Obama Foreign Policy — Weakness Is the Theme of the ‘Obama Doctrine’

Obama Foreign Policy — Weakness Is the Theme of the ‘Obama Doctrine’

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, wrote the Bard, and so it is with Barack Obama. And yet, reading “The Obama Doctrine,” Jeffrey Goldberg’s landmark essay on the president’s foreign policy, you sense impatience, or perhaps exasperation, more than unease. Thinly veiled contempt for key U.S. allies, which he dubs “free riders,” suffuses his rhetoric; their failure to embrace policies that strike him as self-evidently prudent spurs irritation and condescension. In Obama’s mind, it seems, the crowns of other leaders weigh considerably less than his.

If only America’s stubborn allies removed their blinders, which he attributes to tribalism or spinelessness, they could, like him, see the world for what it is — and resolve their problems on their own. Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia might subside if only Riyadh would learn to “share the neighborhood.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could resolve the Israeli–Palestinian conflict if only he offered greater concessions.

Russian adventurism and Chinese bullying might end if only their neighbors demonstrated greater resolve. The war in Libya might have achieved a more stable outcome if only the Europeans were more “invested in the follow-up.” At the same time, President Obama voices chagrin that his critics, both foreign and domestic, fail to recognize that some crises are so intractable that U.S. intervention, alas, either would fail to turn the tide or would come at too high a cost. An attack on Syria, he laments, would maroon America in a quagmire. Ukraine, he contends, “is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.”

A common thread runs through these arguments:

The president resents the demands of global leadership. For him, America’s role as the global superpower generates not grave responsibilities but unacceptable burdens.

Obama castigates the putative failures of his allies and partners because he seeks to reduce America’s own footprint in the world. For the American-led international order that has prevailed since the Second World War, he wishes to substitute a multipolar international order.

The trouble with this approach is that global politics operates by different rules. Nations conduct their affairs not in isolated pockets of activity but as part of a broader equilibrium. Weaker countries, by their nature, gravitate to superpowers to obtain not only military backing but also diplomatic cover on the international stage. The United States, by virtue of its unrivaled strength, can afford to alienate individual countries as circumstances require.

For other nations, however, the margin of error is thinner. If rogue regimes conclude that the Leviathan has abandoned its allies, their aggression will increase, and a seemingly localized conflict may emit aftershocks that reverberate far beyond its borders. The opposite of unipolarity is not necessarily multipolarity but chaos. Both, in any event, could amount to the same thing — a phenomenon the Middle East has already begun to witness.

As the White House pursues détente with Iran at the expense of Sunni Arab states and continues to abjure a meaningful military commitment in Iraq and Syria, a revanchist Moscow has expanded military and diplomatic cooperation with Tehran and Damascus. A rising China, meanwhile, is pursuing lucrative business deals with Iran, which provides critical backing to the Assad regime, thanks in part to the robust sanctions relief offered by the July 2015 nuclear agreement.

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