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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.

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:

Of paramount importance—especially given the risk and sensitivity of the missions and the small units involved—is what the military calls “operational security,” or maintaining secrecy. If the enemy learns details and can anticipate the manner and timing of an attack, the likelihood of success is significantly reduced and the risk to our forces is significantly increased. This is why much of what our special-operators do is highly classified, and why military personnel cannot legally divulge it to the public. Yet virtually every detail of the bin Laden raid has appeared in news outlets across the globe—from the name of the highly classified unit to how the U.S. gathered intelligence, how many raiders were involved, how they entered the grounds, what aircraft they used, and how they moved through the compound. Such details were highly contained within the military and not shared even through classified channels. Yet now they are available to anyone with the click of a mouse. It’s difficult for military leaders to enforce strict standards of operational security on their personnel while the most senior political leadership is flooding the airwaves with secrets.  .  .  . Such disclosures are catastrophic to U.S. intelligence networks, which often take years to develop. Recklessness not only puts lives at risk but could set U.S. intelligence-collection efforts back decades.

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:

Do the president and his top political advisers understand what’s at stake for the special-operations forces who carry out these dangerous operations, or the long-term strategic consequences of divulging information about our most highly classified military assets and intelligence capabilities? It is infuriating to see political gain put above the safety and security of our brave warriors and our long-term strategic goals. Loose lips sink ships.

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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