Obama’s search for a doctrine

In the US election of 2008, candidate Barack Obama ran in opposition to the war in Iraq. With the global financial system in ruins and the US economy about to tank, Obama understood that the American people were tired of foreign entanglements and just wanted the war to end and the troops brought home. The American working class had seen its economic position diminish for over three decades and, unlike the middle or upper classes, these people regularly voted for the Democratic Party and expected better economic results. The financial bubbles of the 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s had done nothing to improve their wages, and working people understood that globalization meant they were now forced to compete with much poorer people (without any democracy or individual rights) for jobs that they could no longer take for granted. The Chinese (a major enemy of the Cold War) had become Wall Street’s best friend under Clinton and Bush, as thousands of US manufacturers fled to Asia in search of cheap labor.

Obama’s mission was to fix the problems at home (the economy) and ease the US out of its costly foreign wars. Although Obama was not an isolationist, his critique of neo-con foreign policy was harsh. Yet his own doctrine remained ill-defined and ambiguous. The US was still the world’s only superpower, yet its leadership in the international order had proven itself suspect because of Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama emphasized dialogue with America’s enemies (Iran and North Korea) and a reset with Russia. As for China, military containment seemed an unnatural fit with a corresponding policy of continued economic cooperation. But the so-called “pivot to Asia” seemed to suggest just such a contradiction. The Obama administration was both literally and figuratively “all over the map”. As a globalist Obama could do little to bring the manufacturing jobs back home, but globalism also meant he was responsible for an international military order with himself as its leader. In other words, like all Democratic Party presidents, Obama’s reliance on working people was in direct contradiction to his role as world’s policeman in an undemocratic global order dedicated to making the rich more and more money.

In the Middle East, the Iran dialogue policy has proven hollow because it has failed to address the conventional hegemony that Iran seeks to establish through its support for Assad in Syria, Hezbollah, Iraq, and both Palestinian factions. With Egypt, Obama’s tilt toward the Islamic Brotherhood was a fiasco and has led to a severe rift between Cairo and Washington. In Jordan, the Syrian refugee crisis has grown to incredible dimensions because the Obama administration has yet (after three years) to formulate a credible policy to end the war. The spillover effect from this regional vacuum has had devastating consequences for Iraq and Lebanon as well. At no time in the last sixty years has US policy in the Middle East been on such shaky ground. Even staunch allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia fear that the Iran-US dialogue will lead to a dramatic dilution of their own regional power vis-a-vis Iran with nuclear potential, a revamped economy, and a conventional Shiite Crescent spreading from Persia to the Mediterranean.

In Europe, US policy under Obama has brought about the greatest instability crisis since the end of the Cold War. The Russian invasion of the Crimea and its potential for expansion has its roots deep in the West’s inability to formulate a new security regime for Europe since the demise of the Warsaw Pact. The so-called reset with Russia (a hallmark of Obama’s foreign policy) was constructed on a base of sand. The expansion of NATO eastward into the Baltic states, Poland, Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Bulgaria has isolated Russia from the rest of Europe and forced a new and more extreme divide upon the continent. Meanwhile, the foolish policy of continuing the eastward push into the strategic Ukraine has been both a blunder and a grave humiliation to a vital WWII ally, Russia. This has been especially true given the nature of the coup in the Ukraine and the fact that so many of the so-called “pro-EU protesters” were in fact neo-Nazi thugs whose racism goes against everything Europe purports to believe.

Coming on the heels of the so-called reset with Russia and the NATO engagement in Afghanistan, could Moscow feel anything else but targeted by their very reset partners? The same thing happened in Georgia under the Bush administration, where NATO expansion was pushed right to Russia’s doorstep. In fact, unlike the Middle East where Obama’s policies appear docile and weak compared to Bush’s neo-con aggression, in Europe the policy hasn’t changed since the days of Boris Yeltsin. Russia has been humiliated by its Western partners, and its strategic interests have been maligned in a disgraceful post-Cold War victory hubris. Both in Europe and the Middle East, the Obama foreign policy teams (Secretaries of State Hilary Clinton and John Kerry) have stumbled and bumbled their way from crisis to crisis with very few cards to play and with the distinct appearance of deer caught in the headlights of an eighteen wheeler.

