The key source for what we might call the Obama Doctrine is the president’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, 2013. The speech was preceded by a policy review in the White House during the summer of 2013. That review was overseen by the new Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, Susan Rice. It involved Rice and, according to The New York Times, perhaps six of her aides.
This policy review process tells us something about how key foreign policy questions are studied and decisions reached in this administration. Much more than any administration in recent memory, the Obama administration deals with important foreign policy issues within a very small and tight circle of key officials
It is notable that something this important did not include—at least in a formal sense—the Departments of State and Defense. And it’s quite possible that White House aides directly involved in the review reached out to trusted contacts elsewhere in the government. But other presidents and other national security advisors would have seen merit in conducting a broad interagency review process that would have tapped systematically into a deep reservoir of regional and national security expertise.
Ambassador Rice told The New York Times that the president’s overall goal was to avoid having events in the Middle East swallow his foreign policy agenda. According to Rice, “We can’t just be consumed 24/7 by one region, as important as it is. [The president] thought it was a good time to step back and reassess, in a very critical kind of no-holds-barred way, how we conceive the region.”
This point of departure seems more reflective of a president’s time-allocation preferences than an attempt to arrive at an objective appraisal of core American interests. After all, Harry Truman’s idea of how he would spend most of his second term did not include a war in Korea. So events in the Middle East may preoccupy President Obama no matter how much he would prefer to focus elsewhere. The regional consequences, for example, of failed statehood in Syria may prove impossible for Washington to downplay or hold at arm’s-length. Presidents are powerful people. Yet they are not always free to choose where they will focus their attention.
What then did the president say to the General Assembly? He listed—as core interests for “my policy during the remainder of my presidency”—four items.
- Confronting external aggression against allies and friends.
- Ensuring the free flow of energy from the region to the world.
- Dismantling terrorist networks that threaten Americans. And
- Not tolerating the development or the use of weapons of mass destruction.
The standard cited by the president for highlighting those four rested on his conclusion that they could be upheld unilaterally. Consider his words: “Now, to say that these are America’s core interests is not to say they are our only interests. We deeply believe it is in our interests to see a Middle East and North Africa that is peaceful and prosperous, and will continue to promote democracy and human rights and open markets, because we believe these practices achieve peace and prosperity. But I also believe that we can rarely achieve these objectives through unilateral American action, particularly through military action. Iraq shows us that democracy cannot simply be imposed by force. Rather, these objectives are best achieved when we partner with the international community and with the countries and peoples of the region.”
This is a novel way to define core interests. Indeed, the core four are all fit subjects for collective action. And clearly it is a core American interest that legitimate governance prevail throughout the region. In any event, however, the basis of the doctrine seems to be one in which core American interests are defined by President Obama as things he thinks the United States can uphold on its own.
The president denied that the United States would either disengage from the region or fail “to do our part to prevent mass atrocities and protect basic human rights,” even when core interests are not directly threatened. Beyond indicating that preventing mass atrocities and even genocide is not a core American interest, it is clear that the president struggled to define the appropriate response to what he called “the breakdown of societies . . . states that are fragile or failing—places where horrendous violence can put innocent men, women and children at risk, with no hope of protection from their national institutions.”
Clearly he was referring mainly to Syria. In discussing Syria the president focused on the limits of American unilateralism, saying “I know there are those who have been frustrated by our unwillingness to use our military might to depose Assad . . .” The key point, however—something we know in part from this speech and in part from other comments President Obama has made about Syria—is that he is skeptical that any American military action in Syria can have a decisive or even useful effect.
It is precisely because Syria does not meet Mr. Obama’s definition of a problem that can be successfully addressed by unilateral American action that it does not make the list of core interests. Indeed, this is the central point: the presumed utility of unilateralism in any given case is what determines whether or not an American interest achieves the “core” status. I doubt this standard will survive the Obama administration. Indeed, it may not survive the balance of this administration.
Clearly the president and his team—at least with respect to the Middle East—sincerely wish to focus their time and effort on things they believe they can do essentially on their own, without the messy complications of alliances and partnerships. The evidence for this view rests on the president’s own words before the General Assembly. It also rests on Ambassador Rice’s explanation for the policy review that produced the speech: the desire of the president to avoid having the Middle East and its problems consume his administration’s foreign policy agenda. It is also a product, in my view, of the way the administration tends to operate with respect to important policy decisions: within a very tight circle of trust.
I believe that core American interests in the region include solving the Syrian catastrophe and facilitating legitimate governance which, by definition, would be respectful of human rights. No, we cannot and should not do these things on our own. Indeed, we cannot effectively do the “core four” on our own. Yet maintaining alliances, cultivating partnerships, and dealing with adversaries all require investments of time and effort in relationships. President Obama seems to have reservations about making the time and effort investments required by the Middle East, and he has an inclination to try to manage important issues within a very small circle. These factors—more than an objective review of core American national security interests in the Middle East—may have driven, more than anything else, both the articulation of the Obama Doctrine at the General Assembly and the review process that produced it.
Excerpted remarks of Frederic C. Hof, Lebanese Armed Forces Regional Conference, April 10, 2014.