Commentary

The Non-Bush Doctrine: Still Waiting for Obama’s

The members of Washington’s foreign policy “community” were suffering from a case of post-Cold War depression following the collapse of the Soviet Union. They were complaining that the United States was deprived of a grand geo-strategic “doctrine” a la the containment policy of using American power to rein in the Soviet threat for four decades, and were pressing successive Democratic and Republican presidents to provide a new set of unifying principles to guide U.S. diplomacy and national security now that the U.S. was not facing the challenge of an all-encompassing global strategic and ideological rival.

Indeed, the concern among those officials, lawmakers, bureaucrats, and pundits that advocated an energized interventionist U.S. strategy in the 1990’s was that without such a new post-Cold War foreign policy doctrine that centers on the need to stand up to a fresh set of global perils and villains it would become more difficult to mobilize the support of the American people for maintaining the large U.S. military presence around the world.

But Republican president George H. W. Bush and his Democratic successor Bill Clinton seemed to fail to draw the outline of that kind of inspiring foreign policy narrative. Instead, they and their advisors improvised their way in the diplomatic and national security arenas, pointing out to a mishmash of threats (“world disorder;” drug trafficking; terrorism; rogue regimes; Islamic radicalism) and scoundrels (Noriega; Saddam; Milosevic) that required series of ad-hoc U.S. diplomatic efforts and military interventions.

It was the combination of the 9/11 and the influence of the neoconservative ideologues that allowed President George W. Bush to respond to the demand by the foreign policy community by launching the dramatic production — the Bush Doctrine — whose grandiose ambitions (changing regimes; exporting democracy worldwide; fighting Evils; defeating Islamofascism; containing China and Russia), the expansive means to achieve them (diplomatic unilateralism; military preemption) and their ensuing gigantic military and economic costs made the Cold War era’s containment strategy look like a cheap endeavor.

But the problem with foreign policy doctrines is that they are not the real explanations for why America goes abroad to fight adversaries and help friends. Instead, these doctrines provide a rationale for American global interventions that in essence are a reflection of U.S. interests and capabilities — or the way these are being perceived by American presidents.

Hence presidents Bush the First and Clinton who were trying to promote a cost-effective internationalist foreign policy agenda that seemed to take into consideration the limits operating on American power at home and abroad — call it a cost-effective Pax Americana — avoided embracing ambitious doctrines that could raise expectations for costly U.S. policies. Bush the Second and his aides exploited 9/11 and its aftermath to advance and implement costly policies based on unilateralism and preemption — the most dramatic being the ousting of Saddam Hussein and the invasion of Iraq — and provided the underlying principles to support them in the form of the Bush Doctrine.

But when the Bush policies failed — the Bush doctrine collapsed.

In a way, the Obama Doctrine — call it the Non-Bush Doctrine — is a reflection of the effort by President Barack Obama and his aides to adjust U.S. foreign policy to a new reality in which America is operating with more limited economic and military resources and with less ability to exert them. Obama’s National Security Strategy (NSS) which was issued on May 27th seem to provide the rationale for this process of retrenchment and is more in line with the cost-effective or “realist” foundations of the policies of Bush I and Clinton — and divested of the ambitious and “idealist” fundamentals that guided Bush II.

Unlike Bush II and more like the first two post-Cold War presidents, Obama refrains from endorsing a policy of preemption, although he reserves the right to do that while applying the “standards that govern the use of force.” The current White House occupant rejects Bush II’s unilateralism, while stressing the need for the U.S. to work together with other nations to achieve common foreign policy goals. “No one nation — no matter how powerful — can meet global challenges alone,” says the new NSS, underlying the new administration’s commitment to multilateralism.

And Obama has clearly abandoned the ambitious Freedom Agenda of his predecessor that assumed that America has the right and the obligation to spread democracy — if necessary, through the use of military force — and replaces it with a pledge “to promote a balance of power that favors freedom,” saying that Washington “will not impose any system of government on another country” while seeking “principled engagement” with non-democracies. The Obama Administration’s engagement with China and Russia demonstrates this new commitment.

The NSS also underscores another component of the Obama’s Non-Bush Doctrine — a rejection of the notion of a Global War or Terrorism or on Radical Islam — displayed in the direction and the style of the policies of the new administration. Indeed, the new document points out to less grandiose and more manageable goal of “defeating al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and around the globe”.

That the Obama Doctrine and the foreign policy that the president has been pursuing are closer in terms of substance and approach to those advanced by Bush I and Clinton may sound like very good news. But one needs to recognize that guiding the policies of the pre-9/11 presidents — like that of President Obama — has been the assumption that America will continue to play a leading role in maintaining the global security order — with the occasional little help from its friends here and there.

But if the terrorist attacks of 9/11 made it clear that the cost-effective Pax Americana was actually more costly than expected, the current U.S.-led military intervention in Afghanistan suggests that there may be an element of non-realism in the notion that America will be able to continue to shoulder most of the burden of containing various real and imaginary threats around the world. Hence one should not be surprised if as the process of adjusting U.S. policies to the new global balance of power continues, the next edition of the Obama Doctrine will look very different from the current one.

Leon T. Hadar is a research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy, international trade, the Middle East, and South and East Asia. He is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.