Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Why the “Obama Doctrine” Stinks

Last night’s debate was a rather worthless affair. McCain made some strong points near the end on issues of foreign policy, but his bumbling and rambling during the economic portion was difficult to watch. It doesn’t help that some of McCain’s economic policies are appalling, and I plan to write about McCain’s terrible mortgage plan later today, but for now, let’s talk about the “Obama Doctrine.”

I thought Obama preformed adequately at the debate last night; he sounded able and confident, and even looked presidential walking around the stage. Unfortunately, these recent debates have not forced Obama to deal with the conflict inherent in his foreign policy vision: when and where the U.S. should intervene militarily. McCain never pressed him as to what specifically Obama’s interventionism is going to look like, or why it would produce radically different results than interventions over the last 10 years.

Christopher Hitchens recently wrote a piece on why Obama was right about Pakistan, and he correctly identified that,
“Sen. Barack Obama has, if anything, been the more militant of the two presidential candidates in stressing the danger here and the need to act without too much sentiment about our so-called Islamabad ally. He began using this rhetoric when it was much simpler to counterpose the "good" war in Afghanistan with the "bad" one in Iraq. Never mind that now; he is committed in advance to a serious projection of American power into the heartland of our deadliest enemy. And that, I think, is another reason why so many people are reluctant to employ truthful descriptions for the emerging Afghan-Pakistan confrontation: American liberals can't quite face the fact that if their man does win in November, and if he has meant a single serious word he's ever said, it means more war, and more bitter and protracted war at that—not less.”
We may agree that the U.S. needs to enter Pakistan if an opportunity to hit Al-Qaeda presents itself, but entering their territory without their government’s permission may force those unhappy with the newly elected Pakistani government to create unrest and even move to overthrow the regime. Let’s not forget that the U.S. is deeply unpopular in Pakistan, and the fact that a simple military action into Pakistan can spin the political situation in the country out of control is something Obama isn’t adequately addressing. We may end up with a situation in Pakistan (and Afghanistan) far worse than what we have seen in Iraq.

That isn’t to say that Obama’s policy is wrong; I believe that the US will likely do (and should do) what it needs when dealing with terrorist groups undermining the Afghan and Pakistani governments. I would like to ask all Obama supporters, if a war in Pakistan becomes as costly as the one in Iraq, will they still believe it is the “good” war?

It is not just the unwillingness of Obama supporters to address this fact that makes me uneasy about an Obama presidency; His murky stance on the use force to stop genocide is just as feeble. Obama may argue that the United States must intervene to stop crimes against humanity from occurring, yet he is both unwilling to admit that our actions in Iraq were rooted in that very logic, and also fails to recognize that intervention means a long term commitment that may have unintended consequences. Even small peace keeping missions can turn into assignments where our military is forced to do more than bring a physical presence. Both the United Nations Operation in Somalia and the American military intervention there failed to bring peace or stability, for reasons completely within the world’s control. The WSJ writes:
“The U.S. military, with 18 dead, wanted nothing more than to finish what it had started [in Somalia]. Mr. Clinton instead aborted the mission. The U.S. released the criminals it had captured that same day at such great cost, and the U.N., lacking U.S. support, was powerless to keep order. Somalia remains a lawless, impoverished nation. Worse, the terrorists of al Qaeda interpreted the U.S. retreat from Somalia as a sign of American weakness that may have convinced them we could be induced to retreat from the Middle East if they took their attacks to the U.S. homeland.”
This should be a lesson etched into Barack Obama’s mind, and why his Iraq policy has been, and continues to be wrong. Obama, when it suits him, claims that the U.S. cannot use its military to solve humanitarian problems, and argues that even if the removal of our troops in Iraq led to genocide, he would not change his position. Yet, as David Weigel Points out for Reason magazine:
“[Obama] has called for, or retroactively endorsed, interventions in Zimbabwe, Pakistan, and Sudan. He has advocated a humanitarian-based foreign policy for his entire public career. Since coming to the U.S. Senate in 2005, he has built up a brain trust of academics and ex-Clintonites who, like him, challenge the logic of the Iraq war but not the logic of wars like Iraq.”
I am in favor of interventionism, and so while I tend to agree that the U.S. should involve itself in the conflicts pushed for by Obama, it is maddening to see him and other Democrats condemn the mission in Iraq, even when they were once some of the strongest supporters of liberating the nation from Saddam’s control. Obama is basically arguing that he is in favor of interventionism, as long as it doesn’t require much of a commitment from the United States. Or worse, that he is for interventionism as long as it wasn’t started by a Republican administration. Obama wants it both ways; he wants to take the moral high road when it comes to past crimes against humanity and why the U.S. should have involved itself, and yet asserts that our current missions to do such things are wrong and unimportant.

