I ignored the political commentariat yesterday because I couldn’t bear to hear the predictable fallout from President Obama’s statement at his press conference that “we don’t have a strategy [on striking the Islamic State] yet.” Like his gloss on Elizabeth Warren’s more articulately stated riff that business owners don’t build the public infrastructure needed to run their companies, Obama’s admission of a lack of strategy obviously didn’t mean what his critics would contend it did – that the Administration had no ideas about confronting ISIS. Rather, it is clear that members of the Administration have plenty of ideas, but our chess-player-in-chief is wading through the policy options before carefully and deliberately deciding on the nation’s proper course.
The president is either awfully prescient or incredibly lucky because his decisions on foreign policy that have appeared dubious in the moment have proven themselves over the long haul.
Libya? His critics wanted American to lead a full-scale military invasion to topple Colonel Gaddafi. Obama held back and let other European nations lead a multinational bombing campaign, which had the same result.
Syria? The Administration threatened airstrikes after Assad crossed the president’s redline on the use of chemical weapons. Republicans decried redlines that mean nothing. Instead of a barrage of missiles that would have felt good but accomplished little, Obama negotiated the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.
Ukraine? Oppose the Russians with sanctions, but do not engage them with militarily.
Al-Qaeda? Hillary Clinton belittled Obama’s position in the 2008 presidential primary campaign that as president, he would pursue a high value terrorist even in Pakistan if the Pakistanis wouldn’t. When he made good on that promise against Osama bin Laden in 2011, Obama scored the biggest foreign policy success of his first term.
Is there a common theme to President Obama’s broad foreign policy? Some believe that the outlines of the Obama Doctrine have taken shape. Peter Beinart calls it “fierce minimalism.” By that Beinart means that the president has been relentless in pursuing a vigorous campaign of anti-terrorism where American interests and lives are in direct involved. Bin Laden. Somali pirates. The Mosul Dam.
As Beinart puts it,
"... Obama has shown a deep reluctance to use military force to try to solve Middle Eastern problems that don’t directly threaten American lives. He’s proved more open to a diplomatic compromise over Iran’s nuclear program than many on Capitol Hill because he’s more reticent about going to war with Tehran. He’s been reluctant to arm Syria’s rebels or bomb Basher al-Assad because he doesn’t want to get sucked into that country’s civil war. After initially giving David Petraeus and company the yellow light to pursue an expanded counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, he’s wound down America’s ground war against the Taliban. Even on Libya, he proved more reluctant to intervene than the leaders of Britain and France.
"On the other hand, he’s proven ferocious about using military force to kill suspected terrorists. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, he’s basically adopted the policy Joe Biden proposed at the start of his administration: Don’t focus on fighting the Taliban on the ground, since they don’t really threaten the United States. Just bomb the hell out al-Qaeda from the air...."
In other words, the president is not willing to commit American blood and treasure to intervene abroad for broad, vaguely defined policy goals. Hillary Clinton derided Obama’s formulation that “Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle. According to Secretary Clinton, ““Great nations need organizing principles.”
Obama is betting that at this moment in history, the United States is not in need of any such grand organizing principle. The founding generation needed popular sovereignty as an organizing principle. The Civil War generation to save the Union. The WWI generation to make the world safe for democracy. And the WWII generation to defeat Nazism and then communism.
We seem to define our organizing principles negatively, by what we need to oppose. Putin’s recent invasion of Ukraine aside, Russia is no Soviet Union and likely not the basis for a grand geo-strategic doctrine for the 21st Century. The fight against spreading radical jihadism may just be that generational struggle that requires a big national, and international, policy to confront effectively. When the president decides to more broadly engage the Islamic State, his strategy choice will undoubtedly be fierce, and it may need to need to go beyond minimalism.