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The Obama Doctrine?

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Message Stephen Maher

In the wake of the catastrophic foreign policy failures (so say some) of the Bush administration, many have come to question what sort of foreign policy our next president might pursue. In order to answer such a question, we must first explore the roots of the situation at hand.

By the time Ronald Reagan took office in 1980, the Soviet Union was no longer a credible threat. The Gorbachev era brought with it massive changes in Russian policy, a clear indication of the desperateness of the economic situation there and the imminence of its collapse. In order to assert American muscle abroad, the Reaganites (beginning with their service in the Ford administration) fought tooth and nail to revive the idea of a "Cold War" in the minds of Americans and perhaps in their own. This invented conflict justified one of the most vicious campaigns of terrorism in post-industrial history throughout Central America. That however, is another story.

The collapse of the USSR meant that the Cold War prism was no longer a viable option to sell imperialist adventures abroad to the American public. A new ideology was needed, especially since many were hoping for a "peace dividend" as a result of the predicted falling military expenditures that would naturally be paired with the elimination of the profound existential threat of Soviet communism. To ruling elites, this was a dangerous situation indeed: the handy pretext of "Soviet aggression" had by this time become a virtually indispensable foreign policy tool, not just for justifying US imperial activity all over the globe but also as a defining mission for what that policy hoped to achieve which could easily be swallowed by the public.

Bush I attempted to set the tone for the post-Cold War world with the invasion of Iraq, following closely on the heels of Reagan's actions in Haiti and Grenada and his own intervention in Panama, which were of a similar nature. Al Haig, as Reagan's Secretary of State, had told his President when advising him to wage what became a campaign of unrestrained terror in the 1980s, "this is one you can win." Like Grenada, and later Panama, Iraq was chosen partially because it was virtually defenseless against the military might of the United States (in the economic dimension, of course, the massive oil reserves of the country played a role as well). The same message was meant to have been communicated with the invasions of Grenada and Panama: if you challenge the US or its interests, you will not survive, hence the importance of choosing "one we could win."

As articulated in the new national security strategy after the fall of the Berlin wall, the new threat came from the increasing technological sophistication of third-world countries. There would be no "peace dividend." The military, in all its largesse, must now be used to topple defiant dictators and "protect democracy," as our leaders told us. In this they were picking up where Reagan had left off in his so-called "democracy enhancement" project in Central America, at least rhetorically. Hence, the valiant crusade against vicious Iraqi aggression was undertaken in order to protect "free Kuwait," as Bush I repeated ad nauseam in the run-up to the war. While doing so, incidentally, he ignored opportunities for diplomacy as well as the unimportant fact that Kuwait was not "free" in any real sense.

At this point, the United States was more or less "invincible," at least in the eyes of policy makers. The most important reason for this was the "end" of the Cold War, which in real terms meant the US could do what it pleased virtually anywhere in the world without serious fear of a military reprisal. The apparently easy and stunning US victories in Grenada, Panama, and Iraq cemented the idea that the US military was unbeatable, and Vietnam began to increasingly fade into memory.

However, as time wore on these appeared as disconnected actions, unguided by any overarching sense of purpose or mission. By the time Clinton came to office, these sensations had crept their way throughout the foreign policy establishment and onto the street as well. The Clinton Doctrine was an attempt to reverse this trend, and to pronounce a new mission that the US must fulfill. Even more radical than the oft-criticized Bush Doctrine, Clinton proposed the use of force to ensure access to "markets and resources," unilaterally if necessary. Note how Clinton reserved the right to act unilaterally without even the pretext of any threat, to protect US control of the world's resources and markets. This was likely a consequence of both the feeling of invulnerability I mentioned above as well as a silent recognition that no true credible threat to US security existed at the time.

Yet this strategy, coupled with the feeling of invincibility, lead the Clinton administration to find vital US interests all around the globe. His perceived "successes" in Haiti and Sudan (the facts tell a very different picture) were offset by his failure in Somalia, which never truly left him throughout his presidency. Even in Haiti, ostensibly a mission to "restore democracy" by reinstating Aristide (again, the facts tell a very different story), fears of "another Somalia" plagued the Clinton administration and probably prevented him from landing a larger-scale intervention force there.

At the same time, however, Clinton was pursuing a neo-containment policy in eastern Europe. Reneging on US promises not to expand NATO, a crucial part of the agreement for Russia to give up East Berlin, Clinton embarked on a massive enlargement campaign. Indeed, the US-led alliance expanded right to the Russians' front door, the logical endpoint of the aggressive "rollback" policy (as opposed to "containment") of the Reagan years. The attack on Yugoslavia should be viewed in this context, which provided the US with one of the largest military bases in the world right in Russia's front yard, essentially the equivalent of the permanent bases secured in Germany after World War II. EU expansion began to claim former bits of the sizable Russian empire for the West as well.