It seems like Obama can’t even keep these diverging tangents in his policy from getting the best of him. He mentioned in the recent town hall debate that,
If we could've stopped Rwanda, surely, if we had the ability, that would be something that we would have to strongly consider and act.”
How can be possible mutter these words, and at the same time concede that he would have pulled out of Iraq knowing that his policy would bring about that very occurrence? Perhaps Obama is only committed to past tragedies that don’t require him to take decisive action.

If this is the future of the United States under the “Obama Doctrine”, then I have serious misgivings about the use of American power and influence under his presidency.


kellie said...

The quote on Rwanda seems problematic. As Rwanda is recent history, and as it's central to his theme on foreign policy, I wonder why does he say "if"? Does he have a view on whether the Clinton administration should have acted differently? He should have reached a conclusion by now, and if he hasn't it bodes ill for future decision making.

How does he define "ability"? The world's largest military obviously had the ability to prevent at least some of the massacres carried out by mobs armed only with machetes. So what does Obama regard as the limiting factors?

What I fear is the gap between "consider" and "act". What I fear is fine sentiment and hand-wringing, a vote of "present" delivered with deeply-felt heart-wrenching words, so we can all cry along and agree that it's terrible the world is such a sad place where bad things happen - but what can we do, other than care for a few survivors? At least we'll know that he does care, won't we?

Roland Dodds said...

That’s a good point Kellie. Looking back at his quote about Rwanda, it is obviously the most uncommitted answer you could give. He starts out by saying “if we could have stopped Rwanda,” making it sound as if he would assign the forces needed to avert it, and then says “that would be something that we would have to strongly consider”. Does he need another 10 years to consider the results before making a commitment?

Daniel Stark said...

Wait, if Obama bombs Pakistan without letting them know (and without UN authorization), does that make Obama a war criminal by the far left? I can't wait to hear Kos spin THAT one!

I have no problem taking Al-Q out (anywhere), yet the problem is announcing that your going to bomb a current ally (a very troubled one at that, with nuclear weapons). Obama says he will help mold a positive atmosphere with the Pakistani people, how in the hell is he going to do that when he is announcing he is going to bomb the country? The "militant" Obama (with his Pakistan talk) with the loony leftist Obama (direct Presidential talks without precondition) is an odd mixture.

God help us if he wins (which looks more likely everyday).

E.D. Kain said...

I don't agree with the line of reasoning that says if our politicians discuss the possibility of invading another country that we're somehow tipping said country off. We've discussed Iran, Iraq, and numerous other nations that we have or could invade and it hasn't strategically effected us in any negative way.

I think the other fallacy with the argument against Obama is that A) he is not announcing that he will "bomb the country" only Bin Laden and company and B) the opinions of Pakistanis toward America are low anyways. I doubt his comments were more than a drop in the bucket.

That said, my concern is that Obama doesn't have the judgment to keep using brilliant Generals like Patreaus to fight these wars and relies to heavily on civilian advisers and public opinion.

Roland Dodds said...

While that’s true E.D., I think Pakistan is different than the situation in Iraq and Iran, since Pakistan is an ally, and one that we support and are helping move towards democracy. As with threats to Iran and Iraq, I believe that showing rouge regimes you are willing to take action is part of the diplomatic process, and with Iraq, was a necessary step leading up to invasion upon Saddam’s refusal to play by the international norms.

Pakistan’s government is weak, and by undermining them publicly by saying we don’t need their permission to do what we wish in their country, we weaken their government and expose them to elements in Pakistani society that are looking to overthrow the pro-American administration. Their government needs to be able to save face and show that they are in control of their destiny, and so we are going to have to go about entering Pakistan differently I believe.

Cokey McCokerson said...

Can someone explain why this "no preconditions" thing is such a huge deal?

All I hear is complete disbelief that one possible administration would want to meet with another administration without preconditions. What are the real dangers in simply sitting down with your enemies and working on diplomatic ends to a problem? It doesn't legitimize their existence or condone their actions, all it does is get an open line of communication going. How is that a bad thing?

Daniel Stark said...

Well, Cokey McCokerson, the way I see it, direct presidential talks (that is, President Obama if he were to win) without precondition would legitimatize their (the enemies) argument. There is no real problem with negotiation (though some like John Bolton would beg to differ), either by low level or high level (with preparation mind you) officials. Yet without precondition weakens our standing and offers room for embarrassment. I don’t remember Bill Clinton meeting in direct presidential talks without precondition with Saddam Hussein, another (now former) rogue state in the region. If such as talk were to present itself during Clinton's term, would it have stopped Saddam’s ambitions?