As the image of US weakness spreads to East Asia, the old conflicts of conquest, imperialism, and the military bogeyman of Japanese nationalism rear their heads from the East and South China Seas. Once again the US policy fails to acknowledge the precise nature of its doctrine and the purpose of its operational commitment. American allies in Korea and the Philippines fear both Chinese and Japanese hegemony. So as Japan wonders about Obama’s resolve toward China, Korea and the other nations occupied by Japan during WWII wonder about Japan’s current military build-up. Is US policy a containment of China with a concomitant muscular approach against Japanese militarization, or is the policy simply wishy-washy? When a Japanese PM visits a war shrine where WWII war criminals are buried, and the US president doesn’t dress him down or object in the strongest of language, this failure to respond forcefully projects not only a lack of history but also a lack of empathy with the victims of fascism. It is the same as if a German Chancellor were to deny the Holocaust. It is also an insult to the thousands of US servicemen who gave their lives for freedom during WWII. Furthermore, it only adds to the confusion of an already confused US foreign policy.

Under the Obama administration, the world has become a very dangerous place. Hesitancy has projected weakness, and weakness has sowed doubt and created vacuum. Is the US the sole superpower as the neo-cons would have it? Is Obama merely an ineffectual leader of a really strong country? Or has Obama failed to annunciate a new policy doctrine for a wholly new era?

Like all other hegemonic powers throughout history, the US has its distinct economic limitations. The working people of America won’t be fooled by the arrogance of politicians who tell them differently. They voted for Obama in the hopes that he could provide them an economic future, but he has failed. The neo-cons and the Republicans blame the welfare state and the so-called “restrictions on business” caused by his liberal administration. But where were the restrictions on business when both Clinton and Bush and their Wall Street buddies were enacting NAFTA and sending all the factory jobs to Mexico, China and other places? There were no restrictions then! The crisis of US jobs and the crisis of the US as the world’s policeman are the very same crisis. Both political parties caused the economic malaise, and both political parties don’t have the slightest idea how to solve it. Now, after spending trillions on foreign entanglements, the American people are left with the total dysfunction of a two-party system (in search of a third party) and a world scene that increasingly is reminiscent of the dark days of the last century. “Yes We Can!” has turned into “What is our policy?” The idealism of America’s youth toward the first African-American President has gone through a metamorphosis from hope to anguish and from trust to cynicism.

So what could be the Obama Doctrine for the future of US foreign policy? Simply put, a policy that enshrines anti-hegemony as its principal working feature. In Europe, the inclusion of all countries in a single-defensive alliance from the Urals to the Irish Sea. In other words, a new security regime, without an offensive component at the national level but instead a continent-wide defensive force that could both deter attack from abroad and prevent hegemony on Europe’s near-abroad. The US would withdraw from Europe as a land power.

In the Middle East, the US policy should be the pursuit of an equal regime of non-hegemony and the creation of a zero enrichment, non-plutonium, Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone. This would entail the withdrawal of foreign navies and air forces from both the the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. Non-state militias would be outlawed, as well as conventional invasion from within the NWF Zone. All nations of the free zone could possess armed forces, yet a proper conventional balance within the zone and an equal commitment from the UN Security Council as a priority would be established. No country would be left without the means of self-defense because of lack of strategic depth. All countries of the zone would have diplomatic relations with one another.

In Asia, the US policy should also work against hegemony from any sector including its own. The fundamentals of US policy must be peace through partnership and the pledge of non-aggression. Territorial disputes on the maritime horizons must never lead to war.

The US is a continental island surrounded by two oceans. It is, by nature, a sea power with an interest that its coasts be protected by a strong navy. As a continental island, it also has an interest that neither Europe nor Asia come under the domination of a regional hegemonic power with global (inter-oceanic) potential or actual reach. The US should not be the world’s hegemonic superpower, but should instead pursue a foreign policy that is anti-hegemonic. The US is a democratic nation with a long history of republican ideals. Its proper role in the world is as a friendly and peaceful country that is opposed to imperialism and empire. The US must not be isolationist, but instead find the proper balance to be an off-shore equalizer and champion of the rights of small countries.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).
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