Against the Obama Doctrine of Decline

The next US president needs to learn from the blunders of this administration to pursue a foreign policy worthy of a great power

Features US Politics
Great Right hopes: US Republican presidential candidates (from left) Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry (Chris O'Meara/AP)

With the race for the Republican nomination well under way, an America not led by Barack Obama seems to optimists to be just around the corner. A Republican president would face economic recovery as his chief task, but foreign policy would intrude fast.

Just as Obama sought to differentiate himself from his predecessor, a new president would surely break with Obama quickly in his approach to the world. In critical ways, Obama has reversed not just Bush policy but every president’s approach to the world since the Second World War, save for that of his soulmate Jimmy Carter. Obama has eschewed American leadership, adopting in its place what the New Yorker famously called the policy of “leading from behind”.

Libya is the perfect example, and the administration’s self-satisfied claims of victory when Gaddafi was driven from power may have provoked bitter laughter in Benghazi. For by restricting the use of American power in Libya, by keeping back American assets such as the A-10 air-to-ground warplane that allies lacked, he stretched what might have been a six-week war into six months and thereby lengthened the Libyan casualty lists by tens of thousands. A side product of this approach has been to weaken Nato and the confidence of America’s partners in US willingness to act. If Nato has trouble in Libya, right on the doorstep of all those European bases, where can it risk any serious challenge? In the Obama view such a conclusion is presumably a good thing, likely to check adventurism.

For Obama, as for Carter, the American role in the world is a thing to be restrained not celebrated. This is reflected not only in his narrow view of American exceptionalism, but also in his dismissive attitude towards traditional allies such as Britain, which he seems to view as guilty by association in Iraq and in the many forms of US-UK cooperation against terrorists. What is special about American foreign policy — muscular leadership — is what must be ended or blunted, in this view. We must not put building alliances at the heart of our foreign policy because alliances are after all the sinew of military action and the basis for nasty renditions. Instead we must reach out to those seen as hostile or uncooperative, from Iran and North Korea to Russia, offering “resets” and engagement and new talks. This approach has already failed but the learning curve is flat, and there will only be more of such policies if there is a second term for Obama. As the approach is motivated not by the lessons of experience but by a deep belief in the rightness of its theory of America in the world, neither mere events nor its own internal contradictions will change it.

The grudging approach to popular uprisings in the Middle East is a good example, for those revolts refute Obama’s understanding of the region entirely. His policy was to engage despots, whether in Tehran or Cairo, for in his view their complaints and demands were half justified, at least given America’s decades of error in the region. As to the populations of those countries, they were barely visible and were seen anyway as motivated above all by resentment of American support for Israel. The Bush “freedom agenda” was jettisoned as yet another right-wing mistake. In Egypt, for example, no aid was given to NGOs promoting human rights and democracy unless they were approved by the Mubarak regime, reversing the policy Bush had adopted. 

Obama also reacted slowly and with obvious reluctance to the June 2009 uprising in Iran, to the Tahrir Square demonstrations against Mubarak, and to the unbelievably courageous Syrians taking to the streets against Assad — and there being shot by the thousands. For these people did not fit the idea the president had of the region; they were supposed to be angry about Israel, not about dignity, justice, corruption and oppression. The Obama view was simply at odds with reality. At this juncture in Obama’s third year, reality may be said slowly to be imposing itself, case by case, on American policy, but there has by all accounts been no real reassessment by the president of what went wrong with his understanding of the world. This adjustment of deed without any change in theory or explanation results in intellectual incoherence. Obama and his team view themselves as remoralising American foreign policy after the terrible Bush years when all we did was torture and attack day after day, ignoring international law with Cheneyite glee. Yet while the Bush approach to terrorists was to capture them, treat them as prisoners of war, and squeeze them for information, the Obama approach is the converse: treat those you have as mere criminals, but seek to avoid getting any more inconvenient detainees — by killing instead of capturing. Thus the great increase in drone strikes. The many difficult issues that arise from holding prisoners are avoided when they are dead — and this approach is presented as the more liberal and moral alternative to Bush’s camp at Guantánamo.

Similarly, none of the insults hurled at Bush for violating not only international but domestic law has been withdrawn, yet the Obama administration simply ignored the War Powers Act with respect to Libya. Unwilling to ask Congress for permission or to argue as Bush had that the law was unconstitutional, Obama’s lawyers were left to suggest that the law applies only to “hostilities” and that there were none in Libya. This argument drew the many laughs it deserved, but reveals an administration that can occasionally see what it must do yet cannot defend those actions within the terms of its own belief system.