There is one more dimension to the attack on Yugoslavia which is worth mentioning, as it is quite relevant to present circumstances which I will address shortly. Without a threat to polarize the world, NATO was in danger of falling apart. In the absence of the Warsaw Pact, NATO was as mission-less as was US Foreign Policy. A crucial reason for the attack on Yugoslavia was to solidify NATO, which was to be used during the operation, as well as to ensure its "credibility." In other words, the US needed to hold NATO together, and make sure the world was still afraid of it. The situation today is remarkably similar - we shall return to this issue shortly. The important message is that regardless of the actual facts or circumstances, Clinton's interventions in Haiti, Yugoslavia, Somalia, and elsewhere became packaged as the new approach of US Foreign Policy, Clintonian Humanitarianism. In the words of contemporary media reports, Clinton's Foreign Policy had entered a "noble phase," with a "saintly glow."

To conservatives, however, such frenetic global intervention produced little more than a jumbled mess of policy which could hardly be interpreted as having a singular guiding mission or purpose. Furthermore, US "timidity," in Somalia especially - withdrawing after receiving only a few casualties - didn't jive with the world order that post-Cold War conservatives had in mind. Despite Clinton's interventionist policies crisscrossing the globe, the Reaganites believed that the US was viewed as a "paper giant" (Rumsfeld) which would inevitably lead to the decline of its influence. One of the primary motives behind the changes that would follow was to counteract what was viewed to be Clinton's damage to the post-Cold War order that Reaganite conservatives were trying to craft. In order to overcome these problems, they argued, an even more aggressive policy would be needed.

And so, nearly a decade after the fall of the USSR, the US still had not settled on a mission for the post-Cold War world. Following the return to power of the Reaganites, it was this context that led to the announcement of the Bush doctrine and the new National Security Strategy, which stated that the US intended to rule the world by force, permanently. Unilateral action would come in preventive form (rather than preemptive), and would be sold to the public as a messianic mission to spread American values and liberty into every corner of the world.

Thus, the real "threat" which was to replace the USSR was a lack of democracy. Any country which the United States determined to be lacking the proper democratic credentials could become the next victim of a strike. Low levels of democratic development, it was argued by think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, one of the intellectual fathers of the Iraq war, lead to terrorism. Terrorism, in turn, constituted a major threat to US national security. Thus, promoting democracy was vital to US national security. In order for the doctrine to have any effect, however, a new "norm" in international relations needed to be developed - in other words, the incoming Bush administration needed to test drive its new plan to demonstrate its seriousness.

Out of an "axis of evil" of three countries - Iraq, Iran, and North Korea - there was one country that may have warranted a US intervention with some credible boost to US security; a country that was also lead by one of the most oppressive totalitarian leaders in the world. That country, of course, is North Korea. However, North Korea wouldn't work for the US' purposes as it had acquired a nuclear deterrent. No, as in the cases of the earlier conservative attempts to shape the "new world order" as Bush I called it, the country had to be defenseless. It had to be "one we could win." After a decade of harsh sanctions had totally devastated the society, Iraq was the perfect choice for the "demonstration effect" the Reaganites in the Bush administration sought.

Thus the tragic attack on Iraq commenced, resulting (unimportantly) in tremendous loss of life and massive human tragedy. Yet all did not go according to plan. Rather than reshape the world to embark on a "new american century," as the architects of the war had imagined, the limits to US power became apparent in a way that Clinton's alleged missteps never approached. To make matters worse, they were followed on the heels of the defeat of the US-backed Israelis in Lebanon by the Hizbullah militia, hardly a modern-equipped army. Not only were the limits of US power obvious, but the myths of the invincibility of the American military were dispelled in a manner not seen since the US exit from Vietnam in the mid-70s. Such is the situation we find ourselves in today, and which the incoming President (Barack Obama?) will have to deal with.

The next president is faced with the urgent need to redefine American foreign policy after the mismanagement of the Bush years in a way not unlike President Clinton. The difference, of course, is obvious, and barely warrants mentioning: the Iraq war. Here we find at least one easy decision that will face the next administration. Either (s)he will draw down troop levels in Iraq, making a public display that appears to be a withdrawal, or become a one term lame duck. Obviously, the choice on this matter is clear. I should mention, though, that there will certainly be a long-term US presence in Iraq. The money that was poured into the war in the interest of securing permanent military basing in the heart of the world's remaining energy reserves will not have been spent in vain. What will happen, however, is a gradual troop reduction over the course of the next administration amid much fanfare from the media and academia.

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Stephen's opinions and analysis can also be found at Stephen Maher is currently pursuing an MA in US Foreign Policy at American University's School of International Service in Washington, DC. In 2007, he (more...)
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The Obama Doctrine?

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