The Obama Non-Doctrine

News Abroad

Emily S. Rosenberg is a professor of U.S. international history at the University of California, Irvine, a former president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, and author, most recently, of the book A Date Which Will Live: Pearl Harbor in American Memory.

In September, 2002, George W. Bush addressed cadets at West Point and advanced his “Bush Doctrine.” Elaborated over the next year, it had two critical features:  The United States would wage preventative war tied to future imagined attacks. The United States was engaged in nothing less than global transformation.

Many commentators, noting President Bush’s lofty rhetoric about using military force to end war and to spread American-style democracy globally, labeled him a neo-Wilsonian.  Bush seemed to believe that the blood and strife of war, as President Woodrow Wilson had also famously promised, might provide the crucible for transformative processes that would somehow defeat the enemies of freedom and nurture free market democracies everywhere.  

Foreign policy “realists” raised eyebrows at Bush’s over-the-top embrace of Wilsonian formulations, with their implications for “nation-building” and open-ended, moralistic crusading. The ninety-eight year old George Kennan deplored the new Bush doctrine. Jane Mayer, reporting for the New Yorker on October 14, 2002, quoted him as saying that he “deplored” doctrines. “They purport to define one's behavior in future situations where it may or may not be suitable. This being the case, I could no more approve of a doctrine of preëmption than any other."

Kennan, of course, had been long identified with “realism” and its scathing critique of Wilsonian “idealism.” Having witnessed the process by which his 1946 recommendation for “containment” of the Soviet Union became ossified into an increasingly militarized and open-ended “doctrine,” Kennan had published American Diplomacy (1952), a realist classic intended to caution policymakers and citizens against the kind of legalistic and moralistic rhetoric that he believed Wilson had popularized.

Kennan’s book argued that decisions about war, peace, and diplomacy needed to come from careful calculation of ends and means, from an awareness that power always had limits, from an assessment of trade-offs and priorities. Wilson’s outsized promises of saving the world for democracy and waging a war to end all wars played successfully in a sensationalist and emotionally driven press but gravely mis-educated Americans about the practical role they could play in the world. The schizophrenic waves of embracing messianic global transformation followed by angry isolationism were the result of policies not grounded in the realism of the moment, ignorant of the practical contingencies of specific time and place.

President Bush’s moralistic approach well fit the early years of this century. The we-can-have-it-all atmosphere of the Bush years ultimately brought us not just bubbles in housing, derivatives, and consumption but, perhaps even worse, inflated notions about what U.S. military power could accomplish around the globe. In the world projected by Bush, it seemed, all the benefits of freedom, democracy, and prosperity could somehow flow from military action and all costs could simply be moved off-book and off-camera. Weighing ends and means was sissy stuff.

But to the many foreign policy realists in both political parties, this was a folly that, itself, needed to be “contained” by slow and steady pressure from both in and out of the bureaucracy until it collapsed from its own contradictions.  And collapse it did—in the deaths of thousands in Iraq, the overstress on the American military, the economic crisis fostered by governmental inattention to setting limits, and the blind hubris that declared victory in Afghanistan and turned away. President Obama’s advisers, some like Secretary Gates who had been left over from the late Bush years, were ready for a re-do.

Despite—or probably because of—Obama’s oratorical gifts, he has not dipped into the playbook of cheap advertising tricks, with appeals to emotion, self-delusion, and fear, to sell foreign policies as though they were soap. Obama has a gift of clarifying without simplifying. If the precepts of realism can be persuasive, Obama might be the one president who could find the way.

In his speech to West Point delivered on December 1, 2009, President Obama laid out a clear set of arguments that stood in sharp contrast to the Bush Doctrine. He advanced a new “non-doctrine” for American security that should be carefully studied for the turn toward realism that it has tried to map for future foreign policy debates. When, since Woodrow Wilson’s day, has an American president had the courage to “sell” a foreign war, even a limited one, within the language of foreign-policy realism?  Not FDR, not Truman, not Kennedy, not LBJ, not George Bush senior or junior.  Every twentieth century war has come dressed in Wilsonian garb – with top-hats of transformation, masks of moralism, and mirrors flattening vague images of our enemies into caricatures. Obama’s West Point speech was that of a law professor deeply steeped in the realist tradition and trying to bring his audience into its key understandings while coaxing them away from century-long bad habits.

