown in Syria as well as an even more hostile stance toward Israel? Or what if upheaval inside Israel results in an aggressor state, intent on war with Israel?

The administration also appears to be assuming that Col. Qaddafi is a spent force. But the rebels do not cut an impressive figure. Nor can anyone figure out who they are, if Hillary Clinton's statements are anything to go by. Obama is assuming an unlimited commitment in Libya without really acknowledging it. That appears to be the true Obama doctrine--mission creep.

The Libyan venture is unlikely to end well. Perhaps American air power will carry the day. But the more probable result is a partition of the country with an indefinite no fly zone. The Obama doctrine may well collapse before it ever gets off the ground.

TopicsGrand Strategy RegionsUnited States

Will Realism Make A Comeback in the GOP?

Jacob Heilbrunn

Politico recently observed that realism is as dead as a Dodo bird in the GOP. Neocons such as Elliot Abrams were quoted as saying that any opposition to democratization abroad in the party was nugatory. The article concluded:

Former Govs. Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, have differed largely only in their attempts to outdo one another in committing to what Bush called the “freedom agenda.”

They’re all basically mainstream in their agreement about the [Obama] administration being too friendly toward enemies and too harsh toward allies,” said Randy Scheunemann, who was John McCain’s top foreign policy hand in 2008, has worked for former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and has informally advised other contenders.

Yet recently, Haley Barbour minuted that the Libyan venture was a bad idea. "What are we doing in Libya?" he asked. Barbour denounced the idea of nation-building and said that America has already "been in Afghanistan 10 years." This was enough to incur the wrath of the Wall Street Journal editorial page today, which enforces a kind of doctrinal discipline in the ranks of the GOP. Barbour's views, it essentially said, should be proscribed.

As the Journal put it,

As for "nation-building" in Libya, we have yet to notice a U.S. official who has advocated the deployment of American ground troops, much less a long-term mission rebuilding a Libyan state.

Mr. Barbour's glib resort to this trope of the isolationist left suggests he hasn't thought very hard about foreign policy. It is the kind of politics Americans have come to expect from Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid—"this war is lost"—not Republicans who have since Reagan been the party of robust nationalism.

In essence, the line of the neoconservatives, liberal hawks, and the Journal is that the problem isn't that President Obama isn't pursuing the war--oops, I mean "kinetic conflict," as the administration likes to put it--too aggressively. It's that he isn't aggressive enough. But with the American people dubious about the Libyan venture, and Obama delivering a rather lawerly speech last night, full of ambiguities about when he will, and will not, intervene abroad, under the rubric of humanitarian action, it's a tough sell, at least politically, to try and capitalize on damning Obama as lacking martial vigor. The fact is that the man is now mired in no less than three wars. It used to be that one war--Korea, Vietnam--was enough to destroy a president's fortunes. Obama may weather all three.

So it's surprising that there isn't even more ferment in the GOP. Perhaps there will be. Barbour is unlikely to change course, though to claim any foreign policy expertise on his part would be quite a stretch. On the other hand, he could make the argument that the experts haven't done such a great job, either. Rand Paul, who is considering a run for the presidency, will emphatically attack intervention abroad. The likelihood of a true debate over foreign policy in 2012 inside the GOP keeps rising.

If the GOP wants to attack Obama in 2012 on foreign policy, it can't split the difference with him, arguing that that he should be even more vigorous abroad. The party has already tied itself into knots over Libya. This won't suffice if it wants to regain the White House. It will have to attack Obama directly.

TopicsMuckety Mucks RegionsUnited States

A New German Doctrine: Marching to the Left

Jacob Heilbrunn

 Germany is moving to the left. State elections in the southern state of Baden-Wurttemberg resulted in a stinging defeat for the ruling coalition of the Christian Democrats, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the Free Democrats, led by Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. As in America, state elections tend to go against the ruling parties--a kind of protest.

But this one was unusual because it came in the heartland of Christian Democratic support. And because the Free Democrats barely made the minimum 5 percent clause for entry into the state parliament. Merkel will remain chancellor, but she has been severely wounded. Her manuevering room has become more circumscribed, which, given her innate caution, suggests that she will accomplish very little other than to cling to her post. Having disposed of most potential rivals in the CDU, she faces no real danger of a coup. But the result will be to weaken her party gravely once she is forced to depart--a day that is coming closer and closer.

