Obama's Shredded Foreign-Policy Playbook

August 17, 2013 Topic: Security Region: United States

Obama's Shredded Foreign-Policy Playbook

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

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.

One area where this is likely play out to the other side's advantage is in the ongoing confrontation with Iran. What has the attention of the new Iranian president is not the promise of U.S. engagement, but the damage done to his economy—mostly by sanctions forced on the administration by Congress after the administration's outreach failed. Knowing the White House is desperate to get out Afghanistan, Tehran is likely to offer to use their influence to help pave the way for an American exit. In return, it will demand that Obama ignore Iran's efforts to get the Europeans to lift sanctions.

Another potential problem for the president is his own cabinet. Desperate not to get involved in trouble spots, the White House is trying the old magician’s trick of misdirection.

Case in point: the Middle East. Iraq is melting down; Egypt is in bloody tumult; Syria suffers in an endless war; Jordan staggers under the weight of half a million new, angry refugees; Qatar is funding the next generation of Al Qaeda, and Islamists are taking over North Africa. The response? Let the secretary of state turn his time, talents and (best of all) his spotlight on a bright, shiny object: brokering peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The White House might view this as an innocuous alternative to dealing with insurgencies, civil wars and all-out wars, but in reality this might be the most risky adventure of all. The last time the United States trumped up hope for Middle East peace, the anger and frustration that arose over the failure to reach a final accord exploded in the Second Intifada. It will be predictable tragedy if, in trying to avoid today’s panoply of bloody Middle East conflicts, the White House blundered into sparking another, messier conflict.

The Next Shoe

The Nobel Prize committee this month announced it has received a petition, claiming more than one hundred thousand signatures, asking that it award the next peace prize to mega-leaker Bradley Manning. Among the justifications offered for this nomination was Manning’s alleged leadership in helping end the war in Iraq.

It is hard to think of a greater insult to Obama and his foreign-policy legacy. Those who heralded his coming to the world stage now take their inspiration from Bradley Manning.

Insults, however, are not what should concern the White House. Far more worrisome are the harsh realities that, after four years of the Obama Doctrine, our friends respect us less, our enemies fear us less, and that virtually everything they’ve tried to do—even the attempts to do nothing—has failed to improve stability anywhere in the world.

James Jay Carafano is vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at The Heritage Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter: @JJCarafano.

Image: Flickr/Rosmary. CC BY 2.0.