The president presented the country’s goal in highly specific terms: “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda." In classic realist language, he declared that he would refuse “to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests."  Even more importantly, he recast the definition of “national security.” In the last half of the speech (hardly noticed by subsequent commentators) he made clear that military force was not the equivalent of “national security” but was only one of many ingredients. National economic strength, he stated, had to be at the core of a national security strategy, and he reminded listeners that he had reversed Bush’s practice and moved war expenses into the national budget so that they could no longer be hidden. This brave move, at a time when he is under fire for the deficit, needs far more attention than it has had. 

Many pundits have assumed that the date Obama set to begin a military transition out of Afghanistan reflected a “compromise” to placate his antiwar base in the Democratic party. Seen within the larger context of his speech, however, this date signaled something far more integral to his message. First, he clearly stressed the necessity of weighing costs, and stated that a larger and open-ended military action threatened our nation’s economic health—the central foundation for national security.  Second, it signaled that military force was only one tool of foreign policy; a phase down of a military commitment did not mean a withdrawal of commitment in a broader sense. Third, it signaled that the United States military was not in Afghanistan to create the kind of “enduring” presence that Bush had pursued in Iraq and that had fuelled anti-imperial sentiment there. Setting a date and being clear about goals and endings, in short, underscored the speech’s larger realist message.

The Obama Non-Doctrine of December 1, 2009 deserves a significant place in the canon of American foreign policy.  Not because it marks the beginning of a successful policy.  The outcome of Obama’s decision for Afghanistan is, at best, uncertain, and even a thoughtfully articulated policy is no guarantee of salvation in a situation as difficult as this one. Rather, because it signals a significant departure in the tone of presidential foreign policy leadership. Trying to move policy discussions out of the realm of melodrama and into the language of realism may not succeed. But at least its singularity should be recognized and applauded. If the policy fails, which it may, at least the president has tried to set terms of debates that are worth having.

The danger of realist rhetoric for Obama, of course, is palpable. Some may find his goals insufficiently inspirational. Some may confuse ideas about setting limits with a lack of courage or resolve. Some, particularly in his own party, may equate realism with the defense of dictators advanced by earlier self-styled realists such as Jeane Kirkpatrick and Henry Kissinger. Others may believe that justifying actions primarily on the basis of “U.S. interests” sounds too self-serving for big-hearted Americans. But adorning policies with feathery aspirations has fostered illusion and brought even greater danger for the country. And the public’s current exhaustion with moralistic undertakings that recognize no limits to power or resources may provide an auspicious opening for a new non-doctrinaire formulation of policy.

Kennan warned that grave decisions about war and peace should not arise from emotion, and he feared that democracies could only be inspired to act by the kind of emotion-laden appeals that produced bad policy. Obama’s speech broke from the Wilsonian-Bushian mold and tried to educate Americans about how to talk realistically and flexibly about means and ends and about national security trade-offs. Rejecting universalized clarion calls and refusing to conflate national security with military action, Obama delivered a determined and closely reasoned appeal to do one specific, if enormously difficult, task. I suspect that Kennan might have approved of the Obama Non-Doctrine. He might have seen within the president’s approach some glimmer of hope for moving toward foreign policy discussions that could serve both realism and democracy at the same time.

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Arnold Shcherban - 12/4/2009

I just would like to rephrase "stop killing Muslims" to "stop killing hundreds of thousands of Muslims for the crimes of the dozens."

james joseph butler - 12/4/2009

As if. What makes you think that Obama's realpolitik magic wand can fix a problem that America and the war on terror has only made worse? This Afghan war was wrong from the start. The 18 month deadline, whoops that was Tuesday, that's gone already, is a joke. It's all a tragic joke on America and even more on the people of Afghanistan. The current Afghan civil war has nothing to do with 9/11. And if our president wants to prevent another 9/11 he ought to see to it that we and our steadfast ally Israel stop killing Muslims.

Cary Fraser - 12/4/2009

Obama's speech was a repudiation of the hubris that informed many American presidents over the course of the 20th century. That hubris continues to infect the US military leadership and Afghanistan has become a measure of their intellectual and strategic competence.
Obama's speech was an explicit recognition of that reality and the military's ability to implement the strategy will now be tested. More important, he has reasserted the principle that military force should follow strategy and its use should be tied to political goals.
It will be interesting to watch the outcome of this effort to reorient American diplomatic and military thinking.