Obama’s Doctrine of Ambiguity

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As one who studies US foreign policy, I am not a fan of presidential doctrines that are generally crafted by the press out of a line or two of a president’s speech.  The Monroe Doctrine may have actually been the only true doctrine, defined by its namesake, and even it proved susceptible to gross misinterpretation and expansive misapplication.  Moreover, in an age of complexity, doctrines, or grand strategies, seem less appealing or relevant than the flexibility ambiguity allows, which is clearly why President Obama favored ambiguity in his recent address on Libya.  We live in an age of supervention, where seemingly disconnected and anachronistic events have effects, which is an inexorable reality of complexity.  The larger problem however, is not about US foreign policy and its strategic design in a complex world; it is about American identity; it is about how we Americans view our role at home and in the world.

Obama’s address about the US/NATO intervention in Libya (March 28, 2011) left those wanting to define the Obama Doctrine dissatisfied; there was (purposefully, no doubt) nowhere to hang one’s doctrinal hat.  Ben Smith of Politico probably summed this best when he wrote, “The doctrine is there is no doctrine.”  And while others like Mark Halperin of TIME lauded Obama’s address as “strong” even he underscored the ambiguity by suggesting, “George W. Bush could have delivered every sentence.”  When Obama and W sound the same on foreign policy, the case for ambiguity is unambiguous.  However, as attractive as the flexibility ambiguity provides is, we must also look at the sustainability of an open-ended policy of either adventurism (W) or interventionism (Obama).

The US has now witnessed two expensive effects of having an unassailable lead as the predominant military in the world: natural competitors find other ways to compete, and allies become dependent on US military power.  China has chosen to compete with the US by investing in their economy and protecting their currency (virtually all their military is deployed in-country to protect the authoritarian government).  Other non-state actors, like al-Qaeda, compete with asymmetric terror strategies that are difficult if not impossible to assail with a behemoth (US) military.  Meanwhile, as we have seen with Libya, US allies and their collective security system, NATO, are unable to provide the command and control platform to launch or sustain an intervention.  Therefore, the US, in its superpower/super-cop role, is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place; it must continue to fund its super-military for the benefit of friends, while its natural competitors gain in power through other means.  The result, unfortunately, is now and will continue to be the decline – perhaps even accelerated decline – of US power and well-being.

Obama could have at least started to halt this unsustainable trajectory of superdom, but he chose ambiguity.  He has missed an opportunity to recast US identity.  In so doing, he has (perhaps unwittingly) elongated the deleterious effects of Eisenhower’s warning about a military industrial complex, and reduced our capacity to invest in better long-term bets like education, alternative energy, and economic innovation.  Lest we forget, we have enormous financial deficits.  The US will likely be better-loved by both allies and competitors for Obama’s post-W retooling of exceptionalism and lofty aims, but such love is an unsustainable luxury.  As Americans we must demand a refocusing on our own strength, resiliency, and well-being.  We can afford neither adventurism nor interventionism.  Prevailing on the “shores of Tripoli” may feel good today, but also puts our future at open-ended risk.

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