Monday, December 7, 2015

The Lack of an Obama Doctrine is Again Being Criticized

Obama has often been criticized for not having an Obama Doctrine. For 6 and a half years, the GOP has complained that he 'leads from behind,'

Much of the press too seems to sort of miss W. They want bellicose talk and fire and brimstone vows to eradicate evildoers from the face of the earth.

Matt Yglesias has talked about his in depth after an interview he did with the President earlier in the year.

"Over the course of the 45-minute interview — which ranged from big questions of international relations theory to small details of budget policy —he articulated a foreign policy vision guided by a striking principle or, as he put it, a "strong belief that we don't have military solutions to every problem in the 21st century."

"One could construe this as simply a banal observation, but in the context of the post-Cold War world it's actually rather profound. The American military is genuinely awe-inspiring in its capabilities, and the absence of a rival super-power means there are few external checks on the use of military force. This leaves the United States predisposed to overreact and over-commit, with leaders from both parties driving the country to dissipate its resources on foreign entanglements with questionable cost-benefit ratios."

"Obama wants to take credit not only for the drawdown of two wars, but for holding to a policy of wise restraint — not in absolute terms, but relative to a political system and an elite consensus that is constantly pushing in the direction of more military intervention."

In some ways, if you want find a precursor for the President, you could compare him to Ike.

But the media too-certainly CNN-is always pushing for bellicose talk.

"When problems happen, they don't call Beijing," Obama says, "they don't call Moscow. They call us."

"He says this is a responsibility that Americans embrace, but it's clear that his policymaking also views it as a trap to avoid. Countries around the world have found that it's cost-effective to invest money and energy in influence-peddling in the United States in order to try to rent the earth's most powerful military force to advance their own ends. They are helped by a media that, as Obama says, takes an "if it bleeds, it leads" approach to coverage of global affairs, thus preventing any kind of sensible balancing of different priorities."

Regarding the President's speech last night, the President was, as Ygleisas points out, confronting a problem he's long feared.

"President Obama took the unusual step of delivering a prime time Oval Office address on ISIS and terrorism because the San Bernardino shooting was a variety of terrorist attack that has long been seen as a unique nightmare by the president and his staff."

"Members of Obama's national security team have been wrestling with how to respond to a San Bernardino-style scenario for a long time now, as I understand from conversations with them dating back to long before those events or the earlier shootings in Paris or Colorado Springs. The problem isn't that these attacks are uniquely damaging to the United States, but that they're uniquely difficult to respond to in any way that isn't wildly counterproductive."

This is the real fear, the real danger, with even some liberals now saying the President should 'speak to Americans' fears' rather than seek to calm those fears.

"Many senior administration officials at this point are part of the permanent national security apparatus, but the core group of real "Obama people" has a surprisingly dovish self-conception, where they see themselves operating in a world in which demands for military intervention are constant and endless— from the media, from congressional Republicans, from foreign governments and their allies in Washington, and from the permanent security bureaucracy itself — but America's actual ability to engage in non-counterproductive interventions is quite limited."

"The Oval Office address represents Obama's best effort to meet the psychological needs of a frightened nation under attack while sticking on a policy level with a restrained policy that Obama recognizes is emotionally unsatisfying but that he regards as offering the best chance for success."

Putin did make a very perspicacious observation at his 60 Minutes interview a few months ago: so much of US foreign policy is based on domestic pressures.

"The deaths in San Bernardino were both tragic and horrifying. But if there is one thing the United States has learned from Sandy Hook and Charleston and Colorado Springs andscores of other mass shooting events it is that the United States of America is fundamentally robust to the occasional spree killing."

"The real nightmare is what comes next. We saw in Paris that firearms attacks lead major newspapers to leap toward declarations like "war in the heart of Paris" (la guerre en plein de Paris) and "this time it's war" (cette fois, c'est la guerre) that are, of course, reminiscent of the post-9/11 declaration of a "war on terror."

"Speaking of nightmares, La Pen and friends just one some major ground in France.".

"The attack in San Bernardino was new and horrifying. But the problem of ISIS is not new. The previous American policy — airstrikes, training, diplomatic work in Syria, no big ground troop presence — was already the policy that Obama thought most likely to succeed. A new attack appears to require a new response, but there is no new response that Obama thinks makes sense."

Staying the course is criticized as 'inaction.'

"The problem is that inaction seems like a political impossibility. Having discussed this problem with several members of Obama's team, I believe this inaction problem is what the president had in mind when he said something to me that wound up getting him in hot water over a minor question of word choice:"

"Look, the point is this: my first job is to protect the American people. It is entirely legitimate for the American people to be deeply concerned when you've got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris. We devote enormous resources to that, and it is right and appropriate for us to be vigilant and aggressive in trying to deal with that — the same way a big city mayor's got to cut the crime rate down if he wants that city to thrive. But we also have to attend to a lot of other issues, and we've got to make sure we're right-sizing our approach so that what we do isn't counterproductive. I would argue that our invasion of Iraq was counterproductive to the goal of keeping our country safe."

"The use of the term "random" when the attack was, in fact, deliberately targeting a kosher deli became a dumb two-day gaffe story. But it's the possibility of random attacks that Obama was worried about because he knows better than anyone that there's nothing he can do to ensure that America isn't afflicted by the occasional mass shooting."

"And you have all these hawkish Beltway pundits ready to declare that if there is such occaisonal an attack that it means his strategy must not be working or else the attack wouldn't have happened."

Yglesias crystallizes the problem of US politics:

"When these shootings are carried out by lone wolves, America responds by arguing for a few days about gun control and then moving on. But a mass shooting perpetrated by a suspect — or several suspects — with known ties to international Islamist terrorism would, politically speaking, demand a more robust response."

Politically there is a demand to 'do stupid shit.'

"A situation like the one above would demand a response that — like the invasion of Iraq — would almost certainly be counterproductive. It would be a violation of the "don't do stupid shit" principle that constitutes a more profound national security doctrine than Obama is given credit for. After all, whether an attack comes tomorrow or next week or next month or next year, the US government is already well aware of the threat posed by ISIS."

"If there were any ideas for countering it that the White House thought made sense, the administration would be executing them already. But an actual attack on US soil demands that we "do something" — something that would already have been rejected as unworkable or counterproductive."

"This line of thought lead some in the White House to conclude that the hardest problem in US counterterrorism policy was in some ways as much a speechwriting challenge as anything else. How do you sell the American people on the idea of not really doing much of anything new in response to an attack? The Oval Office address was the Obama team's best effort at answering that question."

So last night's speech was an argument for not doing anything new-I'd frame it as staying the course.

Anyway, Yglesias very accurately and concisely frames the problem-one of politics, not foreign policy.


  1. O/T: Mike did you hear about the London terror stabbings? This makes for an interesting case study:

    USA: terrorists kill 14 would 21 with assault weapons (7 dead and 10.5 wounded per terrorist)

    UK: terrorist stabs three people.

    Hmmmm, it's almost like the lack of availability of assault weapons brought down the damage done per terrorist in the UK case.