The real victor of this election, however, wasn't the Social Democratic Party. It was the Green party. The Greens now look like an early version of the American Tea Party, in the sense that they loathed the establishment (though they have since become part of it). They were a protest party that emerged in the 1970s out of the leftovers of the 1960s. They were rooted in environmental protests--against nuclear energy and pollution. Those issues have never lost their vigor in Germany. On the contrary, the major parties tried to coopt those issues. The Christian Democrats went green, so to speak. The Social Democrats have constructed a ruling coalition with the Greens in the past, but are threatened by their success as well.

The Greens cut substantially into the electoral base of the Free Democrats, a classically liberal party that defends free enterprise and individual freedoms. The Greens embody postmodern values. It makes you feel good to vote Green--virtuous, honorable. In the wake of the Japanese nuclear disaster, Germans, already highly skeptical of atomic energy, gravitated toward the Greens. Add the bombing of Libya and you have a pacifist upsurge in Germany. Both Merkel and Westerwelle kept Germany out of the conflict.

But it wasn't enough to keep them from suffering a big loss at home. Germany is becoming a very different country. Its economy is doing well, but voters are disgruntled. They're tired of bailing out the rest of the euro-zone. Without Germany, the Euro is doomed. At a minimum, it will likely stumble along rather than thrive as conservative politicians fiercely resist any further bailouts. The country, if anything, is following a more realist prescription. It's turning inward. The Greens, it could be argued, are the most German of the political parties, even as they reject nationalism.

They have discovered a new German doctrine, a new kind of triumphalism. Germany wants to be environmentally superior to its neighbors. The old Prussian virtues and the furor Teutonicus are not being directed to the conquest of Germany's neighbors, but conquering bad habits.

Image by Kuebi = Armin Kübelbeck

TopicsElections RegionsGermany

Is Obama A Wimpy Professor?

Jacob Heilbrunn

There are a lot of things about the Libyan intervention that could go wrong. Already the allies are bickering with each other about who takes the lead. The French are quibbling about NATO's role. President Obama keeps indicating that America will be out before it's really in. And so on.

But is the principal problem that Obama, as Charles Krauthammer complains, is running a classic Ivy League professor's war? The gravamen of Krauthammer's attack is that Obama has been unwilling to play the role of a true leader, rallying the troops, crying for victory. Instead, he's constructed an international coalition and even deigned to seek the approval of the Arab League. Bad, bad, bad.

Krauthammer is addicted to the great man version of history. He has a constricted, static view of leadership that is pure neocon--Churchill or bust. In Krauthammer's dramaturgy, America must go it alone (except that Churchill, after all, needed an alliance with America). But why bother with pesky allies? America is an Atlas that can shoulder any burden.  As Krauthammer expostulates,

A model of international cooperation. All the necessary paperwork. Arab League backing. A Security Council resolution. (Everything but a resolution from the Congress of the United States, a minor inconvenience for a citizen of the world.) It’s war as designed by an
Ivy League professor.

But it's hardly surprising that Obama would seek to spread the burden. America is mired in two wars, the second one a conflict of choice championed by none other than Krauthammer. Obama was understandably reluctant to intervene in what amounts to a civil war in Libya. His approach wasn't so much Ivy League professor, at least initially, as realist. Coalitions have their drawbacks: they usually break up once an aggressor has been defeated and each side seeks to offer its own interpretation of what constitutes victory. But there is no reason that America should have sought to go it alone in Libya. Indeed, a different, more jaundiced interpretation than Krauthammer's might be that Obama is simply using international cooperation as a fig leaf to unleash American firepower, partly in revenge for Col. Qaddafi's misdeeds in the past, partly to ensure that the Arab revolutions do not peter out. Syria, after all, is experiencing large demonstrations.

Another interpretation of Krauthammer's column is possible as well. It would be this: the neocons blamed either Donald Rumsfeld or George W. Bush for failing to fight the war correctly in Iraq. The problem, they argued, wasn't the war. It was they way it was fought. Krauthammer appears to be preparing a similar indictment of Obama (David Rieff, writing in the New Republic, contends that the liberal hawks are also preparing the case against Obama for not intervening aggressively enough). Meanwhile, another faction on the right is arguing that Obama is acting like an American Caesar, trampling on domestic liberties by unconstitutionally going to war by executive fiat--a claim that, as David Rivkin and Lee Casey show in an excellent column, is entirely bogus. In any case, as I'm not the first to note, Obama can hardly be both--a wimpy professor and a tyrant ruthlessly overriding Congress.

