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Apr. 29, 2014

Explaining the 'Obama Doctrine'

He says it's not "sexy" but it "avoids errors." Not so much.

Barack Obama appeared to take offense Monday to a question regarding his administration’s foreign policy put forth during a press conference in Manila. Obama is wrapping up a trip through Asia, which some see as an attempt to reassert America’s clout overseas while allies and enemies alike wonder if the U.S. still has the muscle to drive international relations anymore. The president was asked to explain the “Obama Doctrine,” but since he can’t – because there really isn’t one – he gave a flip response that he didn’t have time to get into it.

“[I]f you look at the results of what we’ve done over the last five years,” he said, “it is fair to say that our alliances are stronger, our partnerships are stronger, and in the Asia Pacific region, just to take one example, we are much better positioned to work with the peoples here on a whole range of issues of mutual interest. And that may not always be sexy. That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows. But it avoids errors.” An awful lot can be said about Obama’s foreign policy, but “avoids errors” isn’t one of them. And feel free to name an alliance that’s stronger. We can’t think of one.

It may not be entirely fair to say that there is no Obama Doctrine. The Obama Doctrine, as best as can be understood, is really just a series of unrelated and uncoordinated decisions meant to have maximum political benefit at home, while having minimal impact overseas. The Obama Doctrine doesn’t seek to maintain international peace and stability so much as domestic poll ratings, driven by the misguided belief that America is universally reviled for its strength and therefore would be more popular if it were less a force in the world.

While Obama didn’t “have time” to get into his own mistakes – Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Ukraine, etc., etc. – he was not at a loss for words about his critics. “Do people actually think that, somehow, us sending some additional arms to Ukraine could potentially deter the Russian army? Or are we more likely to deter them by applying the sort of international pressure, diplomatic pressure and economic pressure that we’re applying?”

Four rounds of sanctions have so far only pinpointed a small segment of the Russian leadership, and therefore have been virtually useless. Separatists in Ukraine are as bold as ever, and likely being driven by Russian special forces. Real economic pressure would come in the form of broad-based sanctions that would hit Russians in their wallets, spurring a possible recession that Russia may be facing this year anyway. Once the Russian people realize that Vladimir Putin’s military adventures might land them in the poor(er) house, they may be less likely to support his path to a new empire.

The international pressure that Obama speaks of needs U.S. leadership. The Europeans are fractured on the issue. Eastern Europe is too close to Russia and has been burned once too often by Obama’s feckless foreign policy to take a bold stand. Many politicians and industrialists in high places in Eastern Europe, Germany, France and elsewhere are on the dole of Russia’s various energy conglomerates. And the continent as a whole is too fearful of standing up for human rights, for fear of angering a belligerent enemy.

The Cold War taught us that the only way to stand up to dictators is to show resolve and strength. Obama has demonstrated neither. And now Russia is making energy deals with Iran, and pushing against the Ukrainian border, and soon Putin will be looking elsewhere to expand. America doesn’t need a “doctrine” so much as consistent leadership.

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