The fiery US Presidential candidate Donald Trump is gaining huge popularity among masses as he is capitalizing on public’s aversion to Obama’s failed policies. In his foreign policy speech, Trump severely criticized Obama’s policy by calling it incoherent and the one that reflects diffidence and weakness of US power. He asserted that Obama’s restraint has made US enemies stronger, and allies weaker. As the presidential election in the United States is scheduled to be held in November; the term of the outgoing president is nearing its completion. It is important to find out if Obama’s doctrine really was a doctrine of restraint and diffidence that reduced US credibility in the world!
To understand Obama doctrine, one needs to comprehend the geopolitical environment in which it operates. In today’s age of globalization and increasing interdependence, no single state is capable of dominating the course of international politics. State’s capabilities and positions in the global world order in a “G-Zero World,” as claimed by Bremmer, are fluid and cha
nging. When President Obama came to power, the US was tangled in the years-long seemingly intractable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Global economic crisis had jeopardized US economy which was already going through recession. On the contrary, ‘the rise of the rest’ as quoted by Farid Zakariya, was challenging US hegemony and unilateralism. Additionally, the threat of non-state actors getting access to nuclear weapons was also a gigantic threat to global security.
Taking all these factors into account, President Obama inferred that in such a world, the US might be a dominant power but is no longer a determinant one. Thus, he focused on promoting multilateralism and sharing the burden of leadership with other world powers and US allies.
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President Obama had made a pledge during his elections campaign that he will responsibly end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2011 and 2014, the US and allied forces in Iraq and Afghanistan respectively were substantially reduced. However, no one would call it a ‘responsible end’ to the wars as promised by Obama. Post-war state of affairs in both countries is far worse than the pre-war conditions. ISIS has taken hold in major parts of Iraq due to the power vacuum created by US hasty withdrawal. Absence of national consensus in the post-war governance structure established in Iraq has fuelled sectarian tensions. The situation of Afghanistan, too, has not improved despite more than a decade of US involvement especially through its huge aid programmes. Learning from its bitter experience in Iraq, the US is now trying to build a consensus for the future government in Afghanistan. The Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG)-backed talks are an evidence of this policy. These unending issues created in Obama a strong aversion toward the use of force as a foreign policy tool and attracted his interest to persuasion and diplomacy. But, his critics tout this as a policy of inaction and silence when action was essential for the US due to its role as the global leader.
Perhaps, the biggest critique on Obama is regarding his foreign policy in Ukraine and Syria. He is severely criticized for his inaction in the face of Russian aggression. The US stood by as a silent spectator when Russia annexed Crimea. In Syria, too, President Obama rhetorically drew for the use of chemical weapons by Assad a ‘red line’ but he faltered when Assad crossed the line. Although, many in Obama’s cabinet and the US allies considered use of force necessary to prove that the US presidents don’t bluff and to maintain American credibility, yet Obama was reluctant to drag America into another open-ended war when, according to him, the situation in Syria did not pose a direct threat to the US national security. Obama’s inaction displeased the US allies in Europe as well as in the Middle East. Many analysts termed it a folly that gravely hurt Obama’s and America’s credibility. It also aggravated the situation in Syria creating a greater mess to deal with later on.
However, Obama had his own reasons; he did not think the war as winnable when other professional armies i.e. Russian and Iranian, were also in the field. Secondly, US missiles could not be fired directly at chemical weapons, which challenged the efficacy of strikes. Thirdly, the on-ground UN inspectors could also be put into danger. Lastly, British Premier David Cameron failed to get the consent of British parliament for strikes. No use of force was thus largely a rational decision rather than a principled one. Instead he got a deal with Assad to dismantle chemical weapons the existence of which, till then, was denied by the Syrian regime. Moreover, Obama’s inaction as a threat to American credibility is an exaggerated notion. Plenty of examples prove that many a times, in history the US turned back on its promises yet managed to maintain its credibility. For instance, the US abandoned Hungarians in 1956 after they had risen against communist dictatorship on the US backing.
Obama’s policy does not characterize only restraint; it features stringent actions when something was perceived as a direct threat to the US security. For instance, the successful operation to capture Osama bin Laden, the increased use of drones to kill terrorists without risking the lives of US soldiers and the Libya operation to oust Gaddafi evidence the successful use of force. Then, there are some examples of successful use of persuasion as a foreign policy tool by Obama. The historic diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba and the momentous Iran-P5+1 Nuclear Deal are probably Obama’s biggest achievements on foreign policy front. However, the deal is a bet as its outcome — positive or negative — will only become visible in future. The Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and the climate change deal, though promising developments, are fraught with risks and uncertainty. Their efficacy will only become apparent with the passage of time.
After looking at various policy decisions taken at different times, the Obama doctrine appears to be a policy based on realism as opposed to liberal internationalism. The trend of restraint is not embedded in Obama’s pacifism but on the realist contention that state should only work to protect its own national interests. As stated by President Obama himself, useless wars should be avoided to pursue necessary intervention. He avoided the use of force where direct American interest was not involved e.g. Syria and Ukraine, but made a calculated use of force where American interests were directly at stake e.g. operation to capture Osama bin Laden. Secondly, Obama doctrine is characterized by his understanding of changing geopolitical realities and the ‘rise of the rest’. His pivot-Asia policy, Trans-Pacific Partnership and climate change deal reflect growing multilateralism in the globalized world where there are multiple centres of power arranged in a complex order. In this world, the US, no doubt, sets the agenda but it does not lead that unilaterally.