Right now, Iran is killing American soldiers, pursuing nuclear weapons, and funding terrorists who are killing our ally’s citizens. What is Obama without precondition going to discuss with Iran’s president or supreme leader? Will he say “Well, if you stop killing American soldiers and pursuing nuclear weaponry, we will allow you to still fund terrorists that kill Israeli citizens. Fair game?”

Now some may still differ who we should negotiate with, such as Taliban members (which Pakistan's new government has been doing) , Iranian or North Korean officials. Nonetheless, without precondition isn't the smartest of all strategies. This isn't JUST opening a line of communication; other avenues (low level to higher levels) can be used to do that. It is a position that even John Kerry had to backtrack on when he was playing surrogate in an interview. Overall, bad idea.

Roland Dodds said...

Cokey, John Bolton wrote an excellent op-ed about the things you can lose in the negotiation process if you don’t enter with firm preconditions and a plan for what you were looking to gain, what you wanted your opponent to give up, and the method in which to go about it. He wrote:

“At first glance, the idea of sitting down with adversaries seems hard to quarrel with. In our daily lives, we meet with competitors, opponents and unpleasant people all the time. Mr. Obama hopes to characterize the debate about international negotiations as one between his reasonableness and the hard-line attitude of a group of unilateralist GOP cowboys.
The real debate is radically different.

Like all human activity, negotiation has costs and benefits. If only benefits were involved, then it would be hard to quarrel with the "what can we lose?" mantra one hears so often. In fact, the costs and potential downsides are real, and not to be ignored.

When the U.S. negotiates with "terrorists and radicals," it gives them legitimacy, a precious and tangible political asset. Thus, even Mr. Obama criticized former President Jimmy Carter for his recent meetings with Hamas leaders. Meeting with leaders of state sponsors of terrorism such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Kim Jong Il is also a mistake. State sponsors use others as surrogates, but they are just as much terrorists as those who actually carry out the dastardly acts. Legitimacy and international acceptability are qualities terrorists crave, and should therefore not be conferred casually, if at all.” (

I personally look back to successful diplomatic efforts under the Clinton administration, like the Dayton Peace Accords lead by Warren Christopher and Richard Holbrooke. Both men made clear that when negotiating with all sides of the conflict, they had to make firm what they expected from each party, and also clearly stated that if they failed to come to an agreement, the United States would act. But negotiations are not open forums, and if the Obama team doesn’t have a clear plan as to what he expects to gain, and what he is planning to give in these talks with other heads of state, I am completely opposed to having him run around the globe just to chat it up with enemy heads of state.

cokey mccokerson said...

But what does McCain want the preconditions to be? That's one of my biggest hangups. Does he want to set the bar so high that no country will meet them and he doesn't have to deal with them? Does he want to set the bar low to make sure talks get started? I don't know, it's always "he doesn't want preconditions," in some perplexed tone, it's never "we should at least get this before meeting them." And how is meeting someone even when they meet preconditions (let's say with Iran it's allowing us to inspect their nuclear facilities) still not legitimizing them? Yes, we now have a better idea what they're doing, but do you honestly believe that they'll really show us everything or that they'll just stop all their work even if they say they will? You're willing to meet with a rogue element based on their word and minor cursory actions?

And can someone remind me what the preconditions were for trying to open up talks with North Korea 7 or 8 years back? I'll give you a hint, they started with an "n" and ended with "one". What happened between then and now?

The world already knows who these leaders are, ignoring them doesn't give them less power nor does talking with them give them more power. A view of "if we don't see you you don't exist" isn't something that should be trumpeted as a plus.

I do understand that going into talks with no goal for what you want to accomplish would be a huge mistake. That's what the McCain campaign seems to be pushing/insinuating with Obama and his willingness to open diplomatic relations with not so nice people, that he just wants to sit down and have tea, make a few jokes and swap cookie recipes.

Roland Dodds said...


Sorry for the slow response to your challenge, but I will post the following pieces from folks in the Bush and Clinton administration that make it clear why preconditions are important in a negotiation. The first is from John Bolton, who makes a very clear case:

This is from the Dayton Peace Accords headed by the Clinton administration, persued by Warren Christopher and Richard Holbrooke, that stated outright:

“In particular, the Parties shall fully respect the sovereign equality of one another, shall settle disputes by peaceful means, and shall refrain from any action, by threat or use of force or otherwise, against the territorial integrity or political independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina or any other State.”

That is a precondition, and a mighty impressive one in my view. And it is just one of many you can find here: