The emerging Obama doctrine

The president’s pragmatic worldview is likely to temper military engagement overseas.

Jim R. Bounds/AP
New lead: President Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Adm. Mike Mullen (c.) at the Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point at Havelock, N.C.

As President Obama carves out his own foreign policy, there are signs that his use of military force overseas will be tempered by his views on the limits of American power.

Mr. Obama is leaning toward a pragmatic approach that limits military deployment of the kind used by former President Bush in the “war on terror,” while remaining open to humanitarian aid and security training, especially in places such as Darfur. This approach departs from Mr. Bush but also synthesizes policy elements from Bush’s later years.

“It is a very balanced, pragmatic understanding that America’s interests and her ideals don’t always coincide and so you have to make some trade-offs,” says John Nagl, a former Army officer who now heads the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington.

To a degree, Bush had come round to something resembling that position during his second term, as his administration began to recalibrate US goals amid the realities of two wars.

Obama’s top-to-bottom review of US strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for instance, is expected to yield a downscaled agenda there. And while Obama has established an end date for US combat troops in Iraq – something Bush did not do – he’ll keep those forces there longer than he had initially wanted because of recommendations of the Pentagon, and despite the misgivings in his own party.

Obama has also broken from the previous administration by reaching out diplomatically to countries such as Iran and Syria, which have had fraught relations with the Bush White House.

An Obama doctrine?

In a speech announcing his drawdown plan for Iraq earlier this month, the president painted some broad brush strokes of an “Obama Doctrine” concerning use of force overseas.

The US must not rely on the military alone to achieve its foreign policy ends, he said. And if the US does need to take military action, it must do so only after seeking bipartisan support and after working closely with “friends and allies,” he added.

“We have learned that America must go to war with clearly defined goals,” he told the crowd of marines at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

“We have learned that we must always weigh the costs of action, and communicate those costs candidly to the American people.”

“Policymakers and military leaders have learned a great deal about the employment of American power, and the costs and risks of doing so and I think that is reflected in the president’s remarks,” says Nathan Freier, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, another think tank in Washington.

Moreover, in reaching out to Iran and Syria – two countries the Bush administration would not talk to – Obama is not necessarily looking to impose American ideals of democracy and freedom.

“There is business we have to do with those states to keep America safe and so to a certain extent, we hold our nose, we try to nudge them forward on issues of human rights and democracy promotion, but we understand we’re not always going to win that fight and there are other issues on the table,” says Mr. Nagl.

Similarly, despite an escalation of troops in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has suggested that the US will scale back on their goals there, from achieving a full-fledged stable democracy to achieving a semblance of security.

Darfur may be first policy test

The first big test of Obama’s views on the benefits of international consultation and the limits of US military power may come when he confronts a decision on Darfur, where a civil war has left tens of thousands dead, a massive food shortage, and a burgeoning refugee crisis.

Sudan would be a bellwether for Obama, says Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at Brookings, a think tank. “This will be a test of Obama’s multilateralism,” he says.

The administration is currently mulling over its options, which could include a role for the US military, says the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

“I have no indications that they are going to be shy at looking at all the instruments of national power,” says the official. “There are areas that [the new administration] has been pretty vocal about in terms of wanting to address and resolve specific issues, and Sudan is probably the most prominent in Africa.”

Mr. O’Hanlon, who typically takes more conservative views on defense policy, was not an ardent supporter of Obama during the campaign. But he says he has been pleased to see the new commander in chief take pragmatic and less liberal stances on issues like Iraq and Afghanistan.

While President Clinton’s failed to intervene in Rwanda in the 1990s, O’Hanlon says Obama might want to do something in Darfur. But O’Hanlon, a former peace corps volunteer in Congo, says that probably won’t happen until after he gets a handle on the domestic crisis and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“My guess is that Sudan and Congo are just going to have to wait,” O’Hanlon says.

Early days

It’s too soon to say just how Obama will tackle the broad range of defense policy issues now before him, most analysts acknowledge.

“All foreign and security policy is perpetually a work in progress, so I wouldn’t pretend to argue that the current administration has thought through the range of contingency challenges they may confront,” says Mr. Freier of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“But it appears to me that this administration has a very coherent view of the world… and a degree of temperance and realism in the application of power.”

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