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The Obama Doctrine

Feb 13, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 21 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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Since President Obama arrived in the Oval Office three years ago there have been many efforts to explain his foreign and defense policy succinctly. Is there an Obama Doctrine? While many theories have been propounded, the recent State of the Union speech settles the matter.

Photo of Obama giving the State of the Union address

The Carter Doctrine was brief and reasonably clear: “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” The Nixon Doctrine took two whole sentences to explain: “We shall furnish military and economic assistance when requested in accordance with our treaty commitments. But we shall look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defense.”

President Obama has never summarized the Obama Doctrine with such clarity, but here is what it would look like: “I will undertake any military attack against our enemies, regardless of the risks and collateral damage, so long as it is over by the time I have to announce it.”

The president’s State of the Union began with a reference to his military exploits and ended with one, and in both cases the exploits meet our doctrinal definition. He began with mysterious congratulations for Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. As a column in the Wall Street Journal by a recently retired Navy SEAL, Leif Babin, put it:

As President Obama entered the House chamber, in full view of the cameras, he pointed to .  .  . Panetta and exclaimed: “Good job tonight, good job tonight.” Clearly something had happened that he wanted the world to know about. After delivering his speech, which included multiple references to the bin Laden raid, the president again thanked Mr. Panetta. “That was a good thing tonight,” he said as if to ensure that the viewing public, if they missed it initially, would get it a second time around. Sure enough, shortly thereafter, the White House announced the successful rescue of the hostages in Somalia by U.S. Special Operations forces. Vice President Biden appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” to highlight the success the next morning, and Mr. Panetta also publicly praised it.

President Obama’s concluding paragraphs in the speech returned to his military achievements.

One of my proudest possessions is the flag that the SEAL team took with them on the mission to get bin Laden. On it are each of their names. Some may be Democrats. Some may be Republicans. But that doesn’t matter. Just like it didn’t matter that day in the Situation Room, when I sat next to Bob Gates—a man who was George Bush’s defense secretary—and Hillary Clinton—a woman who ran against me for president. All that mattered that day was the mission. No one thought about politics. No one thought about themselves. One of the young men involved in the raid later told me that he didn’t deserve credit for the mission. It only succeeded, he said, because every single member of that unit did their job—the pilot who landed the helicopter that spun out of control; the translator who kept others from entering the compound; the troops who separated the women and children from the fight; the SEALs who charged up the stairs. More than that, the mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other—because you can’t charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there’s somebody behind you, watching your back.

Well, sort of. The critical thing isn’t who is watching your back but whether the president can take endless credit for an operation that ends before it is announced. Barack Obama’s military triumphs will come neither in long wars nor even short ones, but in a series of raids. His vision of our military appears to require cutting the overall defense budget sharply, but maintaining and increasing Special Forces capabilities. Recently we learned of a “mothership” or floating base for small high-speed boats and helicopters that SEALs and other Special Forces elements would use. In other words, Obama is leaning away from the old “two war” or “one and a half war” capabilities toward a new idea: American soldiers as raiders, undertaking one-day or one-hour attacks. Americans have long excelled in such combat (think of Rogers’ Rangers in the French and Indian War)but these tactics most often reflected weakness and necessity—or were a small part of a far larger military, rather than the product of a decision to abandon it.

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