In a highly choreographed interview with New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, US President Barack Obama attempted to once more define the legacy of his presidency. But ‘The Obama Doctrine and Iran’ seemed more of a belated attempt at defining what is essentially undefinable.
In reality, there is no ‘Obama doctrine’ that can be examined as a cohesive and consistent body of political conduct, and Obama is not entirely at fault for the failure to achieve one. In fact, at times he attempted to articulate a ‘doctrine’, the same way president Richard Nixon did in the 1970s when he was elected based on a platform of ‘peace with honour.’ He needed to escape the hellish American wars in Indochina that by then killed millions of Vietnamese and tens of thousands of US soldiers.
Nixon’s doctrine then was sold to the US public and the rest of the world as an American divestment from perpetual war. But it was hardly that, of course. It was unavoidable pivoting of American foreign policies due to its devastating defeat in Vietnam and the lack of appetite for more wars among majority of American citizens.
Obama’s famous Cairo speech in June 2009 was meant to be the articulation of what sounded much like a new-Nixonian doctrine. The US was meant to engage, not control, respect, not dictate, and certainly minimise its military adventures, like the ones carried out by the previous administration of George W. Bush.
Yet, that doctrine, mostly compelled by circumstances beyond Obama’s control, was in fact put in motion by warmongering Bush himself starting with the ‘surge’ in Iraq shortly before the end of Bush’s second term in office.
There could have possibly been an Obama doctrine that can be examined as such if it were not for the fact that the other global factors seemed much more compelling than a simple shift in US policies dictated by a small clique of policymakers in Washington DC.
First, the US useless engagement in the Middle East — which proved inconsequential in terms of guaranteeing long term US hegemony as plotted by the neoconservatives — made matters worse. Instead of managing a “New Middle East’, the US war simply destabilised the existing one.
Second, while busy rearranging the Middle East region as a matter of urgency for Israel and its US allies, the US was losing what has been traditionally its spheres of influence, from East Asia, to South East Asia, to Latin America.
Third, when the Obama administration was ready to ‘pivot to Asia’, to challenge China’s dominion over countries bordering the South China Sea, among other regions, which customarily gyrated within an American orbit, the Arab Spring exploded into unprecedented fury and mayhem, leaving the US with few options.
It was then that the term ‘leading from behind’ was invented. Although it was coined to describe the US involvement in Libya, it applies to much more — Syria, Iraq, and, as of late, Yemen.
The early phase of Obama’s legacy was largely predicated on managing the disasters wrought by Bush’s ‘preemption’ doctrine, and ‘war on terror.’ He largely failed as major historical phenomena cannot be managed from an Oval office or through the editorial page of the New York Times.
The latter phase of Obama’s legacy, following the Arab Spring, has been an impossible attempt at catching up with consequences that the clumsy and cliche-filled ‘Obama doctrine’ could neither anticipate, nor was prepared to deal with. But nothing is more expressive of that lack of preparedness, and ultimately, impotency of US foreign policy than the current Yemen war, which didn’t start with the Saudi-led coalition but with the launch of the US-war on terror, manifested mostly in Yemen through the deadly drone war. That war undermined any political process in Yemen, and empowered the militants in that country who control large swathes of the poor Arab republic.
To suggest that the US policies in Yemen was a ‘failure’ is an understatement. It implies that the US had at least attempted to succeed. But ‘succeed’ at what? The US drone war had no other objective aside from celebrating the elimination of whomever the US hit list designates as terrorist.
But now that civil and regional wars have broken out, the degree of US influence in Yemen has been exposed as limited, their war on Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, in the larger context of political, tribal and regional rivalry, as insignificant.
The failure, if we are to utilise the term, is of course, not just American, but involves most US allies, who have ignored Yemen’s protracted misery — poverty, corruption, violence and the lack of any political horizon, until the country finally imploded. When the Al Houthis took over Sana’a last September, a foolish act by any account, only then did the situation in Yemen became urgent enough for intervention.
Set aside the moral responsibility of torturing already wounded nations, the US seemed to lack understanding regarding how its actions frustrate and contribute to regional conflicts. Its exasperation of Iraq’s sectarian fault lines following the 2003 invasion, leading to a massive civil war a few years later, was a lesson unlearnt. ‘Divide and conquer’ backfired badly. The empowered and brutal US-supported sectarian government that took revenge on Sunni tribes and communities across Iraq following the war, met their match with the rise of the brutal Daesh (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) in more recent years, turning Iraq, and of course, Syria, into a savage battleground.
Gone are the days in which US policies alone dictate the course of history in the Middle East. Initially, the Obama doctrine — like Bill Clinton’s exercise of ‘soft power’ coupled with an occasional military strike - was an attempt at combining use of US military influence, on the one hand, while investing in regional and international allies on the other, to sustain US ascendency as much as possible.
However, what seemed like a relative success in Libya with the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi was too difficult to duplicate in Syria. Regional rivals like Iran, and international rivals like Russia were too resistant to any open attempt at overthrowing the Bashar Al Assad regime. And with the rise of Daesh, Al Assad had suddenly be re-casted into a different role, becoming a buffer, although still designated as an enemy. John Kerry’s statement about willingness to engage Al Assad signalled a massive turnabout in US policies there.
Now, with a preliminary nuclear deal agreed upon by Iran, the US and its allies, chances are the US will carry on with its sabre-rattling, as Iran will surely do as well. But there is little chance that Obama will enact any major shift in his regional policies. To the contrary, his administration is likely to retreat, further hide behind its allies to achieve whatever muddled objectives it may have at the chaotic moment.
Attempting to redefine a consistent Obama doctrine now is too little, too late, even if Friedman, the establishment man, insists otherwise. Despite what may seem as genuine attempts at correcting US past mistakes in Cuba and Iran, the behaviour of the Obama administration is mostly compelled by numerous variables, over much of which, the US has little control.
Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).