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Iraq crisis: Memories of two failed wars continue to shape America’s ‘soft’ foreign policy

US would intervene only when national interests were involved

Cartoons are cruel and exaggerated, but invariably contain a grain of truth. Thus it was with the one in the Chicago Tribune last week. It depicted Barack Obama blithely pirouetting on a pedestal, dropping a globe which shatters at his feet. The pedestal bears a three-word inscription: “The Obama Doctrine”.

Unfair, to be sure, but the message is one that the President’s critics at home and not a few of America’s traditional allies abroad would agree with. Obama’s approach, as averse to military action as that of his predecessor was in favour of it, is causing nothing but trouble, they would argue – a display of fecklessness that has emboldened rival powers such as Russia and China and allowed Libya, Syria, and now Iraq, to go up in flames.

For proof of this radical shift in US foreign policy, consider two commencement speeches delivered at the West Point military academy, 12 years apart. In the first, a few months before the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, George W Bush claimed America’s right to attack pre-emptively countries considered a threat in the “war on terror”.

Thus was born the “Bush Doctrine”, instantly to mesh with the neo-conservative belief that American-style democracy was the solution to the world’s problems.


In the second, on 28 May 2014, President Obama laid out a very different set of principles to another graduating class of future army commanders. The US would intervene militarily only when core national interests were involved.

As a rule, Washington would put the emphasis on diplomacy, multilateral action and “soft power” to achieve its ends. Such, in so far as it exists, is the “Obama Doctrine”.  It is not targeted at a specific area, as was the 19th-century “Monroe Doctrine” against further European expansion in the Western hemisphere. Obama’s only nod to  geography has been the  so-called “Pivot to Asia”. But that was a statement of intent – and unfortunately the Middle East wasn’t  playing along.

The net result is a US foreign policy less assertive than that of any president (with the possible exception of Jimmy Carter) since the Second World War.

The new approach is born of two factors: the war-weariness of his country, after the two longest foreign conflicts in US history, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Obama’s own recognition of the limits of US power in an increasingly multipolar world.

America still owns by far the mightiest military on earth. But compared to its rivals, a re-arming Russia and especially China, its edge is shrinking.

For Obama’s critics this is abject “declinism”. America, they contend, remains the sole superpower and the nearest thing the world has to a global policeman. Instead, however, this president is squandering its power and prestige.

The US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 and Obama’s refusal to arm the moderate opposition at an early stage of Syria’s civil war, have resulted in chaos in both countries. If the Arab Spring has turned into a bitter autumn, these critics say, that is largely because of the passivity of Obama’s administration.

Even among Republicans, despite the demands for military action from the likes of Dick Cheney and John McCain, an isolationist faction is gathering strength.

For better or worse, American foreign policy is now shaped by the memories of two failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars – and achieved next to nothing.