It might be argued, then, that the conflict in Libya is really a two-front war. The attacks on Obama may not have all that much to do with Libya, at least when it comes to the profusion of columnists and intellectuals (many of whom, by the way, can trace their own pedigrees to the Ivy League) who have exhorted the president to go to war. For them it appears to be primarily an opportunity to score points against Obama. So much for the Libyan people themselves.

TopicsDefense RegionsLibya

Is J Street Anti-Israel?

Jacob Heilbrunn

Israeli lawmakers have been busy this week. Among other things, they engaged in lengthy lucubrations on Wednesday about whether or not J Street, the Jewish organization based in Washington, DC that seeks to promote peace talks with the Palestinians, should, as the Washington Post puts it, be declared "anti-Israel." The meeting is yet another in a series of self-destructive Israeli acts. Instead of addressing, or even acknowledging, the fact that J Street apparently has over 100,000 members in the American Jewish community, the lawmakers are trying to delegitimize it.

The brouhaha centers on the fact that J Street was critical of the Obama administration for vetoing a United Nations resolution denouncing Israeli settlements. But since when are the settlements beyond criticism? By trying to tar anyone who has a policy disagreement as treasonous, these lawmakers are doing themselves--and Israel--no favors. They seem to want a code of omerta to prevail rather than genuine public debate--debate that, more often than not, flourishes inside Israel itself.

What they do want is for organizations abroad to serve as uncritical emissaries for the Israeli government. But an organization that exists purely at the behest of the Israeli government would have no crediblity. Agree or disagree with J Street. But it seems hard to argue that it hasn't injected some vigor into the discussion in America over Israeli policy. Yet Kadima member Otniel Schneller announced that "J Street is not a Zionist organization. It cannot be pro-Israel."

Yes, it can. Otniel's remark gets back to the issue of what constitutes being "pro-Israel." Is it reflexively endorsing whatever the Israeli government decides is in the country's best interest? Or is it trying to offer friendly advice at a time of great peril for Israel?

The truth is that Israel should be grabbing the chance to cut a peace deal with the Palestinians at a moment when the Arab world is in upheaval. It needs to detach itself from the West Bank. And it needs to focus on security in the Gaza strip.

Instead, it sounds as though leading Israeli lawmakers are engaging in the emotionally satisfying act of trying to accuse liberal American Jews of trying to undermine them. Perhaps a resolution in the Knesset will, as Jeremy Ben-Ami, the head of J Street, worries, succeed in ostracizing the organization. But it won't be able to quash the sentiments that the group represents.

TopicsIdeology RegionsIsrael

Why Is Obama's Justice Department Trying To Appease American Muslims?

Jacob Heilbrunn

In a flagrant instance of political correctness, President Obama's Justice Department is going to bat for Safoorah Khan, an Illinois middle school math teacher who abandoned her students to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. The Berkeley, Ill. school board twice denied her requests three weeks of unpaid leave. The board made the right call.

The Five Pillars of Islam enjoin a Muslim to travel at least once in their lifetime to Mecca. Khan was obeying no religious dictate to travel to Mecca immediately. But Khan resigned and made the hajj. Then she filed an anti-discrimination suit in November 2008 with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Justice Department, as the Washington Post prominently reports today, filed a lawsuit on her behalf, charging that the school district violated her civil rights.

This is nonsense. Actually, that isn't quite right. It's dangerous nonsense. So far, America has avoided going down the path of countries such as France or England, which are grappling with radical Islam. Obama is undermining that by filing specious lawsuits that can only encourage religious divisiveness in America.

A teacher who leaves her charges bereft at the end of the school year is not fit to teach. She could have made the pilgrimage at another point--say, when she had a sabbatical. Three days would have been fine. Three weeks at the end of term? No way.

The Obama administration, as the Post observes, is trying to have it both ways. Its bombing the smithereens out of Muslim countries, on the one hand, and bending over backwards to try and stick up at home for Muslims, on the other. No, this isn't the result of some nefarious Muslim heritage of Obama's, some product of his time spent in Indonesia. Instead, it's a case of multiculturalism run amok at the Obama Justice Department.

Hans von Spakovsky, a former Justice Department civil rights official in the Bush administration told the Post that "This is a political lawsuit to placate Muslims." Yes, it is. But there's no reason American Muslims should feel placated. Rather, they should feel insulted by an administration that is trying to pander to them by endorsing a selfish teacher's lawsuit.

TopicsDomestic Politics RegionsUnited States

Rand Paul for President?

