The Obama Doctrine: The Audacity of Ignorance

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The Obama Doctrine: The Audacity of Ignorance

'Washington lives and works in a bubble, of its own making, of its own ignorance,' writes Van Buren. (PHoto: John Sonderman/flickr/cc)

Think what it must be like to be one of America’s allies.

You enjoy some trade, watch Beyonce and Brad Pitt at the movies, and visit Disneyland on holiday. But then there’s America again at your cubicle, asking again that you join some coalition, get some troops into another wacky American overseas intervention for freedom, or regime change, or to stop another impending genocide only American can see or stop. What can you do? It’s hard to say no knowing what a big bully the U.S. is, but given how poorly the last one worked out, and the one before that, and the one before that, nobody at home is in favor of another round. Still, you’re stuck giving something, so maybe a few special forces, or a couple of airstrikes, as a token…

And then you get blamed for being a freeloader when things don’t work out, or America loses interest and expected you to pick up the slack. And why not? America has a lot of coalitions and freedom to look after globally, and just can’t take care of everything.

The Obama Doctrine

That bit of sarcasm unfortuately seems to describe the “Obama Doctrine,” as laid out in a legacy-killing interview with the president in Atlantic magazine.

Specifically, Obama was referring to the 2011 conflict in Libya. Coming on the heels of the fading Arab Spring, Libyan autocrat Muammar Qaddafi’s 34 year stable reign appeared to be weakening. The U.S., after decades of hostility with Libya, had reopened diplomatic relations in 2006. As part of that deal, Qaddafi rid himself of a nascent nuclear program. As unrest, however, spread in 2011, Qaddafi threatened a violent crackdown.

Obama (all quotes are from Atlantic): “At that point, you’ve got Europe and a number of Gulf countries who despise Qaddafi, or are concerned on a humanitarian basis, who are calling for action. But what has been a habit over the last several decades in these circumstances is people pushing us to act but then showing an unwillingness to put any skin in the game.”

While there is no doubt many nations expressed concern (who wouldn’t?), it appears only the United States wanted to drive those thoughts into armed conflict. While Obama was allegedly wary of another U.S. military action in the Middle East, his advisors, lead by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, invoked that magic Washington, DC word “genocide,” claiming Qaddafi was about to “slaughter his own people,” and stopping that was a foreign policy “to-do” item for the United States.

Obama: “So what I said at that point was, we should act as part of an international coalition. But because this is not at the core of our interests, we need to get a UN mandate; we need Europeans and Gulf countries to be actively involved in the coalition; we will apply the military capabilities that are unique to us, but we expect others to carry their weight.”

Free Riders

But, according to Obama, that is where the good news ended.

Obama: “When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong, there’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up… [French leader] Sarkozy wanted to trumpet the flights he was making in the air campaign, despite the fact that we had wiped out all the air defenses and essentially set up the entire infrastructure for the intervention.”

As for the UK, British Prime Minister David Cameron soon stopped paying attention, becoming “distracted by a range of other things,” according to Obama. The basic idea was having arranged the intervention in Libya, and having proceeded with a very small coalition that for practical purposes included no Arab nations, it was going to be up to France and the UK to take over the messy part of the operation, which was ill-defined by the U.S. except as “whatever happened next.”

And when France and Britain did not jump to achieve America’s goals, what was Obama’s characterization of them?

“Free riders,” he said.

The Audacity of Ignorance

What that Obama Doctrine omits is that the coalition, such as it was, was formed to prevent Qaddafi from harming large numbers of Libyans. However, the mission quickly and without any outside mandate morphed into regime change, with the goal now set to kill Qaddafi and replace him with, well, the U.S. would find someone. As could have been easily foreseen given the failure of a similar policy in Iraq, and as subsequent events proved all too clearly in Libya, the result was chaos. Libya is now a failed state, home to its own Islamic State franchise.

The audacity of the American president to blame even part of that outcome on other nations speaks to dark things in the American character, and American foreign policy, which will continue to plague the world for some time. And while many globally fear a President Trump, they will be advised to recall Hillary Clinton’s leading role in the Libyan disaster as well.

Washington lives and works in a bubble, of its own making, of its own ignorance.

Inside that bubble, American goals are deemed, de facto, to be world goals, and coalitions should form like crystals around them. America alone is the arbiter of what “genocides” need or need not be stopped, and at what point the United States should start something, and then back away, and then perhaps return. The American foreign policy establishment never seems to notice that for all the genocides that need stopping, all the evil dictators that need toppling, and regimes that need changing, few if any nations seem to share America’s zeal for military intervention. Few countries seem so committed to bypassing other tools of foreign policy (diplomacy, trade) and jumping to the literal attack. In fact, few countries seem to want to put skin into the game, to use Obama’s expression, perhaps in large part because it is not their game.

History is Not Generous

If Libya was an isolated example, history might be more generous to 21st century America.

But one must look to Afghanistan, where a shell of the original coalition sent to bust up the Taliban now acts to maintain some-sort of American vassal state. Iraq of course is the uber-example, a war to stop another evil dictator (formerly supported by the United States) that changed under its coalition’s nose into creating a whole new nation-state in America’s image. The same is happening in real-time in Syria, where the U.S. State Department still believes a coalition of 62 nations is furthering whatever America’s goal there might be.

Obama and all of the presidential candidates also keep saying much the same thing about how the Sunnis and Kurds need to “step up” to fight ISIS.

Standing above them all is the grandest of American coalitions at present, that one that seeks to smite Islamic State, in the many countries it has metastasized into. But funny, one hears little any more about any coalition against al Qaeda. Meh, times change, gotta move on.

One foreign commentator said the United States has “turned into a nation of idiots, incapable of doing anything except conducting military operations against primitive countries.”

That, perhaps, is the clearest statement of the Obama Doctrine yet.

Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren spent a year in Iraq as a State Department Foreign Service Officer serving as Team Leader for two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Now in Washington, he writes about Iraq and the Middle East at his blog, We Meant Well. His new book is We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books).

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