The Problem with the Obama Doctrine

The ‘Obama Doctrine’ is finally taking shape—with The Atlantic magazine revealing its most salient points through a series of conversations with the US president—but the insights are not all flattering, not least when it comes to the Arab world. In summation, President Barack Obama doesn’t want US responsibility for the Arab world’s problems; would prefer it sort out things on its own; and that Europe pick up more slack. An Egyptian friend in Cairo, deeply critical of Arab regimes and US foreign policy, commented to me after considering Obama’s speech – ‘the usual tired refrain is about to happen from our American friends. They’ll complain the US gets criticized if it intervenes – and if it doesn’t, it still gets criticized.’

In Libya, the United States backed the uprising by “leading from behind,” and Obama appears to regret that backing, as the country is now “in a mess.” His justification for resenting US involvement is that Europe didn’t live up to its responsibilities. Certainly, Europe could have done more, and the NATO operation had many flaws. The follow-up was abysmal, and didn’t take stock of how much work would have to be done, even with the full cooperation of the population. This is where the true criticism of 2011 ought to lie—not questioning whether NATO averted a catastrophe in Benghazi in February 2011, because it surely did according to most Libya specialists, even if there were other consequences—but whether there were better ways to assist Libya thereafter. In Libya today, the main discussion isn’t whether or not there should have been an intervention – it is a bit peculiar if that is the main discussion outside of it.

The discussion cannot be reduced to choosing between Bush-style catastrophic invasions of Iraq in 2003, or shrinking to an isolationism that resulted in the Rwandan genocide continuing as the world watched. It is that false choice that has left Syria in the lurches of another despicable outcome—where the international community has abandoned Syrians to a barbaric Assad regime, a radical Islamism, and the machinations of external powers.

But that kind of cynicism is present throughout this piece. Obama seems to suggest the region is inevitably doomed to being run by a bunch of fiends and thugs, who care little about their own people. Jeffrey Goldberg writes, “Advisers recall that Obama would cite a pivotal moment in The Dark Knight, the 2008 Batman movie, to help explain not only how he understood the role of isis, but how he understood the larger ecosystem in which it grew. “There’s a scene in the beginning in which the gang leaders of Gotham are meeting,” the president would say. “These are men who had the city divided up. They were thugs, but there was a kind of order.””

Now, Obama might be accurate on that—but is it not at least equally true that the peoples of the region have an inalienable right to struggle for better choices—ones that don’t rely on external meddling, nor autocracy of a non or anti-Islamist kind, nor a radicalism informed by the deviant neo-religion peddled by the likes of ISIS?

A charitable reading is that Obama would prefer that the peoples of the region have that choice—but just in an ideal world. In that regard, Obama is a cynic par excellence—because it doesn’t seem like he expects any of those choices to be realistic ones. They’re just symbolic ones, and in the meantime (which seems to be indefinite), the prescriptions are hardly visionary. The Arab world does need to take stock of its own issues, and its leaders ought to at least begin processes that would allow it to fill the void the withdrawal of US power would leave. That takes hard work and courage—but Obama’s main prescription for the future of the region can hardly be considered as such.

Obama’s suggestion is that Saudi Arabia, the main Arab powerhouse, needs to come to a modus viviendi with Iran, another major power in the wider region. This is a solution rampant with deleterious outcomes. The real and positive advantages of the Iran nuclear deal notwithstanding, there ought not to be any illusions about Iran—or Saudi Arabia. A region that is based on the dominance of two powers that fail to uphold fundamental rights, and engage in short-sighted, often sectarian, power games, is not a stable region. On the contrary—it’s a recipe for even more instability. That isn’t realism—but rather pessimism, as one of my own colleagues in the Beltway recently confided in me, that leaves the citizen of the region with little hope for progressive and positive change. Obama suggests that the citizen should be empowered—but in this road-map, that does not seem to be a priority, nor does it seem to be particularly likely.

Obama would no doubt have preferred that the Arab world sorted the issue of Libya itself in 2011. But most analysts and observers on Libyan affairs note that if the US hadn’t been involved in Libya at all, it would have meant that Benghazi would have suffered tremendous casualties, because the powers in the region would have let it happen. That’s a damning condemnation of both the Arab world and the European continent—and Obama is right to be infuriated by that. But that is reality. Five years on, would there be no ISIS in Libya if that had been allowed to be the case – or would it have found another fertile ground due to that destruction? Look to Syria, for example, for some possible hints.

Is the simple retreat of the US appropriate anyway—and might it inspire Arab powers to finally take responsibility for the region? That’s a questionable notion. The US retreat in the Gulf, for example, allowed for a disastrous campaign in the Yemen by GCC powers, where they took the lead in ‘sorting it out’ and the Yemen stands in rubble as a result. The retreat, when it came to Syria, didn’t lead to Arab powers mobilizing—it led to a void that the Iranians and the Russians filled. Again, that abyss meant the people of Syria have suffered incredibly and left Europe dealing (exceptionally poorly) with a refugee crisis that will cause even further suffering for at least one, if not two, generations.

Take another example where US power could have been critical in producing a more stable and just outcome: where has the visionary leadership of US power been when it has come to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, particularly over the occupation and blockade of Palestinian lands by Israeli forces? It is a US-mediated conflict that has been ongoing for more than two generations – but here, where the US has had the most potential to bring a just and equitable settlement, it has hardly aimed in that direction. The Israeli occupation and siege continue on Palestinian territories.

It’s positive to work towards a world where Europe upholds its own values more consistently in the international arena—and it certainly doesn’t at present. It’s constructive to encourage the Arab world to sort its own problems out, rather than rely on the US or other powers to do so. The power in the Arab world should be Arab nations, with a respect for the fundamental rights of the citizen at its core. But none of that is likely if, on the one hand, the United States continues to maintain a deleterious status quo, and on the other, allows for a power vacuum to emerge, with even worse powers ready to fill the void. None of that is realism– it’s just cynicism that does little to advance a progression towards the upholding of fundamental rights.

“There are going to be times where either because it’s not a direct threat to us or because we just don’t have the tools in our toolkit to have a huge impact that, tragically, we have to refrain from jumping in with both feet,” Obama said in the interview.

While it is positive to see a US president reluctant to arbitrarily deploy military force, particularly considering the fallout from Iraq and elsewhere, there is a danger of swinging to another extreme—where the definition of ‘a direct threat’ is so narrow, and so parochial, that much evil can happen in the world where a powerful intervention might have held it back. It’s not easy to find a path in between—but it is necessary. Americans may find themselves ‘damned if we do and damned if we don’t’—but that’s a price of power. It always has been—and if the US wants blessings, more than damnation, its leaders have to do a lot better than either Bush-style interventionism or the well-thought out, but ultimately self-defeating, ‘Obama Doctrine.’  

Dr. H.A. Hellyer is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. He is also Associate Fellow in International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London.

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Image: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza