Searching for the Obama Doctrine

President Obama speaks to troops from the U.S. and the Philippines at Fort Bonifacio in Manila, the Philippines on Tuesday April 29, 2014.

Charles Dharapak/AP

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President Obama speaks to troops from the U.S. and the Philippines at Fort Bonifacio in Manila, the Philippines on Tuesday April 29, 2014.

In scolding his critics who want more military action, President Obama is overlooking his own supporters who want him to do more. By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Americans are more wary of foreign involvements than they have been in recent decades, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll out Wednesday. And so are their leaders. While the United States winds down a decade of war, questions surrounding America’s desire to pull back from the world have grown louder.

President Barack Obama answered some of those critics last week during his trip to Asia when he offered his own policy a defensive embrace in a press conference with the South Korean president.

“There are no guarantees in life, generally, and certainly no guarantees in foreign policy,” Obama said. “We seem to have gotten in the habit of thinking that when there are hard foreign policy problems that there may actually be a definitive answer, typically, those who offer that definitive answer come up with the use of force as the definitive answer. You would think, given that we’ve just gone through a decade of war, that that assumption would be subject to some questioning. Certainly in my position as president of the United States and as a student of history, very rarely have I seen the exercise of military power providing a definitive answer either.”

Pentagon leaders long have echoed the president’s caution. As one senior administration official noted in a recent interview with Defense One, the Pentagon is full of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans informed — and sometimes scarred — by the experience of those two wars that killed thousands, will cost more than $1 trillion by some estimates, and failed to produce any clear-cut victory or significant strategic advantage to U.S. security worth the sacrifice. Senior military leaders, notably including Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, have pushed back against greater lethal support for the opposition in Syria. Sources within the administration say opponents of a military escalation view such aid as a first step toward a ground war at a time of extreme budget pressures aggravated by sequestration and imminent force downsizing.

The president’s senior aides are quick to remind those in the State Department, Pentagon and National Security Council that this president was elected to get America out of its wars, not to get the country into new ones. But in his second term, the concern for Obama’s supporters and critics is that the president is “still defining his foreign policy agenda against the last administration’s, and so he is still telling himself and the American public, ‘Look, I was elected in part to get us out of Iraq and Afghanistan,’” said Julie Smith, senior vice president at Beacon Global Strategies LLC. Smith, who was deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden and principal director for European and NATO policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. “What has happened is Obama has said to the American public, ‘I am here to push us into the post-post 9/11 world.’ But the question everyone is asking now is, ‘Well, Mr. President, how to you define the post-9/11 world? What is the big strategic challenge and what is your personal strategy?’”

Obama has pushed back against those who argue he is not responding to the crises in Ukraine and Syria with sufficient force, saying in Asia last week that his “job as commander-in-chief is to deploy military force as a last resort, and to deploy it wisely. And, frankly, most of the foreign policy commentators that have questioned our policies would go headlong into a bunch of military adventures that the American people had no interest in participating in and would not advance our core security interests.”

But diplomats and appointees who served the president say that argument is too simple because it paints everyone who says the U.S. should do more as a warmonger.

“He constantly assumes his critics want to go to war; that is not it,” Smith said.  “He is failing to present a grand strategy and a plan for where we are going and worse yet he is not articulating that to an American public that is keen to retrench and tilting toward doing less in the world.”

Certainly Obama faces a unique point in time for American foreign policy. The country is just backing out of two wars in one decade and the American public wants, as the president called it, to do “nation-building here at home.” But Obama is not backing down from his worldwide hunt targeting al-Qaeda, its affiliates and other terrorist networks that seek to exploit the open fields offered by failed states. Russia is roaring back to expand its definition of its own interests, the Iran nuclear weapons agreement may or may not move forward, China is China, and according to Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, Syria is now home to approximately 8,000 foreign fighters whose ambitions are not expected to remain limited to Syria.

It is a messy world no matter how much the president wants to move America off a “permanent war footing,” as he outlined in January’s State of the Union address. And it’s a world that some who served Obama say the administration would do well to explain better and discuss more robustly with its public.

“I do worry that the combination of war weariness and budget pressures will cause us to retrench in a way that we will almost certainly live to regret if history is our guide,” said former Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy, who left the administration in 2012, helped lead Obama’s national security team re-election campaign, and is now co-chair of the Center for a New American Security’s board of directors. Flournoy notes that few in Washington, particularly on the Hill, seem to have much of an appetite to tackle the topic of America’s role in the world. “The broader issue is the administration and those who support a more internationalist position on the Hill have to make a more forceful case to the American people of the cost of not leaning forward.”

“When we don’t lean forward and lead,” she said, in the same week that Obama scolded Washington’s interventionists, “others step into the vacuum in ways that often harm our long term interests. I understand the desire for focusing here at home, but we don’t have the luxury of ignoring the world at large.”

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