United States Marines from Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Regiment, 2nd MEB, move through a compound in the village of Dahaneh during a raid Saturday, Aug. 15, 2009, in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan.

United States Marines from Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Regiment, 2nd MEB, move through a compound in the village of Dahaneh during a raid Saturday, Aug. 15, 2009, in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. Julie Jacobson/AP

The Dangerous Myth of 'America Must Lead'

A world in which the forces of light vie against the forces of darkness, with America charged with ensuring the triumph of good over evil—that isn’t Obama’s world.

The title of Jeffery Goldberg’s very fine essay notwithstanding, there is no Obama Doctrine. Indeed, over the course of his on-the-job education in statecraft, President Obama has developed a pronounced aversion to doctrines—grand statements of principle that subsequently provide an enduring basis for policy.

Such, at least, has been the function of doctrines in the American diplomatic tradition. In 1823, President Monroe famously declared the Western Hemisphere off-limits “for future colonization by any European powers.” Over time, the Monroe Doctrine evolved into an assertion of U.S. hegemony throughout the Americas. In 1947, President Truman declared it “the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” The Truman Doctrine became the cornerstone of the Cold War strategy of containment. Wars in Korea and Vietnam numbered among the consequences.

At the outset of his presidency, Obama himself was not immune to grandiosity, which in his case found expression in astonishing naiveté. His Cairo speech of June 2009, blithely announcing “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” offers a clear example. Yet subsequent events, not only in the Islamic world but elsewhere, have long since sanded away such innocent expectations.

What remains? A pronounced and, to my mind, healthy skepticism. Much was made early in Obama’s presidency about his putative affinity for Reinhold Niebuhr, the moral theologian and proponent of Christian realism. Goldberg’s account substantiates the president’s Niebuhrian inclinations, especially evident in his willingness to question the reigning shibboleths of U.S. policy.

See also Derek Chollet's In Defense of the Obama Doctrine

Related: The Hidden Costs of Obama's Vision of American Power

Read more: The End of the US-Dominated Order in the Middle East

Read more: An Isolationist President, In Love With Drones and Special Forces

By shibboleths, I mean those precepts, dating from World War II and the early Cold War, that still pervade the foreign-policy establishment, accepted as valid not because they are empirically correct but because they are comfortingly familiar. As such, they obviate any need to think. For the sake of convenience, we may sum up those shibboleths in a single sentence: America must lead. Implicit in this summons to “lead”—a euphemism for the threatened or actual use of armed force—is the vision of a world in which the forces of light vie against the forces of darkness, with America charged with ensuring the triumph of good over evil.

That isn’t Obama’s world. In that regard, he may be America’s first post-postwar president. He simply does not buy into the Manichaeanism that prevailed during World War II and through the Cold War, and that still persists today in American political discourse, especially but not exclusively on the right.

The contrast with Obama’s immediate predecessor is instructive. After 9/11, George W. Bush reflexively framed his Global War on Terrorism as an extension and de-facto renewal of World War II and the Cold War. Through victory, Bush asserted, the United States would once more ensure the triumph of freedom. Invading Iraq would enable Americans to liberate an enslaved people, much as they had liberated Western Europeans in 1945 and Eastern Europeans in 1989.

Obama’s overall reputation as a statesman is likely to rest not on his fumbling approach to the Syrian Civil War, but on how the Iran nuclear deal plays out.

While Bush saw his actions as historically grounded, he was drawing on a past that never actually existed, except as a product of American imagination. Once expedient even if largely fictive, that past has long since forfeited whatever utility it may have once possessed. Whether through background, upbringing, or temperament, Obama’s own attitude toward that past is one of indifference. As a consequence, his world is devoid of the moral certainties that Bush believed self-evident.

In addition to making him an infinitely more interesting human being, Obama’s appreciation for moral complexity leads him to pose questions that for Bush (not to mention for many of Obama’s own aides) lay beyond the pale. Goldberg does an admirable job of ticking off the range of previously sacrosanct issues that Obama has at least obliquely brought into play. What exactly does Great Britain bring to the “special relationship” that should justify its continuation? Even if Berlin was worth fighting for a half-century ago, why does it follow that Kiev is worth fighting for today? Does “the West” actually exist? And even if it does, why should the racially and culturally diverse United States choose to affiliate with that one particular tribe? With the world’s economic center of gravity shifting to Asia, what is the residual significance of free-riding Europe? How should radical changes in the global energy environment affect the status of the Persian Gulf in the U.S. strategic hierarchy? Given the paltry results achieved through myriad recent U.S. armed interventions in the Islamic world, what exactly is the present-day utility of force? Under what definition of the term “ally” do countries such as Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Pakistan—each routinely behaving in ways contrary to U.S. interests—qualify for that designation?

Matters such as these deserve to be front-and-center in the 2016 presidential campaign. None of them will be, disagreements regarding the correlation between the size of a candidate’s hand and the length of his penis taking priority. Even so, by raising such questions, Obama invites Americans to undertake a much-needed reassessment of basic U.S. policy.

As for Obama’s standing in history, many years will pass before we are able to reach considered judgments about his record, whether in domestic or foreign policy. No doubt, in comparison with the expectations that marked his ascent to the presidency, he will be found wanting. But those expectations were absurdly overinflated, as the president himself must surely appreciate. He was never going to bat 1.000.

Even by a more realistic standard, and taking into full account the mess he inherited, Obama’s record contains blemishes that time alone will not wash away. It is gratifying to know that the president appreciates that Libya has become a “shit show,” thanks in considerable part to an ill-advised exercise in regime change in which his administration was complicit. (Would that President Bush and his supporters had the honesty to acknowledge that Iraq is today a shit show as a direct consequence of even greater recklessness. Are they oblivious to the excrement lodged under their own fingernails?)

On the debit side of the register, there’s more. Obama vowed to win the Afghanistan War. He will depart office with fulfillment of that promise nowhere in sight. He vowed to end the Iraq War responsibly. In December 2011, he thought he had. But that conflict has now resumed and the U.S. is back in it. He has normalized assassination by drone and other means, with implications impossible to forecast. As for Syria, let’s just say that his administration has not covered itself with glory.

Obama’s chief foreign-policy accomplishments—the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, the climate-change deal, the long-overdue restoration of relations with Cuba—come in the form of promissory notes whose yield, whether for good or ill, will become apparent only with the passage of time.

Above all, there is Iran, to which Goldberg devotes only passing attention. To my mind, Obama’s overall reputation as a statesman is likely to rest not on his fumbling approach to the Syrian Civil War, but on how the Iran nuclear deal plays out.

Yes, Obama surely erred in impulsively drawing his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons by Syria, only to back down when Bashar al-Assad called his bluff. From start to finish, the entire episode smacks of amateur hour. But the argument that Obama thereby fatally compromised American credibility is surely exaggerated. Recall that in 1956, the United States turned its back on Hungarians who at Washington’s urging had risen up against their communist overlords. In 1961, it abandoned the Cuban “freedom fighters” it had armed, trained, and deposited at the Bay of Pigs in a doomed attempt to mount a counterrevolution. Most egregiously, in 1975, the United States stood by passively as the Republic of Vietnam, on whose behalf 58,000 Americans had died, was wiped off the map. Somehow American credibility managed to survive each of these serial betrayals. It will survive Syria as well.

With regard to Iran, in contrast, the stakes qualify as truly momentous. Goldberg concludes that overall Obama is “gambling that he will be judged well for the things he didn’t do.” Perhaps, but the assessment does not apply to Iran. There it’s what Obama did do that matters.

Obama’s Iran gambit represents (take your pick) either a bold initiative that might someday help salvage Middle Eastern stability or an act of monumental imprudence that will inevitably bring everything crashing down. In any case, the risks inherent in the undertaking—which he will bequeath to his successor—are nothing short of breathtaking.

Obama is betting that the potential for positive change in Iran is greater than in any other nation in that region, with the days of the retrograde ayatollahs numbered and the millions of secular-oriented, pro-Western young Iranians defining the future. Goldberg notes the president’s conviction that ending the turmoil wracking the Greater Middle East will require that Islam find a way to reconcile itself with modernity. Obama, it seems, sees Iran as the place where that reconciliation can begin. If it does, prompted by Iran’s reintegration into the international order, then that country could become a force for regional order rather than a source of mischief, thereby allowing the United States to lower its own profile in the Middle East and tend to matters that bear more directly on the future security and well-being of the American people.

That’s the bet, and it’s a big one.

If Iran eventually fulfills Obama’s expectations, history will celebrate his shrewdness and courage. If he turns out to be wrong, his name will be a byword for folly. The truth is that at this point neither Obama nor anyone else can say for certain how that bet will turn out. Check back in a decade—no, make that two—and we can talk about his legacy.