The Obama Doctrine

March 24, 2014

By Gary Sick, Columbia University

* This memo was prepared for the “Visions of Gulf Security” workshop, March 9, 2014.

Over the past quarter century, the most accurate single factor to explain security developments in the Gulf, as well as the best predictor of the future, has been and is U.S. policy in the region. Since it began to be a significant force, U.S. policy has undergone at least five major shifts. The current policy, which I will call the Obama Doctrine, represents the latest, and possibly one of the most important, iterations.

The expansion of U.S. presence

The United States has become the dominant military, diplomatic, and economic presence in the Gulf. It is, in effect, a leading Gulf power. This has become such an accepted condition that it is easy to forget just how recent and exceptional it is.

The United States relied on the British to maintain security in the Gulf region until their departure in 1971. President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were unable to fill the resulting military vacuum with U.S. forces at a time when the United States was bogged down in Southeast Asia and when public sentiment was hostile to any further foreign military adventures. Their answer was the Nixon Doctrine, relying on the twin pillars of Iran and Saudi Arabia to protect U.S. interests in the region. That policy came to an inglorious end when the Iranian monarchy, the primary U.S. strategic pillar, collapsed in the 1979 Iranian revolution.

After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter responded with the Carter Doctrine in his State of the Union address of January 23, 1980, declaring that “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” This was widely recognized as a hollow threat at the time, since the United States had virtually no military capability apart from a small naval facility in Bahrain and the distant British island base of Diego Garcia. Still, it clearly defined U.S. interests in the region and served as the basis for a slow expansion of U.S. military presence that continued on into the Reagan administration and beyond.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, more than any other individual or event, was responsible for drawing the United States into a full-fledged military presence in the Gulf. His invasion of Iran in September 1980 started a bloody and devastating eight-year war that spread to the critical oil shipping lanes of the Gulf. The Ronald Reagan administration aligned U.S. strategy with Arab governments against Iran, except for the bizarre and disastrous Iran-contra affair. In 1987, at the request of the Gulf Arab states, the United States placed its flag on a number of Kuwaiti ships and began to move forces into place to protect them from Iranian attack. By the end of the war in 1988, the United States had become a combatant in the regional war, striking Iranian ships and oil platforms that were being used for attacks on Arab shipping and for launching mines.[1]

Then, after only two years of uneasy truce, Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. The George H.W. Bush administration responded with a massive military buildup, the greatest and most diverse coalition of regional and extra-regional powers in Middle East history, and a brilliant military campaign that outflanked Saddam’s forces and forced him to sue for peace. Saddam surprised his U.S. adversaries, however, by holding on to power even in defeat. Consequently, and at Arab request, a large contingent of U.S. forces remained in the region, and the string of military facilities up and down the coast that had been initiated during Operation Desert Storm remained in operation. That substantial force presence was maintained throughout the Bill Clinton administration, which continued to confront Saddam. Otherwise, the Clinton administration was notable primarily for inventing the concept of “dual containment” of Iraq and Iran, which amounted to a kind of watchful waiting, while focusing on the Arab-Israel issue.

Ironically, the preexisting U.S. force presence was instrumental in facilitating the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the George W. Bush administration. That followed the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, in retaliation for the terrorist attacks in New York on 9/11. The number and size of military forces and operating facilities in the Gulf expanded dramatically as the United States fought two regional wars and confronted Iran over the following decade. This was accompanied by a vigorous assertion of U.S. predominance and preemptive determination to shape the politics and historic contours of the region, a strategy that became known as the Bush Doctrine.

The Obama Doctrine

President Obama spent his first term managing the end of the Iraq war and preparing to end the Afghanistan conflict – the longest and most expensive conflicts in U.S. history. He also had a full plate of domestic issues growing out of the Great Recession, together with his own determination to pass sweeping health care legislation.[2] However, at the beginning of Obama’s second term, he and his foreign policy team conducted an extensive review and restructuring of U.S. foreign policy. This was announced in Obama’s address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, 2013, and elaborated by his national security adviser one month later in an exclusive interview with the New York Times.

Neither of these announcements attracted the kind of attention and analysis that one might have expected from what was, by any measure, a fundamental shift in U.S. policy in a critical region of the world. The reason for this lack of excitement may be that the new policy contains none of the sweeping language and bold declarations of his predecessors. The policy statement is unusually parsimonious and candid. Here are the defining elements:

  • The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure our core interests in the region.
  • We will confront external aggression against our allies and partners, as we did in the Gulf War.
  • We will ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world.
  • We will dismantle terrorist networks that threaten our people.
  • And finally, we will not tolerate the development or use of weapons of mass destruction.

