The Skeptics

What’s Wrong with a Little Uncertainty?

The author’s views are his own and do not represent those of the Air War College, the air force or the Department of Defense.

Over at Shadow Government, Dan Blumenthal makes the case that if there is any Obama Doctrine it should be described as the Uncertainty Doctrine. In Blumenthal’s words:

Businesspeople and economists make a good case that the uncertainty of Obama's domestic policies has slowed the economic recovery. The private sector does not know when and for what they will next be taxed or regulated, what the new health care law visited upon them means for the economy. The anxiety causes a freeze in economic growth. So too with Obama's uncertainty foreign policy doctrine. Allies and adversaries have no idea what we will do next and are acting accordingly…Just as uncertainty in economic policy can make an economy sputter, so too has Obama's uncertainty doctrine made the world a more dangerous place. With no one else to do the chores, the United States must lead with certainty. The rest of the world may complain about our arrogance, but that is better than complaining about utter chaos.

Among the examples of the Uncertainty Doctrine in action that Blumenthal cites are the Obama administration’s simultaneous escalation and de-escalation of the war in Afghanistan, surging troops in while setting a date for their withdrawal; declaring an Iranian nuclear weapon unacceptable while restraining Israel from doing anything forceful about it; and “pivoting” to Asia while reassuring allies elsewhere that we are not abandoning them.

For those who have been around the block a few times, this line of argument should sound familiar: while the words “domino theory” do not appear in Blumenthal’s post, it is domino logic that he is relying on. His basic argument is that the Obama administration is not demonstrating the requisite strength and resolve abroad, which will eventually lead allies to abandon us and adversaries to trample on our interests.

Rather than rehash why the domino theory should be consigned to the dustbin of history, let me provide two additional reasons why Blumenthal’s criticisms are misdirected. First, the Obama administration has little choice but to be more equivocal in its commitments than Blumenthal would like. The fact of the matter is that the United States is badly overstretched, with a growing gap between the commitments we have taken on abroad and the resources available to meet those commitments. Under such conditions, great powers are wise to retrench by making some tough choices about which interests are worth defending and at what cost. What Blumenthal describes as introducing dangerous uncertainty into the mix I would describe as setting priorities and discriminating between vital and peripheral interests. In short, the Uncertainty Doctrine may be less a misguided choice on the part of the Obama administration than a prudent bowing to the inevitable.

Second, and as importantly, is introducing some uncertainty into the mix always such a bad thing? Blumenthal implies that there is no downside to backing allies to the hilt and facing down adversaries. But there is actually such a thing as too much reassurance, which can embolden allies to take dangerous actions that risk entrapping us in unwanted conflicts or, alternatively, lull them into under-providing for their own defense. Likewise, there can even be too much deterrence. If another state has no intention of threatening our interests, but we take strong actions to “deter” them, we may end up convincing them that we are hostile and set off a spiral of conflict.

The latter consideration can be discounted if an interest is vital enough to be worth defending even at some risk of war. But the fact that Blumenthal does not even concede any downside to certainty or upside to uncertainty suggests that he does not recognize any distinction between vital and peripheral interests. This, I would argue, is the common failing of any approach to strategy rooted in domino logic, which inevitably leads to overextension.