Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Is Obama a "superdove"? No.

Max Fisher's analysis of the foreign policy doctrine Obama laid out today at West Point includes a pretty serious misreading:
Obama argued, directly and repeatedly, that the US would have to reduce its use of military force as a tool of foreign policy. Obama argued that the US could and should not use military force, including even limited actions such as off-shore strikes, except when absolutely necessary to defend "core interests" or to "protect our people, our homeland, or our way of life."

That's a very high bar for the use of military force. Obama didn't just make the point abstractly, going through several major US foreign policy changes to explain why, in each, military force was not and should not be applied.
Obama did not suggest that the U.S. would use force only when core interests were at stake. He said that the U.S. would use force unilaterally only when core interests are at stake. Or rather, that unilateral action would be on the table only under such circumstances. Here is the distinction he actually made:
First, let me repeat a principle I put forward at the outset of my presidency: The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it -- when our people are threatened; when our livelihoods are at stake; when the security of our allies is in danger.

In these circumstances, we still need to ask tough questions about whether our actions are proportional and effective and just. International opinion matters, but America should never ask permission to protect our people, our homeland or our way of life.

On the other hand, when issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States, when such issues are at stake, when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us, then the threshold for military action must be higher. In such circumstances, we should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action. We have to broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development, sanctions and isolation, appeals to international law, and, if just, necessary and effective, multilateral military action. In such circumstances, we have to work with others because collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, less likely to lead to costly mistakes (my emphasis).
In practice, the line between the carefully defined "core interests" and crises that "push the world in a more dangerous direction" often blurs -- mainly at the point "when the security of our allies is in danger." If Russia invades Ukraine, is Estonia in danger?  And when the security of an ally is in danger, is the U.S. likely to act unilaterally? If it engages in military action with allies, does it matter if the threat is seen as direct or indirect? The distinction functions mainly as a warrant to defend unilateral action when the U.S. sees fit.

Fisher's misreading induces him to characterize the Obama Doctrine as "superdove foreign policy." It's not. The multilateral intervention in Libya fits the specs. So, arguably, does any action a U.S. administration sees fit to take. A missile strike against Assad could have been justified on ground that the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons put the security of an ally -- Israel -- in danger.

Perhaps Fisher is right in the doubly-qualified assertion that this "may well have been one of the most dovish foreign policy speeches by a sitting US president since Eisenhower."  But it's in full keeping with Obama's actions and utterances to date (and with his famous 2002 assertion that he was not against all wars, just dumb wars). And like most Obama foreign policy statements, it's cast at once as repudiation of Bush-Cheney unilateralism and restoration of the longstanding foreign policy consensus that preceded it (albeit with acknowledgment of prior instances of  "willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences").

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