The Obama Doctrine: Retrenchment and Accommodation

the bam

Photo by Tyler Driscoll for Obama for America

On September 25th, Dr. Colin Dueck came to Duke University to discuss his research on “The Obama Doctrine,” a talk sponsored by the Sanford School of Public Policy and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy.  Colin Dueck is Associate Professor of Public and International Affairs at George Mason University.  His most recent book is Hard Line: The Republican Party and U.S. Foreign Policy since World War II (2010).  His forthcoming book is The Obama Doctrine, due out from Oxford University Press in early 2015.  DPR’s Maxime Fischer-Zernin had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Dueck briefly after the talk.

When President Obama told the White House Press Corps that “we don’t have a strategy yet” to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), many pundits were not surprised that once again Obama was choosing the dangerous path of reluctant leadership and ambiguous end goals.  On September 25th, Dr. Colin Dueck helped put Obama’s puzzling statement in perspective during his discussion of the Obama Doctrine, explaining that reluctance and ambiguity have in fact become central to Obama’s grand strategy since his inauguration.   

For the purpose of his study, Dr. Dueck defines grand strategy, more commonly discussed in terms of presidential “doctrines,” as a decision-making framework that “imposes rigorous coherence between ways and means on a country’s international behavior over a wide range of cases… Every modern President has a grand strategy.”  If we take that definition “more loosely and realistically,” Dueck concludes, “the President has an implicit grand strategy he has pursued consistently.”

Dueck acknowledges that “the flexible quality of [our] current President’s foreign policy leads to many interpretations [of a possible Obama Doctrine]: engagement, soft power, leading from behind, drone strikes, a kinder gentler empire, and the most common one: there is none.”  In fact, when taken as a whole, the Obama grand strategy is one of “overarching American retrenchment and accommodation internationally, to allow for progressive policies at home.”  In this context, retrenchment and accommodation mean the President “looks for ways to reduce a country’s international and military costs and commitments, while not necessarily avoiding entanglements all together… and offers concessions in order to alter the preferences of an opponent or enemy, for mutual constraint, reconciliation or friendship.”           

While trying not to oversimplify, Dueck noted that the President’s “special mixture approach fits with his beliefs and ambitious domestic purposes–in particular progressive domestic political legacies.  His approach therefore is to try to retrench the military abroad and accommodate international rivalries to pursue domestic policies.”  As a result, President Obama has shifted national resources from defense to domestic social and economic spending, tried to steer clear of partisan fights on national security and costly new international entanglements that could distract from his domestic agenda.  When necessary, he has deviated from non-intervention in order to preempt Republican attacks, but even these instances were meant to avoid distractions from his domestic goals.  “He’s not the first President to factor domestic issues, but in his case his highest priorities are domestics.”



Two illustrative case studies of the Obama Doctrine are Obama’s interactions with Russia and the domestic debate of defense spending.  In relations with Russia, Obama has attempted to accommodate the Kremlin by ending plans for a missile system in Poland and downplaying Putin’s human rights abuses.  The goal was to build up trust and create a “habit of cooperation, which would over time broaden areas for cooperation.”  As we’ve seen with developments in Ukraine over the past year, it is clear that the strategy of a reset with Russia has backfired.  Russia has only reciprocated U.S. good faith accommodations when it has been in its self-interest.   

In the domestic defense spending disputes, Obama has pursued retrenchment through multiple waves of defense spending cuts, bringing the military budget from 5 percent of GDP in 2010, to an expected 3 percent in 2016.  Some of this has been due to the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In addition to funding, under Obama the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance abandoned the pretense that the U.S. should be able to fight two major regional conflicts at once, with a shift towards small footprint operations.  This shift, however, has been accompanied by across the board cuts.  Although this might provide the President with some wiggle room in the short run, it is at the practical detriment of our international commitments.  Notably, however, it is up for debate to what extent sequestration can truly be credited to President Obama.

This contrasts starkly with the George W. Bush Doctrine.  Dueck says President Bush’s “extremely ambitious and idealistic foreign policy goals without initially providing the full or proportionate means to achieve those goals” made Bush “very much a Wilsonian.”  Bush’s post-9/11 grand strategy “was the result of a pattern of strategic adjustment that has occurred repeatedly and predictably in American history: international shocks and pressures created an opening for new strategic ideas, and leading state officials took the opportunity to put forward their preferred approach, based largely on their culturally influenced perceptions of the national interest.”

In many ways Obama’s foreign policy has been a reaction to this international liberalism, with clear lessons from the Bush years: no more Iraq War, avoid major interventions overseas, intervene temporarily and multilaterally.  Dueck suggests Obama has gone too far in the other direction. “Unfortunately Obama confounds taking care with indecision.  He sees everything as 2003, despite many differences.  He uses multilateralism as an excuse for inaction.  and he has failed to see that retrenchment and accommodation can be seen as weakness, which has damaged our ability to deter successfully.”  

