Photo by Beth Wilson
United States / Obama

Limits of the Obama Doctrine: Counterterrorism, Syria, and Ukraine

Two tendencies define the Obama Administration’s approach to armed conflict: retrenchment from inherited wars and minimal military involvement in new crises. Since taking office, President Obama has tried to readjust American foreign policy to reflect new political and fiscal constraints. Seven years of war under the Bush administration wore down the electorate’s patience for foreign adventures and sapped the federal government’s ability to continue financing them.

This pragmatic adaptation dovetails well with Obama’s worldview, an imperfect blend of idealistic liberalism and cautious realism. At once a true believer in the value of international institutions and cognizant of America’s declining relative influence, the President inclines toward conciliatory rhetoric and multilateral action. But his motives are patriotic, not humanitarian. He has opted for a restrained, multilateral approach in order to maximize American influence in a time of budget shortfalls and war fatigue. This explains why Obama shows such tremendous caution in risking American blood and treasure overseas.

While this prudent approach has kept us safe at home and out of new quagmires abroad, Obama has taken his caution too far. His timid and indecisive handling of the Syrian Civil War has shredded America’s credibility with its allies and rivals alike in the Middle East, not to mention enabled Bashar al-Assad’s butchery.

Obama drew an explicit “red line”—the use of chemical weapons—that would trigger US involvement. In retrospect, he clearly expected this threat to act as a deterrent. This aligned with a long US policy tradition of opposing the proliferation of chemical weapons. The issue with deterrents is that they disintegrate if they can be revealed as bluffs.

When the Assad regime crossed the President’s “red line,” it triggered a storm of indecisive bluster. The Obama Administration made a series of grave mistakes. First, it decided to seek broad international support for a strike against Assad. When Obama drew the red line, he promised swift American action, not a deliberate, multilateral negotiation process. This slowed down the speed of response, and effectively put American policy in the hands of other nations. Saudi Arabia and France risked considerable political capital by declaring support for a US strike, but the British parliament’s failure to approve UK involvement in the conflict alongside the United States killed momentum for multilateral involvement.

Instead of going ahead anyway and demonstrating American resolve, Obama made his second mistake. He decided to copy the failed British approach, and punted the decision to Congress. He thus outsourced one of the most critical foreign policy decisions of his administration to the most polarized and least productive Congress in living memory. This again slowed down the response and delegated responsibility. But it also embarrassed American allies voicing support for US strikes, to say nothing of Secretary of State John Kerry.

Just as Congress looked set to further humiliate Obama and his allies by voting against military action, Russia swooped in with a compromise solution under which Assad would peacefully surrender his chemical weapons. This deus ex machina saved Obama from an even more devastating outcome, but it came at the price of Russian President Vladimir Putin briefly stealing the mantle of world’s leading statesman.

This episode had three dangerous consequences. First, it undermined the United States’ perceived willingness to make good on its threats. This alienated American allies, like Saudi Arabia, which cooperates with the United States largely to secure protection against Iran. Perceiving a violence-averse, irresolute, and apathetic administration, Saudi Arabia has begun distancing itself from the United States. Last year, Prince Turki al-Faisal attacked the President’s Syria policy as “lamentable” and the Russian-brokered deal a “charade.” Meanwhile, the Kingdom’s intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, promised a “major shift” in US-Saudi relations in response. Indecisive policy has thus undermined our leverage and influence over a critical actor in the region.

The Syria fiasco also revealed that the administration was unclear on its own priorities. Obama and his advisors have never been able to reconcile their nominal support for the opposition with their fears that rebel success could empower radical groups like Jabat al-Nusra, and that indecision showed through in the President’s waffling. This has further contributed to the loss of faith in American foreign policy, particularly from Persian Gulf allies like Saudi Arabia, who have heavily backed the Syrian rebels.

Finally, Obama surrendered the diplomatic initiative to Putin at a critical time. Putin was pressuring then-President Viktor Yanukovich of Ukraine to forgo closer ties with the European Union in favor of an agreement with the Kremlin-sponsored Eurasian Union. The Syrian agreement helped Putin portray himself, both to his subjects and to the world, as the great leader who would finally return Russia to the center of the world stage. The Sochi Winter Olympics, which followed soon after, further boosted his stature.

In light of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, the outcome of the Syria agreement looks particularly dangerous. It made America’s careful drawdown in the Middle East look like the flailing retreat of a declining superpower, and Russia’s strategic opportunism the triumph of a resurgent global actor.

Forced to divert his attention to this most unwelcome of potential battlefields, Obama will surely want to avoid a European conflict at any cost. But he must heed the lesson of Syria. There, his fears of worsening the conflict proved laughably misplaced, as the country descended into a grinding, bloody stalemate that the United States might have broken. Had he stuck to his red line, he would have provided the Assad regime with a tangible incentive to dial back its attacks on civilians, and preserved American credibility. A strike would have served both strategic and humanitarian goals.

If Putin is not deterred from invading Ukraine again, he will have successfully conquered portions of two democratic neighbors, repeating his 2008 expedition into Georgia. This may very well embolden him to annex the breakaway Russian enclave of Transnistria, in eastern Moldova, or even the NATO-aligned Baltic countries. By demonstrating that America is still willing to back up its words with actions, Obama could restore American credibility and check the conquests of a tyrant. He must make the costs of illegal action so clear and grievous for Russia that Putin has no choice but to return to diplomacy and international law. Whether Obama does this through sanctions or the threat of military force depends on Putin’s next steps. When and if the Russian bear advances, America must retaliate swiftly, and, if necessary, unilaterally. For all its cynicism, the free world still follows America’s lead in times of crisis. Obama must remember this and act accordingly.

It is time to stop reacting to the Bush years. New crises increasingly put American allies at risk in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East. In those places, we have an obligation to act decisively and assertively in the name of our shared interests. That, Mr. President, is true multilateralism.