The Obama Doctrine
Feb 13, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 21 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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.
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:
President Obama’s concluding paragraphs in the speech returned to his military achievements.
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.
Now, this doctrine presents some tiny difficulties. The first is that not every American goal can be achieved this way. Obama is in the proverbial position of the guy who has a hammer and looking around sees everything as a nail. Allies seeking our protection from neighbors like Iran or China will not be reassured by this combination of defense cuts and one-off raids. Second, the Obama approach threatens to eliminate intelligence sources because they are killed rather than captured in such raids (or by drones, which are not good at capture and interrogation). Third, the Obama approach requires dangerous revelations of exactly what is being done—or else the president gets no credit, looks wimpy, and might not be reelected. Former SEAL Babin, who holds a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and a Purple Heart, explained:
Babin has it mostly but not entirely right, for he is looking only at the “operational security” of the warriors. Operational security in the White House has been maintained beautifully in advance of each operation: never a leak until the time has come to get some political reward. Babin has his eye on the wrong operation, the one being done by SEALs rather than the one being done by Obama, Biden, Carney, Axelrod, & Co.
Babin may be a better warrior than he is political analyst because he ends his article by asking this question:
Infuriating to be sure, for the military, but divulging the secrets is at the very heart of the Obama Doctrine. Secret operations gain the president no credit. Revelation of the completed operations is the whole point, demonstrating Obama’s courage and his commitment to yesterday’s deeds. The trouble with wars like Iraq and Afghanistan is that they commit you to doing risky things tomorrow, when you may wish to give a speech about health care or jobs. Thus the beauty of the Obama Doctrine. “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill,” might go the paraphrase of John Kennedy, “that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, a day at a time, so long as what is required of us will be over by tomorrow morning, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
Not inspiring, you say? Obviously you’re one of the antediluvian defense types who wants a whole army and navy. That’s passé now. The new approach is raid, run, and announce.
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