Jacob Heilbrunn

That was fast. Word is that Sen. Rand Paul already sees himself as presidential timber. He may have only been in office for a few months, but already Paul is pondering a run. In South Carolina he declared "the only decision I've made is I won't run against my father."

His father, of course, is Rep. Ron Paul, the longtime legislator and foe of the Federal Reserve. In this, it truly is like father, like son. Both share the same libertarian outlook on the world. Ron has always been a charismatic figure on the right, someone who sticks to his rhetorical guns, regardless of the fallout. He loathes the New Deal, the welfare state, the military-industrial complex, and pretty much everything else associated with the modern American state.

His son has already outstripped him, at least in terms of political success. It would be a logical step for him to run for the presidency. But this soon? Maybe he's angling for a spot on the ticket as vice-president.

Here's an idea: a Paul-Paul ticket. He could run as the junior member to his father. Voters would know that they were, in essence, getting the very same article should Rand ever have to succeed his father in office. There would be no mystery about the vice-president. Nor would it be unconstitutional, no small point for men who are sticklers, to put it mildly, about the Constitution. As TPM points out, the two men are from different states.

What this means, however, is that the GOP is going to have a Pauline problem for many decades. Ron Paul caused waves at the Reagan library when he denounced America's intevention abroad, causing Rudoph Giuliani to go into paroxysms of rage. But Rand believes that America should butt out abroad as well, and he won't be shy about announcing it, either. Together with Haley Barbour, who has been scoffing at President Obama's intervention in Libya, they could help shake up the 2012 field.

It's another sign that the GOP establishment is on the defensive. The Tea Party, far from fading, appears to be gathering strength for 2012. The party's grandees are not.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

America's Foreign Policy Valkyries: Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power, and Susan Rice

Jacob Heilbrunn

Contrary to popular opinion, the Iraq War was not simply the product of neoconservatives. It was also championed by liberal hawks. An alliance between the two factions propelled the debate forward. It was forged in Bosnia, welded together by Iraq, then seemed to fall apart as the liberal hawks went AWOL. Now the liberal hawks have returned with a vengeance.

The Washington Post reports that a troika of female advisers--Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power--are, by and large, responsible for persuading President Obama-- against the advice of Robert Gates and other members of the military establishment--that bombing Libya is a good idea. Power has condemned American foreign policy for failing to intervene sufficiently to avert genocidal wars, particularly in Bosnia and Rwanda. Bill Clinton has himself said that his biggest regret was not intervening in Rwanda to stop the carnage.

Now these Valkyries of foreign affairs want to come riding in on a new humanitarian mission to rescue the Libyan people from their oppressor. But will it end happily? Or will it be a new chapter in the twilight of the Gods--another blow to mighty America's reputation?

So far, Obama has been equivocal about what the bombing is actually supposed to intend. The administration denies that it must dislodge Col. Qaddafi from power. But of course it must. Now that it has launched a bombing campaign, it would be preposterous to leave him in power. He would be more powerful than ever.

Andrew J. Bacevich has it right. He states in the Washington Post that mission creep is inevitable: "I would expect that sort of partial success would lead to calls for expanding operations in order to achieve regime change." Regime change. So Obama--and America--are back to the Bush doctrine.

In truth the Bush doctrine was simply a hypertrophied version of Wilsonian internationalism. Woodrow Wilson invaded more countries than any other president. He waged wars against war. Washington has never stopped doing it.

The stakes are high for Obama. Higher than he would like. If he succeeds in creating some semblance of democracy in Libya, he'll go down as Mr. Big. If not, he risks becoming George W. Bush redux--entangled in a third war. Obama has tried to follow a cautious course, using the Arab League as a fig-leaf. The French and British are supposedly in the lead.

But ultimately, it is only America that can make any action stick. Now that it's in, it must go all the way. Administration officials keep saying they're trying not to kill the Col. Well, why not? The administration has become expert at saying what the Libyan intervention is not about. But they do not tell us what it is about. On that matter they take refuge in delphic pronouncements.

But if the venture goes south, Obama knows squarely where to stick the blame. Clinton, Power, and Rice have taken their biggest gamble. The liberal hawks and neocons may well have prepared a new foreign policy disaster should Libya devolve into tribal warfare. And so this is a crucible for the idea of humanitarian intervention. If it fails, the liberal hawks will return to ignominy. At least until the next crisis erupts.

