international analysis and commentary

The “Obama doctrine” is taking shape

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After the death of Osama bin Laden, people around the world remembered a sentiment felt on September 11, 2001: “We are all Americans”. However, if ten years ago these words expressed genuine compassion, today they hold mixed feelings. For the US, bin Laden’s death is certainly emotional payback for 9/11 and for the country’s long-lasting efforts in fighting terrorism. For Europeans, though, it is different: they praise the action’s result, but – even with Barack Obama as US President – they are uncomfortable with the temperament of their cumbersome (and no longer unifying) leading partner.

Bin Laden’s death should not be overvalued, as the big issues for the US remain pending and unlikely to be resolved anytime soon: from Afghanistan to the Middle East, from debt to unemployment. Nevertheless, the raid should not be underestimated either, since it embodies an extremely powerful engine in international relations: American resolve.

The course of events demonstrates a pattern in American behavior. Economic recession and the specter of China’s rise notwithstanding, the US seems adamant in demonstrating its unbeaten vitality to the world. This is nothing new: whenever the US has entered periods of crisis – the Civil War, the Closing of the Frontier, the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, times of stagflation and 9/11 – it has always recovered by reviving its “exceptionalism” and the worldwide missions that come along with it. One may wonder which is the last wave of American exceptionalism: is it the Tea Party Patriots’ core values or President Obama’s The Audacity of Hope? Even though last November’s midterm elections revealed that disillusionment is rising in the electorate, Obama is still an exceptionalist president in an exceptionalist country.

In an article recently published by The New Yorker, correspondent Ryan Lizza extensively details the basic features and evolution of President Obama’s approach to foreign policy. He reminds us that Obama, when running for the White House, was a little-known Senator from Illinois who had extensive experience in just about everything except foreign policy. He was elected, as were most of his predecessors, mainly for domestic matters. He entered into office in the midst of the worst financial crisis since 1929, with the US entangled in two wars and at a low point in international credibility and appeal.

According to Lizza, while Obama spent his first two years focusing on economic recovery, he assigned foreign policy to “the Clintonites” in the State Department, his staff in the National Security Council and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The task of American foreign policy was quite clear. In the words of Benjamin Rhodes, one of Obama’s top advisers, it was to “wind down these two wars, reestablish American standing and leadership in the world, and focus on a broader set of priorities, from Asia and the global economy to a nuclear-nonproliferation regime.” It was an open reversal of George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda”, with no explicit call to promote democracy or sustain human rights, as the speech in Cairo (June 4, 2009) and the restrained support for the so-called Green Revolution in Iran demonstrated.

Moreover, Lizza reports that on August 12, 2010, Obama delivered a memorandum called Political Reform in the Middle East and North Africa to his top foreign policy officials in which he stressed the “evidence of growing citizen discontent with the region’s regimes”. The President also argued about the risks of “continued support for increasingly unpopular and repressive regimes”, that “the advent of political succession in a number of countries offers a potential opening for political reform in the region”, and that in impoverished societies, economic development should precede elections and democracy. The document was debated among officials and advisers, but the (un)expected events of Tunis, Cairo and Benghazi came about faster than White House discussions could materialize into strategy.

For Lizza, this is the reason the 2011 Arab Spring “remade Obama’s foreign policy”. One may speculate that it was also the midterm electoral defeat that gave him a more assertive stance. But facts reveal at least two key contributions coming directly from the White House: first, during the mass demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the US President was the first political leader who broke diplomatic irresolution by speaking against Mubarak – a key Western ally in the Middle East – calling publicly for “an orderly transition” in Egypt. Second, when conflict erupted in Libya, Obama appeared hesitant with both the “interventionists” (Clinton) and the “non-interventionists” (Gates) by leaving the initiative to French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Also, he was cautious about a UN resolution imposing a no-fly zone over Libya (in which the US reluctantly participated) and about allowing NATO to coordinate the air strikes as the Europeans disagreed among themselves over the operation’s chain of command, targets and means. Yet, when the conflict in Libya reached a stalemate, it was Obama (pressed by allies and Benghazi’s rebels) who decided to deploy armed Predator drones to increase military pressure on Gheddafi.

Finally, the killing of Osama bin Laden has added another point for the administration’s foreign policy. It is a strategy that, according to some security advisers, can be defined as “leading from behind”. It is the Obama-style’s empirical translation of the US still being the “indispensable nation” (in Madeleine Albright’s expression) despite its relative economic decline and tarnished political reputation. It is a tough-minded diplomacy trying to combine smart power – i.e. retrenchment from open (and costly) military endeavors and greater use of efficient (and cheaper) intelligence forces, plus the call for allies to do more, especially in their Libyan backyard – with renewed appeal and trust. Put in different terms, Obama is attempting to move away from the traditional divide between realists and idealists in American foreign policy, and establish a rationalistic approach aimed at squaring the circle between interests and ideals.

This line of reasoning, and acting, has been heavily criticized. For some, Obama’s reluctance to articulate a true Grand Strategy is wrong since it prevents defining a clear policy course and reinforces bureaucratic competition between the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA. For others, “leading from behind” is a counterproductive label that uncovers the degree of indecision and inaction that characterizes President Obama. Furthermore, the way in which bin Laden was killed is raising many speculations and controversial questions that could backfire on the administration – e.g. the effectiveness of torture in getting valuable information from terrorists, the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty, the responsibility of Pakistan in hosting al Qaeda’s leader, and the conflicting details describing the operation.

At this stage, a preliminary assessment must be that President Obama is leaving a visible mark on American foreign policy, which is gradually re-aligning – some inconsistencies notwithstanding – along the two greatest imperatives that the US faces today: overcoming the economic crisis and managing the increased rivalry with emerging powers, most notably China. Ideally, this means America must do three things: reduce its operational commitment in the least essential strategic theaters in the world; give greater attention to issues pertaining to primary American national interest; and rely on allies for less troublesome issues.

However, and ironically, this brings us to the role, and the duties, of the Europeans. As American policymakers and analysts continuously remind us, the technological military gap across the Atlantic has been widening. This is demonstrated by the insistent European plea for the US to play a more active role in Libya. But the gap looks even greater due to the lack of European resolve – that is their political willingness to contribute to global as well as to regional security issues alongside the US. President Obama has repeatedly argued that it is in America’s interest to act together with allies. However, the blurry side of the Obama doctrine is that, for this prescription to be viable, the partners that America needs must be reliable and consistent. Obama’s exceptionalism is grounded on the concept that the post-9/11 international system requires pragmatic visions and efficient policies – which is somehow at odds with the “leading from behind” approach. The US rejected the neo-con’s unilateralism (also because the US can hardly bear the burden of military security alone as it did during the 1990s and 2000s), but simultaneously did not want to be dragged into ineffective and Byzantine relationships.

The raid on the bin Laden compound illustrates some of the dilemmas: Washington did not alert Pakistan, out of fear of being cheated by an unreliable partner. Meantime, in Libya, as well as in Afghanistan, the US and the Europeans act through NATO. Yet, the question is: how long will the US continue to find this kind of alliance – and its related inter-allied bargaining – still attractive and worth investing in? Many other tough questions are beginning to be asked rather explicitly. The Obama doctrine is still a work in progress, but its consequences are already palpable.