The Obama Doctrine – Part I

Jeffrey Goldberg’s piece, The Obama Doctrine, is compulsory reading. One of the more intriguing revelations in it is James Clapper’s “surprise visit” to the White House in the aftermath of the chemical weapons attack in Gouta, Damascus. The Director of National Intelligence interrupted the President’s Daily Brief—where his team of analysts walk the president through the Book—to warn that the intelligence on the chemical attack was not a “slam dunk.” The sudden change in the Director’s assessment implies that a new piece of information had come to light that cast doubt on the thesis that Assad was responsible for the atrocity. This corroborates Seymour Hersh’s story:

Obama’s change of mind had its origins at Porton Down, the defence laboratory in Wiltshire. British intelligence had obtained a sample of the sarin used in the 21 August attack and analysis demonstrated that the gas used didn’t match the batches known to exist in the Syrian army’s chemical weapons arsenal.

The Policy Tensor was skeptical of the Kerry gaffe that rescued the administration by reportedly prompting the Russian offer. It turns out that Obama had earlier taken Putin aside at the G20 summit in St Petersberg and told him “that if he forced Assad to get rid of the chemical weapons, that that would eliminate the need for us taking a military strike.” The Kerry gaffe was merely PR.

Goldberg’s piece is a gift that keeps on giving. President Obama “questioned, often harshly, the role that America’s Sunni Arab allies play in fomenting anti-American terrorism.” In a conversation with the Australian prime minister, Obama described how “he watched Indonesia gradually move from a relaxed, syncretistic Islam to a more fundamentalist, unforgiving interpretation.”

Why, Turnbull asked, was this happening?

Because, Obama answered, the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs have funneled money, and large numbers of imams and teachers, into the country.

Southeast Asia is not the only place under the influence of Sunni petrodollars.

A widely held sentiment inside the White House is that many of the most prominent foreign-policy think tanks in Washington are doing the bidding of their Arab and pro-Israel funders. I’ve heard one administration official refer to Massachusetts Avenue, the home of many of these think tanks, as “Arab-occupied territory.”

This page has long argued that while the United States should continue to protect the oil monarchies from external aggression, it makes little sense to back their regional adventures. Specifically, we argued that the administration should oppose the Saudi intervention in Yemen, in light of the strength and popularity of the Houthis and the fact that they could be relied upon to serve as a bulwark against AQAP.

Goldberg says that Obama “is clearly irritated that foreign-policy orthodoxy compels him to treat Saudi Arabia as an ally.” It seems absurd that the administration was able to defy the Saudis in Egypt, Syria, and Iran, but not in Yemen. Perhaps the United States provided reconnaisance and logistic support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen in order to placate them after the nuclear deal. Or maybe they have a tacit understanding that the Arabian peninsula is in the Saudi sphere of influence; something also evident in Bahrain.

Goldberg doesn’t raise many pertinent issues in US Syria policy. We know that the administration followed a ‘bait-and-bleed’ strategy against Iran; providing just enough support to prevent Assad from winning but not enough to defeat him. McDonough, Obama’s Chief of Staff and the perhaps the second most powerful man in Washington, argued that—to put it bluntly—it is in the US interest to let them chop each other’s heads off. This was an extremely high risk strategy; as I pointed out at the time. A prolonged civil war in Syria was likely create a very large cadre of battle-hardened jihadists who would fan out later to spread terror in thirty countries; in a repeat of what we saw after the mujahideen war in Afghanistan. As if on cue, ISIS used its new base in Syria to go back and conquer half of Iraq to forge a brutal caliphate.

But more generally, this page has great admiration for President Obama’s foreign policy realism. Applying the simple test for realism I have suggested before, the article mentions the word “interest” no fewer than 30 times. Although he does acknowledge it explicity, Obama has adhered to a grand strategy of Restraint; advocated most prominently by Barry Posen. He has also pushed for sustained diplomatic engagement; an endeavour in which he has been well served by his chief diplomat, John Kerry. As we look forward to another decade or two of liberal hawks in the White House, let’s take a moment to appreciate the achievements of this President.

I’ll have much more to say in Part II.

2 thoughts on “The Obama Doctrine – Part I

  1. Perhaps Obama’s realism and restraint might eventually turn the tide against American exceptionalism and presage a return to multilateralism. Obama has also shown courage against the liberal interventionist and neocon security tribes. For that he deserves (limited) praise. On the matter of Syria: as you have repeatedly pointed out Syria’s war has metastasized due to American dithering and diplomatic inaction. They could have strongarmed the Syria contact group into a serious peace settlement (with arab boots on the ground) in 2013. By not doing so, the syrian crisis has exploded into a wider conflagration of the middle east and has now swept over into Europe. Hard to call that a success for realism.

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