US foreign policy: President defends his 'Obama doctrine' where military intervention is a last resort

Mr Obama is confounding impatient critics by failing to intervene in the situations in Syria and Ukraine

Rupert Cornwell
Wednesday 30 April 2014 08:06 BST

Was it less than five years ago that Barack Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, thrust upon him by a Scandinavian committee convinced, like so many others, that this cool and articulate new American president - so different from his cowboy predecessor - would make world a better, more peaceful place?

Scan the headlines this spring of 2014, and that hope would seem to lie in ruins. And this week that same American president, older, wiser and indisputably greyer, was goaded into delivering, from the distant shores of the Philippines, a ringing inpromptu defence of a US foreign policy where everything, virtually simultaneously, seems to be going wrong.

The peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, so painstakingly fostered by Secretary of State John Kerry have effectively collapsed. The Syrian nightmare continues, and President Assad whose demise Mr Obama once so confidently predicted, grows stronger. Yet Washington, implored to intervene, stays on the sidelines.

Neighbouring Iraq meanwhile, from which Mr Obama withdrew the last American troops in 2011, is descending anew into sectarian violence that, coupled with Syria, might plunge the entire region into turmoil. In Ukraine, the most serious European crisis since the depths of the Cold War has erupted, as a Russian president openly taunts his US counterpart. And last but not least, China grows ever more assertive, to the alarm of Washington's allies in Asia - ever more clearly a rival, not partner, of the Western superpower.

Nonetheless, Mr Obama declared in Manila, there was an “Obama doctrine.” It was cautious and incremental, and saw military intervention as the last, not the first resort. This approach to world affairs might not be “sexy,” he continued, using baseball metaphors to explain. The goal was to avoid errors. Foreign policy progress consisted of “singles and doubles…. every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.”

The problem alas, is that in today's impatient world of sound bites and 24/7 chatter, foreign policy is judged solely in terms of home runs and clearcut failures. True, this has been a bad spell, and in some respects the fruit of Mr Obama's own shortcomings: his inexperience, a perhaps naive belief that no problem is so intractable it will not yield to reason, and a seeming failure to grasp that power lies largely in the perception of power.

These difficulties are compounded by the domestic climate in which he operates. For one thing, second term presidents tend to have less clout. For another, old conventions have died. Once partisanship in Washington, “stopped at the water's edge,” in the words of Arthur Vandenberg, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee who in the early Cold War worked closely with Harry Truman, a Democratic president.

But in hyperpartisan 2014 an Arthur Vandenberg is unthinkable. The same Republicans who accuse Mr Obama of being a quasi-dictator at home lambast him for pusillanimity abroad. “Why is it that everyone is so eager to use military force,” the president retorted in Manila, “after a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget?”

It should furthermore be noted that “everyone” does not include the voters who re-elected Mr Obama 18 months ago. After Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans are weary of foreign engagement, especially military engagement. If he did opt for the use of force, in Syria or Ukraine say, his margin for error would be virtually non-existent.

But that is not the Obama way - and he took on his critics head-on over both crises. In Syria, even advocates of US action are not calling for US boots on the ground. Well what did they want? Ditto Ukraine. No-one was calling for American troops to be sent to Kiev, but some wanted to arm the Ukrainians.

“Do people actually think,” the president asked, “that sending some additional arms… could potentially deter the Russian army? Or are we more likely to deter them by applying the sort of pressure, diplomatic and economic, that we're applying?” The answer, according to the Obama doctrine, is self-evident. Moreover, precisely that may be happening over Iran, and the US-led efforts to so secure a peaceful deal to rein in Iran's nuclear programme.

But the headlines are not pretty - and they reflect two truths about America and its foreign policy. The first has long been obvious. In an increasingly multipolar world, America's relative power, economic and even military, is declining. No longer does it have the power to resolve every crisis, if it ever did. To the irritation and frustration of his critics, Mr Obama gets this.

Second, foreign policy unfolds over time, often with unforeseen consequences. Maybe Vladimir Putin regards this American president as a soft touch. But the policies which have stoked Mr Putin's grievances - the expansion of Nato into Russia's backyard and the attempt to marginalise a weakened Moscow - were put in place by Bill Clinton and George W. Bush before him. The Obama version of Cold War 'containment' of Moscow, reinforced by sanctions, may work. But first even his admirers will have to wait, the hardest thing of all.

Success or failure? The problem areas

Middle East: The US can't be blamed for collapse of the peace process: but should it have invested so much effort on a problem that had already defied 60 years of attempts to solve it? 5/10

Syria: If there was to be effective US intervention, it should have happened long ago. As it is, President Assad seems to be getting the upper hand. 3/10

Iran: Just conceivably, a major success in the making. Both sides want a nuclear deal. Sanctions are really biting, and the negotiations over curtailing Teheran's enrichment programme are for real, not a charade. Time will tell. 7/10

Iraq: US troops have left, as promised. But sectarian violence grows, ever clearer proof of the folly of ill-thought-through military intervention by the US. 5/10

Russia: Maybe Mr Obama has compounded his problems with Vladimir Putin, but could any US president have done better? 4/10

North Korea: Kim Jong-Un appears even more erratic and unpredictable than his father and grandfather. But if anyone has real leverage on Pyongyang, it is not the US but China. 5/10

China and the pivot to Asia: Obama seeks to switch focus to economically vibrant Asia and its emerging superpower. But events elsewhere get in the way. 5/10

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