The Obama Doctrine: “Just Enough To Make A Point, But Not Enough To Make A Difference.”

As pundits who are as obsessed with creating presidential “doctrines” as they are with appending -gate to every scandal struggle identify the “Obama Doctrine,” Patrick Ishmael comes pretty dang close to describing the fairly indescribable. 

Obama has made clear that he will only intervene where (i) a humanitarian crisis looms, (ii) the risks and costs are believed to be relatively low, (ii) the offending tyrant has few friends, and (iv) both the U.N. and local players (here, the Arab League) give the green light.  There are many problems with this approach. 

First, it means we are likely to intervene or not intervene based on poorly defined factors.  How many dead bodies must there be?  Is it on a sliding scale along with the expected risks and costs of intervention?  How much risk or expense is too much?   How many allies do we need, and what contribution must they make to the effort?  We don’t know. 

Second, once fighting beaks out, all bets are off.  We cannot control the risk or the expense of intervention.  What do we do if Qaddafi continues to repel the rebels and airstrikes are not enough to stop him?  What if he retakes the rebel territory and starts slaughtering the opposition?   We can only limit our risk by withdrawing when and if things get difficult and don’t go according to plan — doing just enough to make a point, but not enough to make a difference.

But retreat doesn’t solve the problem.  Once we decide to intervene, U.S. power and prestige are on the line, and those things matter.  If we are seen to be strong and resolute, we intimidate our enemies and embolden our friends.  If we are seen to be weak and ineffectual, we make ourselves and our friends vulnerable.

Third, some of the worst and most dangerous tyrants — I’m looking at you Syria and Iran — have a fair number of friends who can be counted on to thwart any effort that requires significant local support or a U.N. stamp of approval.  Oil money and opposition to Israel still buy plenty of influence in the hallowed halls of the U.N.  Yet because of that, along with their large population, armies, brutal hold on power, and huge territories, intervening there is decidedly off the table for the Obama Administration.

Fourth, the policy requires building a house of cards on a sand foundation.  Everyone thinks Qaddafi is nuts, yet Obama’s cobbled-coalition is perilously fractured.  Such a coalition demands extreme caution and restraint, even under circumstances where such restraint means we intervene without making a real difference.

Finally, the Obama Doctrine violates the single most important rule of war from time immemorial: “When you strike at a king, you must kill him.”  Bloodied but still breathing kings are dangerous things.

Published in: on March 30, 2011 at 4:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

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