Even as he took office, President Obama set out a vision of a doctrine that would “transform” the United States. In foreign policy, the “Obama Doctrine,” as Heritage’s Luke Coffey has summarized,
is a policy of leading from behind in global affairs, presiding over dangerous defense cuts that leave America weaker in a more dangerous world, and placing “hope” above reality when dealing with countries like Russia, Iran, China, and North Korea—each presenting unique threats to America’s interests.
Instead of leading from the front, the President emphasized multilateral institutions (such as the U.N.), international law, and engagement with hostile regimes. Now that the Syrian crisis has for the moment—but only for the moment—gone quiet, we can see how badly that approach has worked.
No part of the President’s doctrine has survived contact with reality. After leading from behind for over two years on Syria, he suddenly decided that the U.S. needed to start bombing immediately. After asserting that the President did not have the power to authorize such an attack, he turned around and argued that he did.
After emphasizing the U.N., he recognized that the Security Council was hopelessly deadlocked, and (rightly) decided that U.N. authorization for U.S. action was unnecessary. And after relying on the power of so-called international norms, he found that virtually no one in the world agreed with him that those norms required the U.S. to start bombing ASAP.
Throughout his Administration, the President has sought—successfully—to cut the defense budget. But, inevitably, there came a time when he thought it was right to use force. His successors will, at some point, be in exactly the same position, perhaps when action really is in America’s vital national interest—but by that point, his cuts will have made successful action difficult or even impossible.
The net result of his incoherent policy in Syria has been to bring Russia back as a Middle Eastern power, to make it clear that the U.S. has no idea what its interests are in the region, and to position us behind Russia as the protectors of the Assad regime—for only an intact regime can deliver on its supposed promise to give up its chemical weapons. The President appears to have completely forgotten his demand that “Assad must go.”
The risk of leading from behind is obvious: The nation that leads from the front decides where you are going to go. Right now, that is Russia, and Russia’s desires and interests in the Middle East have nothing in common with ours.
The President has never had a coherent approach to foreign policy. Instead, he entered office with a string of liberal platitudes about the world and a deep desire to focus on domestic policy. Today, the Administration’s central goal on Syria is the same as it was two years ago: to get the problem off the front pages.
If that means being lectured by Vladimir Putin in the pages of The New York Times, so be it. After all, neither Putin nor our own President believes in American exceptionalism. Fortunately, as Heritage President Jim DeMint recently pointed out to Putin, we at The Heritage Foundation definitely do.