The Shortcomings of the Obama Doctrine

May 24, 2010 at 11:47 am (tWP) (, , , , )

The Obama administration has done well in terms of foreign policy. From early on it was made very clear that any possibility of costly foreign adventures was put aside in favour of a more sensible and moderate approach.

The antagonizing of strategic rivals stopped and the emphasis on democratisation and other evangelisation doctrines ceased.

Intervention in Iran is financially impossible. The stabilisation policy in Iraq was maintained but in the administration’s defence, it was the Petraeus team that conceived the policy as an answer to the grave mistakes of Iraqi Freedom. Policy towards Russia is also much more conciliatory now. The attempted rapprochement to Turkey is a smart move made difficult only by the more Ottomanian tone of the AKP government in Ankara.

However, if true that for those who were weary of Obama’s vague foreign policy plans, the new approach was a pleasant surprise, it also seems that his populist campaign platform is now affecting his administration’s work.

There are three main moments where this becomes visible: the Guantanamo process, the Honduras coup and the Israel estrangement.

It has been clear that the Guantanamo closure was not well thought out and only pursued in order to please the progressive electorate.

In Honduras and Israel, it is not at all clear that the American interests were served. The administration has chosen to act according to a very partial leftist narrative. It did so in Honduras where both parties were guilty of unconstitutional moves but where the administration chose to support the – pro-Chavez – Zelaya faction. It did so again with Israel where the administration chose to buy into the Palestine-excusing-Israel-bashing-euro-left narrative and thus put pressure on Israel as if the key to the Israelo-Palestinian problem lies in Tel Aviv or the Middle East problems might get solved with peace in Palestine.

While true that Israel has begun to tread a path of its own, to make Israel sole responsible for the stalled peace process, especially when most stake-holders have an interest in the perpetuation of the conflict, is wrong.

The officials of the Obama admin however, are not naïve, they are consequential in their decisions and these seem to be motivated by reasons of popular support.

This leads us to the AfPak. The campaign in Afghanistan was in 2001 about destroying Al-Qaeda and punishing the Taliban regime. It has however transformed into a war against totalitarianism and many fear that it might turn into a nation-building endeavour. It is not but the danger is there. This danger derives from the fact that many in the West either want to leave Afghanistan to its fate, or want to leave but only after a stable regime is in place. Very few would be comfortable with  a lingering low level conflict or with a semi-stable authoritarian government, which are the most likely outcomes.

The elections in Afghanistan though, appear to have proven that the White House is willing to tolerate some level of corruption in order to achieve its goals. This is positive for any demand for strict liberal democratic practices and rule of law in a region like Afghanistan would have dire consequences for Washington’s desire to retain its influence.

But there is a disease at work in the western world: the disease of sympathy. It would appear that all regimes in the west have a dire need to be liked abroad in order to survive at home. While important, likeability as an absolute is impossible when pursuing national interest, since often enough interests collide.

Diplomacy is necessary but it is not foreign policy. When governments are held hostage by popularity, short-term improvisation tends to replace long-term planning.



  1. menso said,

    Some level of corruption eh? Never mind the fact that Karzai admitted to stealing the election. Afghanistan is second to last in the world, just above Somalia, in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Do you not think realists should abandon any hope of an American-imposed stable and democratic Afghanistan? I simply do not believe that any government has the power to do what is expected of it. Besides, public opinion is against the war in every country with troops in the region. Do you think it would be good to remain there nonetheless? Is it in anyone’s national interest?

  2. M. Silva said,

    Thank you for your comment.

    Firstly, I believe the Realists never expected a ” stable and democratic Afghanistan” to start with.

    Secondly, public opinion does not define national interest.
    Any given state can have a direct interest in carrying out a particular set of policies without enjoying popular support for them. For example, in WWII, the US had a direct interest in preventing a hegemon (particularly a belligerent and ideologically dissonant one such as the Third Reich) in Europe, yet the American public was strongly against intervention.

    Finally and to answer your question, to remain is in fact good. Of course it always depends on the conditions for that presence. The current level of troops on the ground is not sustainable so the ideal solution for NATO would be for there to be a pro-western government controlling at least most of the territory on its own.

    I worry that the Obama Admin may choose a more populist angle though, such as abandoning Afghanistan altogether or staying until a functioning democracy is achieved. Both scenarios being quite bleak.

  3. menso said,

    I think I understand, but I am still confused as to why it is good to leave NATO/coalition troops in Afghanistan. It seems like, if the state-builders are not up to the job, they should be relieved of their posts before too many more die. And if we are not fighting for a stable and democratic Afghanistan, what is the point? Just to create another ally of the US et al.?

    I am only asking to learn more about the realist perspective on Afghanistan, not to antagonise or prove a point.

  4. M. Silva said,

    Your tone was not hostile, don’t worry.

    At the moment, the real capabilities of the Afghan government and the ASF are not known. Therefore, it would seem necessary for there to be NATO/ISAF forces in Afghanistan for quite a while, or at least for as long as the Taliban insurgency is strong enough to control vast swaths of the region.
    In addition, Afghanistan and Central Asia are quite distant from US and European logistical hubs and the only way to exert influence is to actually have boots on the ground.

    A Realist would also consider unnecessary for there to be state-building, although the Admin is heavily committed to it at the moment, since to build a state involves considerable social engineering and the result is often artificial. A cost-benefit analysis to state-building efforts seldom proves it to be worthwhile.

    The point should never be to create stable and democratic regimes. If that was the point, then the West would soon find itself in a global crusade against all non-democratic regimes and that would be suicidal.
    The point was to promote the change of a regime in Kabul which had given shelter to Al-Qaeda. That was accomplished, now the US intends to keep it that way.

    If Afghanistan could remain a US ally, it would become a great strategic asset. But short of that, it would be enough if it did not impinge on US interests in the region.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: