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The Obama Undoctrine

Zackary Canepari/Vox

President Barack Obama is reluctant to define his foreign policy in terms of slogans. There is no "Obama Doctrine." Instead the void has been filled by blind quotes from the White House, like Obama is "leading from behind" or has a foreign policy doctrine of "don't do stupid shit."

So when given the chance during a recent interview at the White House, I was eager to get him to describe his approach in his own words. When I pushed, he wouldn’t wear the "realist" label or even give himself an alternative catchphrase similar to the Clinton administration's "dual containment" of Iran and Iraq or the Bush administration's emphasis on democracy and freedom.

But that doesn't mean Obama doesn't have a clear view of America's role in the world.

A philosophy of limits

Over the course of the 45-minute interview — which ranged from big questions of international relations theory to small details of budget policy —he articulated a foreign policy vision guided by a striking principle or, as he put it, a "strong belief that we don't have military solutions to every problem in the 21st century."

One could construe this as simply a banal observation, but in the context of the post-Cold War world it's actually rather profound. The American military is genuinely awe-inspiring in its capabilities, and the absence of a rival super-power means there are few external checks on the use of military force. This leaves the United States predisposed to overreact and over-commit, with leaders from both parties driving the country to dissipate its resources on foreign entanglements with questionable cost-benefit ratios.

Obama wants to take credit not only for the drawdown of two wars, but for holding to a policy of wise restraint — not in absolute terms, but relative to a political system and an elite consensus that is constantly pushing in the direction of more military intervention.

In essence, he's articulated an un-doctrine — a theory of mistakes to avoid.

"I have the authority as commander-in-chief to send back 200,000 Americans to re-occupy Iraq" and fight ISIS, Obama told me. But he doesn't want to. "You can keep a lid on those sectarian issues as long as we've got the greatest military on earth there on the ground" but that just means that having bowed to pressure to put the troops in you'd face more pressure to keep them there.

Oversized Pentagon, under-financed diplomacy

Obama says he wants to seriously rethink how America allocates its resources and defines its national security challenges. He talks about climate change as a foreign policy priority, and says we should think of consolidating spending on foreign assistance and the Pentagon — and shift the balance in favor of the former.

"We spend more on our military than the next ten countries combined," he observes, and this may not be an ideal allocation of resources. "If you look at our foreign assistance as a tool in our national security portfolio, as opposed to charity, and you combined our defense budget with our diplomatic budget and our foreign assistance budget, then in that mix there's a lot more that we ought to be doing."

As an example, he mentions assisting Central American nations with their overtaxed and ineffective criminal justice systems, strengthening America's ability to provide assistance in the wake of natural disasters, and brags about work that's already been done to help poor farmer's increase yields.

When all you have is a hammer

This is a very different way of resolving an issue former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright raised in a famous quip directed at Colin Powell in the early years of the Clinton administration: "What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?"

She was asking about Bosnia, where the United States eventually became militarily involved, and Albright's logic pushed the Clinton administration into further intervention in Kosovo. The theory of humanitarian militarism that was articulated around these small wars inspired many leading Democrats to support the invasion of Iraq, opposition to which was critical to Obama's rise to the White House. As president, he's made his peace with many of his party's war supporters, but still says "our invasion of Iraq was counterproductive to the goal of keeping our country safe," placing the blame for subsequent problems squarely on the shoulders of the invasion itself and not some failures of post-war planning or execution.

An anti-war president's wars

Depicting Obama as a fundamentally anti-militaristic president will sound odd to his many critics on the pacifist left or libertarian right.

His administration has been rather freewheeling with the drone strikes, launched a small war in Libya, and commenced new rounds of air strikes against ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq. But while Obama's foreign policy certainly isn't pacifism, it is remarkably light in its commitments of American military force relative to both the quantity of force available and the level of demand for its use.

"When problems happen, they don't call Beijing," Obama says, "they don't call Moscow. They call us."

He says this is a responsibility that Americans embrace, but it's clear that his policymaking also views it as a trap to avoid. Countries around the world have found that it's cost-effective to invest money and energy in influence-peddling in the United States in order to try to rent the earth's most powerful military force to advance their own ends. They are helped by a media that, as Obama says, takes an "if it bleeds, it leads" approach to coverage of global affairs, thus preventing any kind of sensible balancing of different priorities.

You don't have to think Obama has always dealt with this whorl in the best possible way to appreciate that it's a genuinely difficult problem.

Checks and balances

Obama's presidency has been defined, in many ways, by the collision between an ambitious president and a set of political institutions that deliberately make change difficult. This produces especially curious results in the national security portfolio. Here, more so than on domestic issues, the president can make policy with a relatively free hand — raining down death and destruction on the advice of military and intelligence professionals with little oversight and no checks and balances.

But this vast power plays out against a backdrop of financial commitments and hard asset accumulation over which he has limited control.

The leader of the free world could order the Marines into El Salvador or dispatch UAVs to bomb it. But he can't send in the flotilla of forensic scientists, psychologists, police trainers, infrastructure engineers, and agricultural scientists that the country really needs. This creates a strong temptation to respond to every urgent crisis with the tool available — military force — or to define as most urgent those problems that most plausibly could be addressed with military tools. One of Obama's primary jobs is to avoid those pressures, and focus instead of "future threats like cybersecurity or climate change" or regions beyond the Middle East that are at risk of suffering from neglect.

Obama's approach time and again has been to try to enough force that an issue is being addressed, without going over a tipping point that would imply deeper and deeper involvement. Avoid the intense pressure to overreact and keep focusing on the big picture. It genuinely doesn't make for a great bumper sticker, and like any administration he hasn't always entirely lived up to it. But it seems like a pretty good idea.