One way to define President Barack Obama’s foreign policy is as a Doctrine of Restraint. It is clear, not least to the Kremlin, that this president is skeptical of the efficacy of military force, wary of foreign interventions that may become long-term commitments, convinced the era of American-imposed solutions is over, and inclined to see the United States as less an indispensable power than an indispensable partner. Obama has, in effect, been talking down American power.
President Vladimir Putin has seized on this profound foreign policy shift in the White House. He has probed where he could, most conspicuously in Ukraine, and now in Syria. Obama may call this a form of Russian weakness. He may mock Putin’s forays as distractions from a plummeting Russian economy. But the fact remains that Putin has reasserted Russian power in the vacuum created by American retrenchment and appears determined to shape the outcome in Syria using means that Obama has chosen never to deploy. For Putin, it’s clear where the weakness lies: in the White House.
Russia’s Syrian foray may be overreach. It may fall into the category of the “stupid stuff” (read reckless intervention) Obama shuns. Quagmires can be Russian, too. But for now the initiative appears to lie in the Kremlin, with the White House as reactive power. Not since the end of the Cold War a quarter-century ago has Russia been as assertive or Washington as acquiescent.
Obama’s Doctrine of Restraint reflects circumstance and temperament. He was elected to lead a nation exhausted by the two longest and most expensive wars in its history. Iraq and Afghanistan consumed trillions without yielding victory. His priority was domestic: first recovery from the 2008 meltdown and then a more equitable and inclusive society. The real pivot was not to Asia but to home.
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Besides, American power in the 21st century could not be what it was in the 20th, not with the Chinese economy quintupling in size since 1990. The president was intellectually persuaded of the need to redefine America’s foreign-policy heft in an interconnected world of more equal powers, and temperamentally inclined to prudence and diplomacy over force. Republican obstructionism and the politicization of foreign policy in a polarized Washington did not help him. American power, in his view, might still be dominant but could no longer be determinant.
As Obama put it to The New Republic in 2013, “I am more mindful probably than most of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations.” After Iraq and Afghanistan, giant repositories of American frustration, who could blame him?
But when the most powerful nation on earth and chief underwriter of global security focuses on its limitations, others take note, perceiving new opportunity and new risk. Instability can become contagious. Unraveling can set in, as it has in the Middle East. The center cannot hold because there is none.
“I think Obama exaggerates the limits and underestimates the upside of American power, even if the trend is toward a more difficult environment for translating power and influence,” Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told me. “By doing so, he runs the risk of actually reinforcing the very trends that give him pause. Too often during his presidency the gap between ends and means has been our undoing.”
In Afghanistan, in Libya and most devastatingly in Syria, Obama has seemed beset by ambivalence: a surge undermined by a date certain for Afghan withdrawal; a lead-from-behind military campaign to oust Libya’s dictator with zero follow-up plan; a statement more than four years ago that “the time has come” for President Bashar Assad to “step aside” without any strategy to make that happen; and a “red line” on chemical weapons that was not upheld. All this has said to Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping that this is a time of wound-licking American incoherence.
Yet Obama does not lack courage. Nor is he unprepared to take risks. It required courage to conclude the Iran nuclear deal – a signal achievement arrived at in the face of a vitriolic cacophony from Israel and the Republican-controlled Congress. It took courage to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba. The successful operation to kill Osama bin Laden was fraught with risk. His foreign policy has delivered in significant areas. America has wound down its wars. The home pivot has yielded a revived economy (at least for some) and given all Americans access to health insurance.
Yet the cost of the Doctrine of Restraint has been very high. How high we do not yet know, but the world is more dangerous than in recent memory. Obama’s skepticism about American power, his readiness to disengage from Europe and his catastrophic tiptoeing on Syria have left the Middle East in generational conflict and fracture, Europe unstable and Putin strutting the stage. Perhaps I will examine in a future column where this rudderless reality is likely to lead.