Again, there are exceptions, such as the 2007 Afghan surge, Libya, and now Iraq and Syria.  Although across the board, “his instinctive reaction is to do very little.”  At first, he only wanted to play a passive role in Syria.  He stumbled on the chemical weapons deal by accident and imposed sanctions on Russia very gradually, all in line with the Obama Doctrine.  But even in intervention, Obama has broadly retrenched.  It’s a doctrine that, according to Dueck, the President has willfully chosen not to communicate.  Dueck’s criticism is not that the President has had difficulty presenting his doctrine, but rather that ambiguity is inherent in the doctrine.

“He is in very many ways an impressive person with impressive personal qualities, and his particular decision-making strategy is very popular in the academy.  It’s not simply a rhetorical problem, but the virtues of academy are not the same as those for Commander-in-Chief…  When he was elected, he lined up well with the median voter so didn’t really have to explain himself.  It’s not his communication, it’s a more basic problem.”  The academic and rigorous policy analysis of the White House seems at odds, though, with the naiveté that Dueck considers the main error in Obama’s approach: “I think [the main error] is to assume that you can scale back American power overseas at no significant risk or cost.”

According to Dueck, this willful ambiguity has cost Obama on the world stage, “it’s been a net weakness internationally most importantly… When you create the impression you might not act, it’s deterrence failure.  It’s been a real weakness.”  Considering Obama’s own priorities, however, it has worked.  International pressures have not inhibited domestic policy items.  Retrenchment has been successful with a domestic audience but unpopular abroad.  Light footprints and aggressive strikes have also been popular with the median voter.  In fact, Dueck says, “Obama was the first President in decades to make foreign policy a winning issue for Democrats.”  A key in this is maintaining wiggle room through ambiguity.

Maybe Obama said it best himself during his acceptance of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize: “We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth:  We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.  There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified…  I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people…  To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”



When Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week, the rhetoric clearly showed the President had reached a tipping point in his calculus.  As Michael Gerson of the Washington Post remarked, ISIL went from being the “JV team” to the “network of death.”  Dueck would consider this the exact type of policy shift the President accounts for in his ambiguity, but “as we’ve seen so many times,” he adds, “what’s really going to happen over the next few months is the real question. Practical questions: can special operation forces call in air strikes?  Can they actually enter into combat alongside our Iraqi allies?  If Obama and the White House is going to stick to a very legalistic stance where they say no ground combat, that’s going to hobble us militarily.”

As to why a President preferring to air with ambiguity would rule out troops on the ground so starkly, Dueck reminds us that “He would never have been President in the first place had he not been the anti-war President in 2008.”  It is likely though that this anti-war red-line will be blurred much like that of the red-line given to Assad on chemical weapons, which the President eventually backtracked when he said that it had not been his red line at all but the world’s:

“We’ve got over a thousand troops on the ground already.  You can call it combat or you can call it non-combat, we’re in it! I think a lot of this is he wants to be able to say to the public at home, particularly his own base ‘I am not Bush, this is not another Iraq War, we are not having war on the ground, we won’t be in combat.’  But when you really start to get into the details we obviously are in some ways.”

Dueck predicts that Obama is in no hurry to make any adjustments to his strategy.  “I don’t think he’s going to change. I think he’s immensely self-confident, I think he thinks he’s right, I think he adjusts tactically when he feels he has to because of either international or domestic pressures, but it’s hard for me to imagine what series of events would occur that would make him rethink his approach entirely.”

As the conversation drew to a close, I asked Dueck how Obama would be remembered.  On Obama’s legacy, Dueck draws allusion to Henry Kissinger, National Security Advisor and Secretary of State under President Nixon.  “At the moment it reminds me a bit about what Henry Kissinger said when he took power.  He was asked how are you going to avoid the mistakes of your predecessor, and he gave a very wise answer, which is we’ll make our own new mistakes.  I think Obama has tried to avoid Bush’s mistakes, but he’s unintentionally made mistakes of his own.”

As a final thought, Dueck offered his prescription for the future of American grand strategy, “moving ahead ten years, what I would like to see is more of a coordination strategy of pressure: intensification of pressure on a range of U.S. adversaries.  Some of these you can have perfect business-like relations with, like China, and then you go all the way down to really violently hostile relations like Al-Qaeda or ISIS, but I think you need to get serious about an intensification of pressure using a wide range of tools, realizing that we’re living in a competitive environment.”

“That’s something I just don’t think he instinctively understands.  I think that his first instinct is to say that if we step back, if we accommodate, and if we retrench that we’ll make things better.”




There are no comments

Add yours