US President Barack Obama. Photo: AFP
US President Barack Obama. Photo: AFP

A contested legacy: From the Obama doctrine to doctrinaire Obama

The incumbent US President has an idiosyncratic way to discern what presents an existential threat to the world's sole superpower and what doesn't

It is indeed going to be a long drawn contest over the legacy of Barack Obama’s foreign policy. Obama realises the battle is important for him and has already attempted to seize the first-mover advantage. In a series of interviews given to Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama hinted why it is important for him to put out an early narrative. In the context of the nuclear deal with Iran, Obama said: “Look, 20 years from now, I’m still going to be around, God willing. If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it’s my name on this." Obama will leave office at a relatively young age of 55 and will be witness to a massively contested debate over his own legacy. If one leaves out Bill Clinton, the last time a younger US President completed two full terms in office was in 1869 when Ulysses S. Grant left office.

What is the Obama Doctrine?—Goldberg puts it in a comprehensive article in the latest edition of The Atlantic magazine. Goldberg’s analysis is extraordinarily fixated with one particular episode—where Obama refuses to enforce the red line he had himself drawn for Syria. August 30, 2013, believes Goldberg, was Obama’s liberation day—the day Obama chose not to follow what he derisively refers to as “the Washington playbook." The planned attack on Syria the next day was abrogated. Obama skirted around the questions on the imminent impact on US credibility in following words: “Dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force."

There are other aspects to the Obama doctrine. The incumbent US President has an idiosyncratic way to discern what presents an existential threat to the world’s sole superpower and what doesn’t. He believes Islamic State (IS) is not an existential threat to the US but climate change is. Ukraine, for Obama, is a core Russian interest not an American one. Asia is far more crucial to the future of US than the Middle East. He identifies himself as a realist as opposed to a liberal interventionist. The US, he believes, cannot fix all problems of this world. He privately questions why the US still counts Saudi Arabia and Pakistan among its allies.

As far as doctrines go, this one would notch an average score. And no political doctrine, worth its name, is without a political context. As Stephen Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations explains to Goldberg: “If John McCain had been elected in 2008, you would still have seen some degree of retrenchment. It’s what the country wanted. If you come into office in the middle of a war that is not going well, you’re convinced that the American people have hired you to do less." But Obama’s application of his own doctrine has ranged from complete abandonment to almost turning doctrinaire.

Having been “tired of watching Washington unthinkingly drift toward war in Muslim countries", the Obama administration still decided to intervene in Libya to protect the people of Benghazi from Muammar Gaddafi, the then ruler of North African country. To his credit, Obama admits Libya is a mess. His private questioning of the relationship with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan has not percolated enough into the decisions of his administration. Obama cut his New Delhi visit short to attend the funeral of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia. This newspaper has criticised the decision of Obama’s administration to go ahead with the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan. As far as these two countries are considered, the Washington playbook still rules.

Add to that, there are questions over whether the pivot to Asia—a paramount priority of Obama—has been adequately followed up on. On the other hand, the urge to hastily withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan—traits of doctrinaire Obama—has left the two countries in the throes of IS and Taliban, respectively. To be sure, the decision to enter these countries was not Obama’s and his predecessor deserves a huge share of the blame. But having entered once and significantly altered the ground situation, the decision to withdraw without adequately building up a cohesive state structure with capable military organs to back deserves equal censure. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, Obama’s exit strategy has all been about exit hardly about strategy.

This is not to say that Obama has no achievements to show for. He did achieve more in Syria with diplomacy than he could have with war. The nuclear deal with Iran will probably count as his single biggest achievement. The opening to Cuba was long overdue. The shedding of protracted obstinacy on Myanmar was also a pragmatic decision.

In Obama, we have a US President eager to shape the debate on his own legacy and there is nothing wrong about it. But the debate has just begun and the doctrine—and the (in)consistency of Obama’s approach to it—will be thoroughly scrutinised in the days and years to come.

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