The Obama Doctrine: Is he an Imperialist With a Little Foot, or Just an Old-Fashioned Appeaser?

Here comes Ross Douthat, trying to sort out Obama’s foreign policy.  He’s got the right idea: watch the actions, add them up, toss with just enough realism-speak, and voila!  An Obama Doctrine.


Douthat rightly, I think, starts by saying that the Hagel and Brennan nominations to head the Pentagon and the CIA are good starting points for analysis, because they represent what he intends to do.  And he’s got the major themes right, too:

Like the once-hawkish Hagel, Obama has largely rejected Bush’s strategic vision of America as the agent of a sweeping transformation of the Middle East, and retreated from the military commitments that this revolutionary vision required. And with this retreat has come a willingness to make substantial cuts in the Pentagon’s budget — cuts that Hagel will be expected to oversee.

But the Brennan nomination crystallizes the ways in which Obama has also cemented and expanded the Bush approach to counterterrorism. Yes, waterboarding is no longer with us, but in its place we have a far-flung drone campaign — overseen and defended by Brennan — that deals death, even to American citizens, on the say-so of the president and a secret administration “nominations” process…

To the extent that it’s possible to define an “Obama Doctrine,” then, it’s basically the Hagel-Brennan two-step. Fewer boots on the ground, but lots of drones in the air. Assassination, yes; nation-building, no. An imperial presidency with a less-imperial global footprint.

I don’t think this rises to the level of a strategy, let alone a doctrine. It’s all about tactics.  It lacks a mission statement.  What is Obama trying to accomplish?  When and how will we know we’ve won or lost?  And what is “imperial” about it?  Are assassins “imperialists”?


Douthat seems to recognize this when he talks about Obama’s retreat from Bush’s “revolutionary vision.”  A president in full retreat from those challenging America, and killing Americans and our friends and allies wherever they can, is hardly an imperialist, whatever his shoe size.  Indeed, the president’s increasingly embarrassing insistence on cutting some sort of deal with the biggest and most aggressive American enemy — the Iranian regime that arms, trains, and supports most all of the killers — suggests that “appeasement” is a better description.

And yet, as Douthat (and Obama) would hasten to object, we’re killing a lot of al-Qaeda Arabs, aren’t we?  And we certainly didn’t appease Osama bin Laden, did we?  And Camp Gitmo is still producing obese terrorists, isn’t it?

True.  These are the Bush tactics, carried forward by Obama.  And the lack of strategic vision is also a carryover from the Bush years.  The Bush Doctrine was enunciated early after 9/11:  to wage war against the terrorist organizations that were targeting us, and against the states that supported them.  That was the original rationale for going after Saddam, and the foundation for the campaign against the “Axis of Evil,” explicitly including Iran, Iraq and North Korea.  But the Bush Doctrine was only fulfilled twice.  It began and ended with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.  Long before Obama, the United States was seeking deals with Iran and North Korea, and embracing Syria as a friendly.


So Douthat’s claim that Obama has abandoned the “revolutionary” Bush policy is overstated;  Obama is carrying on both the Bush tactics (from drones to vigorous interrogations to military tribunals) and the failed, post-revolutionary Bush strategery, as crafted by Colin Powell, Stephen Hadley, Condi Rice, and Richard Armitage.

To be sure, there is one big difference:  where Bush seemed inclined to keep a meaningful number of fighting men and women on the ground in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama sounded the retreat.  That’s a big difference, and its consequences are much more significant than a smaller footprint in the region.  Just ask our friends and allies in the Middle East.  As Tony Badran writes, all our non-Israeli allies are Sunnis, and they see an Obama policy that seems consistently anti-Sunni.  Take the Saudis, for example.  They keep asking why the United States doesn’t support the Syrian opposition (contrary to what you read in the popular press, we have done next to nothing to help Assad’s enemies).  And they ask why Obama is so acquiescent to Iraq’s top dog, Maliki, who supports Assad and enables Iranian assistance to the besieged tyrant in Damascus.

I don’t think the Saudis are great strategic thinkers, but they do know who their main enemies are:  Iran and its allies, from Damascus to Moscow, and the plethora of terrorist armies, of varying cult membership, from the Middle East to Africa and on to Latin America.  The pattern to our current foreign policy — well reflected in the recent nominations to the three key slots in the administration — is twofold:  retreat from the battlefield, and appeasement of radical, anti-American regimes and movements.  Thus, we arm the (Sunni) radical Morsi regime in Egypt, we negotiate with the Taliban, and with Tehran, and we put roadblocks in front of Assad’s enemies.  Badran:


(Saudi) criticism reflects a more general perception among the Sunni regional states, and zeroes in on the message that Washington has been sending about its strategic priorities. Instead of leading the effort to bring down the Assad regime, and thereby deal a major blow to Iran’s alliance network, it appears far more concerned about pressing the Syrian opposition to reach out more to minorities and about preserving so-called regime “institutions.” If the US wanted to eliminate Iranian influence in Syria, then it should be looking to dismantle, not preserve, “institutions” like the security services, which are allied with Iran.

Isn’t that the one consistent pattern?  As I once asked, if you wanted to craft a policy to encourage and empower America’s most radical enemies, and discourage and frustrate America’s friends, how would your policy differ from what we’re got now?

Isn’t that what the national security nominees represent?  Douthat oddly leaves out John Kerry, a man who achieved fame by joining the most radically anti-American groups in this country during the Vietnam War, by throwing away his war medals, by accusing the United States of horrific war crimes, and by consorting with our enemies.  He consorted with Assad, too, let’s not forget, as did Hagel, who, as senator, blocked Iran sanctions and called for better relations with Tehran.  And Brennan, early on, spoke respectfully of jihad.

So, to answer the rhetorical question in the headline, I don’t think we’re governed by an imperialist, or by an old-fashioned appeaser.  We’re governed by a man who has taken sides in the global war, and he favors those who think America is the source of the world’s biggest problems.  The Obama Doctrine,  demonstrated by our actions on the ground and by the president’s choice of top officials for his second term, is:  remove America from the battlefield, encourage those who hate America, withhold support from those who would fight against our common enemies, and things will get better.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage based on a modified image.)


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