Recovering from the Obama Doctrine
“The failure of [the administration’s] foreign policy is now clear to everyone except its architects, and even they must entertain private doubts. . .” So began Jeane Kirkpatrick’s seminal piece excoriating President Carter’s flawed foreign policy and laying the groundwork for a major strategic realignment under President Reagan; but she just as well might have been talking about President Obama as he approaches his final year in office. Rarely has a U.S. president caused so much damage in so many spheres due to such a fundamental failure in foreign policy philosophy.
In a cover story for the Atlantic this month based largely on direct interviews with President Obama, Jeffrey Goldberg lays out the “Obama Doctrine” in significant detail. The article makes clear that Obama’s philosophical failure does indeed bear an uncanny resemblance to that of the Carter administration: Fundamentally, an exaggerated sense of the limitations and constraints on U.S. power. Flowing from this has been an across-the-board unwillingness to shape events, stand up to U.S. adversaries and support U.S. friends. The consequences to U.S. interests and to the U.S. reputation have been profound and interconnected across a wide range of geographies. It is worth cataloging in order to make sure the scope of the fallout is properly understood, and so that the next president can take appropriate countermeasures to reverse the damage.
As a result of the Obama foreign policy, U.S. friends are rattled and U.S. adversaries are emboldened. But if we look for the silver lining, it is this: countries the world over, especially those that sit on the periphery of the major powers, have been given a glimpse into an alternate world in which the United States is no longer willing to provide the security guarantees that for decades have formed the bedrock of the global order. And they have not liked what they saw. The door is thus wide open for the United States to drastically recalibrate its strategic approach and return to a position of global leadership, as it must.
Before focusing on to the periphery, it is worth examining the administration’s approach to America’s major power adversaries, China and Russia, as well as to its regional adversary, Iran. Here one finds the root of the administration’s errors, and the best showcase of its inexperience and naïveté.
It may be worth noting at the outset that the term adversary is used loosely here. It does not mean to imply that relations with any of the countries so labeled must necessarily entail conflict. However, these are countries whose national interests frequently do not align with those of the United States, and who harbor ambitions that include, among other things, diminishing the power and influence of the United States in key regions of the world, while enhancing their own. One of the flaws in the Obama administration’s approach to these countries is its refusal to acknowledge this basic reality.
In its dealings with adversaries, the Obama administration from Day One took the view that a reasonable approach would be met with a reasonable response. The underlying psychology is exemplified perhaps most obviously by President Obama’s private comment, famously caught on an active microphone, assuring Russia’s then-President Medvedev that he would have “more flexibility” after his election to accommodate certain Russian concerns. The Obama administration relocated missile defense systems from the Czech Republic and Poland, thereby attempting to signal to Russia that the United States was willing to move beyond a Cold War mentality in Eastern Europe. Even when Russia invaded Ukraine, by which time it should have been amply clear to the Obama administration that its Russia strategy had failed completely, the United States still refused to provide lethal equipment to Ukraine’s military. The White House even rejected a request for certain radar capabilities, claiming privately that doing so would only increase tensions in the region and provoke further escalation by Russia. And according to recent reports, even the non-lethal equipment the United States has provided—such as Humvees—has been of such dilapidated quality that it has resulted in morale issues among Ukrainian fighters.
In the context of Ukraine, it is of course worth flagging an added important dimension, which is the Budapest Memorandum. Under this agreement, signed in 1994, Ukraine agreed to give up its entire nuclear weapons stockpile—the third largest in the world at that time—in exchange for the United States and the United Kingdom guaranteeing the country’s territorial integrity. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, then, represented not an abstract challenge to general U.S. security commitments, but rather a very specific challenge to a contractual U.S. obligation. And yet the administration abdicated. The response at the time was surprisingly muted, with the most forceful words coming from former Secretary of State George Schultz and former Secretary of Defense William Perry, making clear in the Wall Street Journal that “American negotiators understood that this Memorandum was critical to Ukraine’s decision to give up almost 2,000 nuclear weapons.”