The drivers of this policy are U.S. core interests, which are immediately defined in a seemingly bland list that is most notable for what it does not say. It does not define the kind of Middle East it would like to see – no mention of liberty, democracy, free markets, human rights, or freedom of the seas. It does not commit the United States to the security of Israel or any other country in the region, only to help defend them against direct external aggression. Ensuring the free flow of oil is inevitable but the statement says nothing about price (“reasonable”) or destination (“free world”), which have often been part of such U.S. declarations. By narrowing U.S. interests to terrorist networks that directly threaten the United States, it vastly reduces the scope of the Bush global war on terrorists. And the focus on development or use of WMD leaves unmentioned any concern about potential nuclear weapons capacity, as opposed to actual possession.

President Obama defines only two specific objectives in this region to occupy the last three years of his presidency: the Iranian nuclear issue and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He does not ignore other issues, but he relegates them to a secondary position. So he says: “We deeply believe it is in our interests to see a Middle East and North Africa that is peaceful and prosperous, and will continue to promote democracy and human rights and open markets.” He immediately adds, however: “democracy cannot simply be imposed by force. Rather, these objectives are best achieved when we partner with the international community and with the countries and peoples of the region.”

In other words, if it does not directly affect the United States of America, it will be dealt with multilaterally.

Theory and praxis

This statement, or Doctrine if you like, which appears quite ordinary on the surface, is actually a huge departure from past U.S. policies. It is the triumph of the realist model of international politics. There is not a hint of idealism or grand objectives or open-ended commitments. Instead, it echoes the words of John Quincy Adams that the United States “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.”

The Obama Doctrine is a redefinition of U.S. policy that is minimalist, multilateral when possible, and unabashedly self-centered. And all available evidence suggests that it is not just a philosophical tract but rather a working agenda that will drive the Obama administration in its second term. As the brief historical review above showed, doctrines often do not outlive their authors, but we do have a clear and authoritative blueprint that seems to define a specific set of objectives and some rules of the road that can help us look ahead for at least the next three years.

Obama appears to be deadly serious about the pursuit of his two policy imperatives: a negotiated settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue and a possible resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Both of these are fraught with historical baggage and a daunting record of failure. But President Obama has already demonstrated quite clearly that he is prepared to take political heat from the Israeli leadership and the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobby. He has indicated that he thinks the chances of an Iranian deal no better than 50-50, and the chance of a genuine agreement between Israelis and Palestinians still seems remote. But he does seem determined to give it his best shot. He may fail, but it is unlikely that he will back down in the face of opposition.

A literal reading of the Obama Doctrine would also seem to explain a great deal about what many would regard as policy disarray in Syria. If you start with the assumption that Obama’s primary interest (as he said) was the elimination of Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons (WMD), his initial threat to use military force was entirely consistent with his principles. However, when he was offered an alternative and less costly way to accomplish the same objective, he embraced it. His critics were less interested in WMD and were more interested in persuading the United States to use military force to overthrow the Assad regime, and they were bitter in their denunciation of U.S. lack of consistency. There is no question that U.S. Syria policy was less than masterful in execution, but the difference of opinion is really based on a difference of objectives. It is not that Obama departed from his principles – he didn’t – but that other regional states (and domestic critics) disagree with those principles and their implications.

That is likely to remain the sticking point. Obama seems to be committed to a game plan that is anathema to many regional states – specifically Israel and the Sunni Gulf Arab states – as well as neoconservative (and many liberal) internationalists who want a foreign policy that is more engaged and interventionist. At the same time, the American public seems content to avoid more direct U.S. intervention in the Middle East.

The interplay of those powerful forces seems likely to provide much of the foreign policy drama for the United States in the Middle East for at least the next few years.

Gary Sick is a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute and an adjunct professor at the School of International and Public Affairs.



[1] Gary Sick, “Slouching Toward Settlement: The Internationalization of the Iran Iraq War, 1987-88,” in Nikki Keddie and Mark Gasiorowski, eds., Neither East Nor West: Iran, the Soviet Union, and the United States, Yale University Press, 1990, pp. 219-246

[2] These objectives were paramount in the National Security Strategy issued in May 2010.

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