Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Obama Doctrine: Pushing on a String?

There wasn't much to inspire in Obama's West Point speech. Dan Drezner wished in advance -- fairly, I think -- that Obama would sketch out in some detail for the benefit of allies just how he proposes to use means other than war to enhance collective security -- in the South China Sea, in eastern Europe. He didn't do that  He just touted in rather general terms the sanctions against Iran and Russia as examples of effective collective action.* He also drew a line, with perhaps more specificity than in the past, between vital U.S. interests that would be defended unilaterally if necessary and " issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States," in which collective action, usually nonmilitary, is the appropriate course. Perhaps I've grown accustomed to that distinction through Obamosmosis -- it did not surprise me.

What did strike me was a few rather caustic notes. The speech was short on rhetorical olive branches. For example:

1. China the aggressor and competitor: 
Russia’s aggression toward former Soviet states unnerves capitals in Europe, while China’s economic rise and military reach worries its neighbors

Regional aggression that goes unchecked – in southern Ukraine, the South China Sea, or anywhere else in the world – will ultimately impact our allies, and could draw in our military.
Twice Obama rhetorically yoked China's aggression with Russia's -- and once, China's economic success with its military muscle-flexing.  No "we do not seek to contain China's rise" reassurances.

2. Iran still a likely adversary: Laura Rozen's Twitter feed exudes a generally positive vibe from the P5 + 1 negotiations with Iran. The International Atomic Energy Agency just reported that Iran has neutralized most of its stock of highly enriched uranium. Yet the president still felt constrained to offer this prognosis:
Now, we have an opportunity to resolve our differences peacefully. The odds of success are still long, and we reserve all options to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But for the first time in a decade, we have a very real chance of achieving a breakthrough agreement – one that is more effective and durable than what would be achieved through the use of force.
Success is uncertain, for sure. But the odds are still long? That strikes me as a rather excessive exercise either in expectations management or placation of those who don't want a deal -- to what end? Which takes us to a rather astonishing admission of one powerful constraint on U.S. foreign policy:

3. Yes to Egypt's new tyrant, because...
In Egypt, we acknowledge that our relationship is anchored in security interests – from the peace treaty with Israel, to shared efforts against violent extremism. So we have not cut off cooperation with the new government. But we can and will persistently press for the reforms that the Egyptian people have demanded.
To my mind, U.S. tame acquiescence and effective green-lighting of the brutal Egyptian coup and military dictatorship is a display of true American weakness. And this limp justification indicates the source: the perpetual imperative to placate Israel.

4. When you can't succeed, push

On a couple of occasions, Obama was rather restrained in his characterization of what he (or the U.S.) has achieved, or expects to achieve:
Empowering partners is a large part of what we’ve done in Afghanistan. Together with our allies, America struck huge blows against al Qaeda core, and pushed back against an insurgency that threatened to overrun the country....

But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it’s our willingness to affirm them through our actions. That’s why I will continue to push to close GTMO – because American values and legal traditions don’t permit the indefinite detention of people beyond our borders.
Of course there's no way to claim that the U.S. has "defeated" the Taliban, or put Guantanamo on a real course to closure.  "Push" is perhaps the appropriate verb on both fronts. And maybe that's the larger point. Obama didn't trouble to sugar-coat much in this speech. Or promise much.

* Thomas Wright at Brookings has a good summary of strategic issues that Obama declined to address. Wright's sense of what was missing is in line with Dresner's.

Update, 5/29: Re the missing "we do not wish to contain China's rise" caveats, Obama said this to NPR in an interview airing this morning:
"Just the bottom line here is China is going to be a dominant power in Asia, not the only one, but by virtue of its size and its wealth, it is going to be a great power in Asia. We respect that. And we're not interested in containing it because we are in any way intimidated by China. We're concerned about it because we don't want to see constant conflicts developing in a vital region of the world that also we depend on in terms of our economy being successful."

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