Commentary Magazine


Obama’s Collapsing Foreign Policy Doctrine

At the Washington Post, Jackson Diehl writes that the Benghazi attack is the first sign of the collapse of Obama’s foreign policy doctrine, and Syria is right on its heels:

Is “leading from behind” an unfair monicker for this? Then call it the light footprint doctrine. It’s a strategy that supposes that patient multilateral diplomacy can solve problems like Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability; that drone strikes can do as well at preventing another terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland as do ground forces in Afghanistan; that crises like that of Syria can be left to the U.N. Security Council.

For the last couple of years, the light footprint worked well enough to allow Obama to turn foreign policy into a talking point for his reelection. But the terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11 should have been a red flag to all who believe this president has invented a successful new model for U.S. leadership. Far from being an aberration, Benghazi was a toxic byproduct of the light footprint approach — and very likely the first in a series of boomerangs. …

At best, Libya will be a steady, low-grade headache for Obama in his second term. But the worst blowback from his policies will come in Syria. What began as a peaceful mass rebellion against another Arab dictator has turned, in the absence of U.S. leadership, into a brutal maelstrom of sectarian war in which al-Qaeda and allied jihadists are playing a growing role. Obama’s light footprint strategy did much to produce this mess; without a change of U.S. policy, it will become, like Bosnia for Bill Clinton or Iraq for George W. Bush, the second term’s “problem from hell.”

Before Benghazi, Obama was able to reduce the U.S.’s international footprint while still basically keeping a lid on global terrorism. But it was never sustainable. The president’s lead-from-behind approach is a reflection of his worldview, his discomfort with overt displays of American power, and his general disinterest in concepts like “the War on Terror.” On terrorism, he does only as much as he feels is necessary to protect the country in the short term. Dealing with national security issues is a necessary evil to him, not a priority.

Afghanistan is a prime example. After campaigning on Afghanistan as the more important war and ordering a troop surge, he pulled out without finishing the job in order to focus on “nation building here at home.” Another example is drone strikes. Obama has relied heavily on drones because they’re covert and don’t require much of his attention. Administration officials don’t even have to talk to the media about them, unless they feel like leaking details of some particularly successful strike.

But drones aren’t a long-term solution, and they’re becoming a problem for Obama, as Diehl notes. The American left has been notably silent on the subject for the past four years, but now that Obama’s been safely reelected, you can bet this will become a political football. Complaints from U.S. allies and countries like Libya and Pakistan are also getting louder. If this was a president with strong principles on the issue, that might not matter. But Obama is very sensitive to global opinion. Drones have been useful for him because they’ve allowed him to target terrorists while protecting him from the international political backlash the Bush administration received. Will he have the spine to defend them against growing objections from the left, the United Nations, the Hague, our European allies, and the Muslim world?