Now, the campaign promise to close Guantánamo “in one year” has been broken, and the plan to try prisoners in American courts with the full panoply of rights has been abandoned. Many other policy initiatives have been defeated or dropped, at least for now, whether through congressional or public refusal or because they simply did not work. As the administration shifts into campaign mode, the sharper edges of its policies are likely to be even further blunted in any event. There will be no more great foreign policy initiatives now, as Obama seeks to avoid electoral dangers. A new president in 2012 will probably face a world much like the one he would see if he won the election tomorrow. What must he do in his first hundred days to change American foreign policy? Here are three things.

First, and easiest, he must give voice to a new — that is, old — understanding of America. The George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama, 1960s approach in which America is the problem must be repudiated in the inaugural address itself. The new president must reassert a firm belief in the goodness of our society and the effect of our power in the world. There are some nice quotes to use from Barack Obama’s Nobel speech, where he spoke about America in stirring tones that reflected his sense of the occasion but sadly not his foreign policy — and were rarely heard from him again. He should assure Americans that our system of government, our natural resources and our open economy will restore prosperity and that we are not constrained by economics to reduce our influence in the world and hollow out our military. He must declare that defence spending did not create our economic problems and will not be sacrificed to solve them. It would be good, in the debate over the decline of the United States, to hear the voice of a president who does not believe it and will work every day to prevent it and to reassert American influence.

Second, he must begin to define a foreign policy for a self-confident great power when the unipolar moment is passing but the great goals of our foreign policy remain. We seek the expansion of freedom and prosperity, and an international system based on law and justice, but cannot impose our desires as the British Empire did in 1850 or we very largely could as recently as 1990. So he must declare as a key goal the strengthening of traditional alliances such as Nato and new alignments such as that of Asian and Pacific nations facing Chinese expansionism. In concert with allies we will strengthen the effort to bring rising powers in when possible — if not to alliances then to participation in the institutions and actions that maintain prosperity, stop aggression and try to prevent the worst cases of human rights abuses. The Obama administration did figure out the importance of India, if a bit slowly, but this is an example of a relationship to be strengthened year after year. On China he should welcome its modernisation but stress the importance of political as well as economic institutions, and he should express support for the Chinese people in what is now a century and a half of their own failed efforts to build a decent and free modern society. Growing Chinese wealth and power do not threaten us; the foreign policy of the Communist Party is another matter. It threatens every Asian and Pacific nation, producing for us allies as disparate as Vietnam and Australia in the effort to restrain Chinese activities. A new policy would tighten ties with all those resisting China, speak more clearly about the need for China to open its political system and empower its people, and seek cooperation with China whenever it is willing to act positively, as it has on Libya and Somali piracy, for example. 

Third, he must continue the struggle against Islamism and Islamist terrorism. To the extent that this is a debate within Islam the United States cannot participate in it, but we can help the anti-extremist side. More should be done to cut off funding to Islamist groups, for a decade after 9/11 it remains very robust and still largely originates in the Persian Gulf.  The advent of the Arab Spring provides an opportunity to work with new governments, parties, and NGOs in societies now debating Islam’s role in politics, and those societies can provide an alternative to the grim and bloody Islamist view of the world. Obama’s understanding of this entire struggle as centred in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is wrong. It should be replaced with the lessons taught by Bush after 9/11, lessons far clearer now even to dim students after the Arab Spring, whose goals are personal and political freedom. 

The world would see the American people’s rejection of Barack Obama in many ways: some would see racism, others a mere response to economic troubles. Neither view would be right. His defeat would instead reflect two conclusions by voters. One is personal: taking the measure of the man and, as with Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, finding that he is simply not up to the job of president, unable to provide reliable policies and leadership. The other is ideological: getting to know Obama’s view of America and then rejecting it just as they rejected Carter’s. So the defeat itself would convey a loud message to the world that Americans do not accept theories of inevitable decline and are prepared to take action to prevent it. The rise of China and India and the end of the very brief post-Soviet moment of unipolar dominance do not add up to a smaller role for America, but rather to an equally essential role as the only non-Asian great power, the indispensable Atlantic ally for a Europe that seeks a world role, and the avatar of democracy and popular sovereignty. Reinforced by its status as the greatest military power for several generations more, the American role remains the essential glue to an international system that favours law, justice, order and freedom. What we need most in a new president is to be sure he understands that.