April 6, 2011

Obama Needs A Foreign Policy Doctrine

by Dr Mohammad Taqi, published in Pakistan’s Daily Times:
As President Barack Obama announced his re-election bid for 2012 earlier this week, one was reminded of a 2008 Democratic primaries election campaign advertisement run by his then opponent, Hillary Clinton. It went something like this:

“It is 3 am and your children are safe and asleep. But there is a phone in the White House and it is ringing. Something is happening in the world. Your vote will decide who answers that call, whether it is someone who already knows the world’s leaders, knows the military — someone tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world. It is 3 am and your children are safe and asleep. Who do you want answering the phone?”

The theatrics of this typical US election campaign ad — including the sleeping babies and the portentous rings of the red phone — were obviously designed to remind the voters that they should opt for the leader who already had national security and foreign policy experience. There was a lot of banter between both the Democratic hopefuls at the time about how ill-prepared each was to handle a grave crisis in the world. Well, four years down the road, it is still not clear if either one of them possessed enough foreign policy experience to handle the situation that has unfolded in the Middle East and North Africa this year.

Frankly, since events started unraveling in the Arab world, the Obama administration’s response has been so erratic that it is hard to tell if one department knows what the other is thinking or doing. Many observers, however, would rightly point out that such chaotic decision-making is really business as usual for the US government, even on a good day. While George W Bush took pride in being the ‘decider’, Obama has been praised or reviled — depending upon one’s perspective — for being the academic president who loves to conduct policy seminars in the White House before making up his mind on major policy matters.

However, what might happen with this group-hug decision-making is that, eventually, different cabals within the government start shaping up things the way they would like. We already know that in the case of Libya, three women prevailed upon Obama, ostensibly to protect human rights and civilian lives, to go along with their gunboat diplomacy, against the advice of his senior defence and intelligence advisors. If a US president does not take a firm stance on what he would like his foreign policy legacy to look like, chances are that someone or some group may end up writing that legacy for him.

US presidents from James Monroe to George W Bush have used their executive position to put forth, in a well-crafted and articulate manner, a constellation of their foreign policy objectives in what have subsequently become known as the various eponymous doctrines of US foreign policy. While doing so, these leaders did not necessarily act independently of the US Congress but used their executive authority to frame the foreign policy agenda that Congress ended up backing on the international front. This past week, President Obama laid out his philosophy about military involvement in conflicts around the world: “The US will not be able to dictate the pace and scope of this change. Only the people of the region can do that. But we can make a difference... we must stand alongside those who believe in the same core principles that have guided us through many storms; our opposition to violence directed at one’s own people, our support for a set of universal rights, including the freedom for people to express themselves and choose their leaders and our support for governments that are ultimately responsive to the aspirations of the people.”

Some admired the speech as a success while others felt that it stopped short of articulating a unifying thesis to analyze not only the upheavals in the Arab world but to define the continued role that the US will have to play therein. Obama himself relied on his nuanced rhetoric: “The US is inundated with false choices. They lurk in national security debates... false choices between protecting our people and upholding our values... false choices even nest in foreign affairs”, to literally keep everyone guessing as to what exactly these subtleties mean.

The most important question being asked remained: why intervene in Libya and not in other places? Emboldened by Obama’s vacillation, sections of the US establishment and media have started calling for regime change among the “enemy nations” (read Iran and Syria) while gently nudging “friendly nations” (read Saudis and their clients) to reform their institutions along more liberal lines. This is not to say that Obama somehow endorses this view. However, if he were to not assert himself, and fast, the fast-changing scenarios in the Middle East, especially in and around Saudi Arabia, may see an unprepared and wishy-washy Obama intervene on the wrong side of Arab opinion. The Arab spring is to the Obama presidency what 9/11 was to the Bush presidency. And it is not that such a scenario is totally lost on Obama. The candidate Obama had written in his book, The Audacity of Hope: “The fact is, close to five years after 9/11 and 15 years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the US still lacks a coherent national security policy. Instead of guiding principles, we have what appear to be a series of ad hoc decisions, with dubious results. Why invade Iraq and not North Korea or Burma? Why intervene in Bosnia and not Darfur? Are we committed to use force wherever there is a despotic regime that is terrorising its people — and if so, how long do we stay to ensure democracy takes root? ... Perhaps someone inside the White House has clear answers to these questions. But our allies — and for that matter our enemies — certainly do not know what the answers are. More important, neither do the American people.”

That phone-call ad must have had some impact on him as, despite his dislike for the term Obama Doctrine, he went on to answer the above questions himself: “Without a well-articulated strategy that the public supports and the world understands, the US will lack the legitimacy — and ultimately the power — it needs to make the world safer than it is today.”

One can only add, well said Mr. President — your instincts are right but now is the time to firm up your doctrine and let no clique cherry-pick which tyrants to protect. There are no false choices if you side with the people.

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