TopicsDefense RegionsUnited States

Obama's Fateful Libya Decision

Jacob Heilbrunn

Is the United Nations making a comeback? The UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force in Libya suggests that it is less than irrelevant. President Obama, reluctant to intervene, was pushed, or shamed, into acting, partly by the Arab League's approval of a no-fly zone, followed by the UN.

To hear Obama's critics tell it, the Libyan imbroglio is the equivalent of Abyssinia in 1935-36--a clear case of the failure of western nerve. The Italians used poison gas to try and subdue the Ethiopians. Now Qaddafi is bombarding his own population.

The question Obama will face is how far he should go in Libya. He can likely stop Qaddafi from taking Benghazi, a city that few Americans had even heard of until a week or so ago, but that has now become the Sarajevo of 2011. It's fascinating how these international conflicts become the cockpit of domestic disputes. The neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative, for example, released a letter the other day addressed to Obama that implored him to establish a no-fly zone. The names on the letter were pretty much the sames ones that signed the Project for the New American Century's missive calling for ousting Saddam Hussein.

The most likely outcome is a standstill in Libya, a form of partition. But maybe the UN can be brought in as a broker. What would be the safe haven that it could arrange for Qaddafi? Saudi Arabia has become a destination point for pensioner dictators, but the dislike is mutual between Qaddafi and the House of Saud. So that's no go. Perhaps Qaddafi could simply traipse around the world since he does seem to have a nomadic soul.

The truth is that Qaddafi may well hunker down in Libya. The country will become increasingly immiserated as oil flows only slowly. So Obama has a choice. He can interven and maintain the status quo. Or he can go for the knockout blow, a risky move that could have enormous political benefits at home.

If Obama goes down as the great liberator of Libya, it will solidify his foreign policy bona fides immensely. Until now, he has played the realist. Now Qaddafi's slaughter of his brethren is forcing Obama as well as the UN to adopt a new role.

TopicsDefense RegionsUnited States

Col. Qaddafi, Seeker of Knowledge

Jacob Heilbrunn

So the Obama administration has decided that it's time, after all, to establish a no-fly zone in Libya. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is quoted in the New York Times as stating:


The turning point was really the Arab League statement on Saturday. . . . That was an extraordinary statement in which the Arab League asked for Security Council action against one of its own members.

 It's interesting that the Arab League now gets to determine American foreign policy. If Obama wants to intervene in Libya, it's nice that the Arab League would sanction it. But is its benison really the prerequisite for attacking the mad dog of the Middle East? If only Ronald Reagan had known, then his bombing in 1983 might not have stirred such controversy. He could have asked the Arab League for permission first.

There is another problem. It is this: if America, a few NATO countries, and perhaps a few Arab countries create a no-fly zone, it will result in a partitioned Libya. President Obama has been trying to remain out of Libya. This could result in an even more protracted American engagement than an original decision to create a no-fly zone at the outset of the uprising.

The most likely outcome, of course, is that the western powers will dither and Col. Qaddafi manages to crush his opponents. But will that really trouble the French, who quickly recognized the rebels? In the March 11 Times Literary Supplement, J.C. notes that former ambasador to Libya Guy Georgy provided a fulsome comment to the French edition of Qaddafi's short stories, which apparently appeared in France in 1997. The book is called Escape to Hell and Other Stories. Georgy advised that Qaddafi seemed to be a "voracious reader and seeker of knowledge," a "little shepherd" who "dreamed of liberating his people as he tended his sheep."

Obama used to get talked about in similar terms, at least when he was running for office. Now he's transformed himself into a hardened realist, only to shrink from the consequences. Washing his hands entirely of Libya could be bad for his image as the great liberator, the speechmaker in Cairo whose talk about democracy deliquesced into the ether once it became time to act.

Still, the grim predictions about Libya becoming a redoubt of terrorism should Qaddafi retain power may not come to pass. Qaddafi could begin his rehabilitation. Soon enough he would have admirers from France eager to resume visiting the seeker of knowledge, the shepherd of his flock. And his traditional ties with Italy could serve him in good stead as well. Prime Minister Berlusconi is only nipped at the finish line by Qaddafi in his lunacy. The two men have more in common than not. And what would the foreign press corps do without Qaddafi? His flamboyance has always made him a vivid character, whether it's trying to pitch a tent in Central Park or showing up for a press conference in 1980 in a Sherlock Holmes get-up, wearing a Burberry ulster. So in the end, the Libyan affair may prove to be no more than a blip.

TopicsDefense RegionsUnited States