Obama's Shredded Foreign-Policy Playbook

The Obama Doctrine's pillars have all crumbled, replaced by one goal: avoiding disaster.

In canceling Obama’s scheduled meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin ahead of next month’s G-20 summit, the administration cited lack of "recent progress." That was understatement. Even the administration admits the reset is dead. The president quipped on Late Night television that they were acting like they were back in the Cold War.

Soft-power solutions have not fared much better. Everywhere the United States has pulled back, trouble has followed. Obama trumpeted the withdrawal from Iraq as a signature success. But without a U.S. military presence, the country has slipped back to pre-2007 levels of violence. The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan does not portend a better outcome.

Meanwhile, the Europeans are grumbling about our increasingly indifferent military presence in Europe. For NATO's largest military exercise, Steadfast Jazz, Washington will send only about one hundred troops—about the same number as that massive military power, Estonia.

Even Obama's most muscular military move, the "Asia Pivot," has proved mostly hollow. China has been pressing its territorial claims more aggressively than ever, hectoring Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and India all at the same time. Apparently, Beijing believes it has a legitimate historical claim anywhere a shard of ancient Chinese pottery is found in Asia. In part, the Chinese are so expansive because they—and our Pacific region allies—can count. They know the U.S. military—current and planned—is too small to support any kind of pivot that would change the balance of power in Asia.

The president's declaration of victory in the war on terror fails to convince as well. In a May speech at the National Defense University, he bragged about bagging bin Laden and scattering Al Qaeda. A few months later, he is shuttering embassies and ramping up drone strikes in fear of a new Al Qaeda offensive. So much for having the bad guys on the run.

Nor has Obama been a very successful internationalist. The three trade pacts Congress passed were holdovers from the Bush days. Obama has failed to excite any appetite for endorsing international conventions like the Law of the Sea Treaty or the Disabilities Treaty. And American leadership on global warming has proved tepid.

After Disaster

In the end, however, Obama’s failure to live up to his anticipatory Nobel isn’t what killed his foreign-policy doctrine. After all, his failing foreign-policy record was on the table in the 2012 election, and the electorate didn't seem to care. If the president's reelection mandate meant anything, it meant he could continue to pretend for the next four years that his way of dealing with the world was working. But the Obama Doctrine is now dead, and what killed it was Benghazi.

Libya was meant to be the signature achievement of Obama's way of war. He was out to prove that, with a light touch and tiny footprint, he could accomplish what George Bush couldn't with divisions of troops and trillion-dollar budgets.

The successful attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi proved a transformative moment for the Obama administration. Though the White House has been able to shield high-level officials from culpability for the disaster, it couldn't hide the fact that Benghazi was a disaster. With Al Qaeda running amok throughout North Africa, Libya little better than a failed state and the Benghazi murderers still roaming free, the magnitude of failure was evident to all—and the administration could not cast the blame elsewhere. It was Obama's choice to go. It was his decision on how to go in. And it was his plan that did not survive contact with the enemy.

His doctrine discredited, Obama now doesn't know what to do. Post-Benghazi, he has become incredibly risk averse. The goal now seems to be to just get through the last three years without another disaster that can be laid at the White House doorstep.

So the president continues to dither over what the United States should do in Afghanistan, post-2014. The favored option seems to be the zero option: withdraw all U.S. troops. That way, when the Taliban come back, the White House can claim it’s not their fault, since “everything was fine when we left”—a replay of the Iraq gambit.

Likewise, the administration struggles to find a Syria policy that makes sense. It doesn’t want to risk another Libya, but it’s also sensitive to the criticism of doing nothing. So far, the White House has pursued minimal-risk maneuvers—like asking the Russians to help or sending a few arms to the rebels. Neither gesture is likely to amount to much. It appears we have a Syrian version of the zero option.

Further, the administration's alarmist response to the latest Al Qaeda threat smacks more of panic than prudence. Fear of another Benghazi moment led the White House to shutter a huge chunk of its “smart power” infrastructure on the basis of terrorist “chatter.”

Playing the President

The Obama Doctrine was bad enough. At the end of the day, it could work only if our adversaries chose to cooperate. It ceded the initiative to the other side and offered no alternative if they choose not play by the doctrine’s rules. Predictably, no one—from Putin to the Taliban—has opted to take up the president's offer. But layering risk-averse policies on top of the doctrine only exacerbates risks, encouraging competitors to press their advantage.