Last fall, American voters vindicated not just an embattled president, but also his vision of government. While the campaign mainly focused on economic and social issues — with only a slight detour into international issues — President Obama’s foreign policy doctrine also received a renewed mandate.
With divided government at home, it is in the realm of foreign affairs that Obama can become the truly transformative statesman he has sought to be.
The Obama Doctrine’s first term has been a remarkable success. After the $3 trillion boondoggle in Iraq, a failed nation-building mission in Afghanistan, and the incessant saber-rattling of the previous Administration, President Obama was able to reorient U.S. foreign policy in a more restrained and realistic direction.
He did this in a number of ways. First, an end to large ground wars. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it in February 2011, anyone who advised future presidents to conduct massive ground operations ought “to have [their] head examined.” Second, a reliance on Secret Operations and drones to go after both members of al Qaeda and other terrorist outfits in Pakistan as well as East Africa. Third, a rebalancing of U.S. foreign policy towards the Asia-Pacific — a region neglected during George W. Bush's terms but one that possesses a majority of the world’s nuclear powers, half the world’s GDP, and tomorrow’s potential threats. Finally, under Obama's leadership, the United States has finally begun to ask allies to pick up the tab on some of their security costs. With the U.S. fiscal situation necessitating retrenchment, coupled with a lack of appetite on the part of the American public for foreign policy adventurism, Obama has begun the arduous process of burden-sharing necessary to maintain American strength at home and abroad.
What this amounted to over the past four years was a vigorous and unilateral pursuit of narrow national interests and a multilateral pursuit of interests only indirectly affecting the United States.
Turkey, a Western ally, is now leading the campaign against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Japan, Korea, India, the Philippines, Myanmar, and Australia all now act as de facto balancers of an increasingly assertive China. With the withdrawal of two troop brigades from the continent, Europe is being asked to start looking after its own security. In other words, the days of free security and therefore, free riding, are now over.
The results of a more restrained foreign policy are plentiful. Obama was able to assemble a diverse coalition of states to execute regime-change in Libya where there is now a moderate democratic government in place. Libya remains a democracy in transition, but the possibilities of self-government are ripe. What’s more, the United States was able to do it on the cheap. Iran’s enrichment program has been hampered by the clandestine cyber program codenamed Olympic Games. While Mullah Omar remains at large, al Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been virtually decimated. With China, the United States has maintained a policy of engagement and explicitly rejected a containment strategy, though there is now something resembling a cool war — not yet a cold war — as Noah Feldman of Harvard Law School puts it, between the two economic giants.
The phrase that best describes the Obama Doctrine is one that was used by an anonymous Administration official during the Libya campaign and then picked up by Republicans as a talking point: Leading From Behind. The origin of the term dates not to weak-kneed Democratic orthodoxy but to Nelson Mandela, who wrote in his autobiography that true leadership often required navigating and dictating aims ‘from behind.’ The term, when applied to U.S. foreign policy, has a degree of metaphorical verity to it: Obama has led from behind the scenes in pursuing terrorists and militants, is shifting some of the prodigious expenses of international security to others, and has begun the U.S. pivot to the Asia-Pacific region. The Iraq War may seem to be a distant memory to many in North America, but its after-effects in the Middle East and Asia tarnished the United States' image abroad and rendered claims to moral superiority risible. Leading From Behind is the final nail in the coffin of the neoconservatives' failed imperial policies.
As numerous as these accomplishments are, the real legacy of the Obama Doctrine will be defined in the President’s second term. Many challenges await: the situation in Syria has become a full civil war and threatens to engulf other regional actors; the Israelis and Palestinians are no closer to a final settlement of their dispute; China continues its bellicosity in the South and East China Seas; Pakistan’s tribal regions remain unstable; the legal mechanisms governing cyber-arms and drones remain shrouded in secrecy.
If the past four years are any indication, however, Obama will utilize a combination of economic power, Special Operations forces, and an international coalition to eliminate threats in key regions while at the same time expanding trade and commerce in others. The hallmark of a retrenched and restrained foreign policy will be prioritizing regions and opportunities rather than trying to serve both as a global policeman and a global government.
In the long term, the most consequential of the Obama Doctrine’s accomplishments will not be the killing of Bin Laden or the withdrawal from Iraq or the Libya mission but rather the rebalancing towards Asia. The United States has been mired in the Middle East’s quagmires for the past four decades. While complete extrication from the Middle East is not possible, a forward-looking shift to a region that is at once the most prosperous and the most uncertain in the world will be viewed by history as a significant moment in American foreign policy. How a second term actualizes this rebalancing in terms of material gains will help define the Obama Doctrine in the history books.
Now that the President and his foreign policy vision have received a second term, it is time to extend the gains of the past four years and conduct the type of foreign policy that will place President Obama among that short list of truly transformative presidents.