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13 June 2011

Obamas Demi-Doctrine: Historical Resonances

The post below comes from Christopher McKnight Nichols, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in U.S. History at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age. ----President Obama is shaping a new vision of Americas foreign policy. It involves a limited, ethical, and coalition-oriented U.S. global presence. Such a position aims to combine recent multilateral actions in Libya with unilateralism in Pakistan, pending troop reductions in Afghanistan, and likely new commitments elsewhere. It is nuanced. It seeks to present U.S. global activism as a shared burden of membership in the international community. It defines threats on an individual basis. Though it upholds aspects of President George W. Bushs foreign policy commitments and goals, it explicitly casts itself in opposition to Bushs national security strategies, which were characterized by preemption and unilateral regime change, painting them as costly and unwisely aggressive. This is Obamas Demi-Doctrine. It is demi because it is less than a fully elaborated doctrine but closer to one than it might at first appear. It has refocused U.S. military and intelligence assets on the threat from Al Qaeda while also recognizing the need for building diplomatic bridges, seeking genuine multilateralism, and avoiding overreach by drawing down troops in Iraq and preparing to do so in Afghanistan. This half position does not bind America to any one-size-fits-all model for international relations. It posits no singular definition of the nations interests. In those respects it is fundamentally unlike such full doctrines as President Trumans Doctrine opposing communism everywhere (1947) or President Monroes Doctrine prohibiting foreign powers meddling in the hemisphere (1823). Still, the tenets of the Demi-Doctrine arent entirely new. In fact they have a long history. As a policy stance it began with the first modern American debates over foreign engagement and expansion more than a hundred years ago. At that time philosopher and anti-imperialist William James argued for taking all peoples and places on their own terms. He maintained that the nation should pursue moral suasion over savage ambition in foreign affairs, acting more as an exemplar than as a crusader. Obamas new multilateral, case-by-case approach to U.S. involvement abroad builds on such views. It blends internationalist, isolationist, realist, and idealist arguments. And it has roots in pragmatism and antiimperialist rhetoric. It encompasses Woodrow Wilson's idealism, draws on WWII Era beliefs about the international obligation to protect human rights, and builds on Cold War ideas of collective security (such as embodied in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization). But just because Obamas new American foreign policy has a history and has merits does not mean it does not have costs. Again and again over past decades, American interventionsparticularly when linked to multilateral military coalitions and aimed at humanitarian endshave had negative, sometimes catastrophic, and often unintended consequences. Relatively limited U.S. commitments of military and diplomatic force abroad

have ranged from the unilateral actions in the Philippines in the late nineteenth century to various interventions during and after the Spanish-American War, through much more recent multilateral involvement in Bosnia and Somalia in the 1990s. Engagements such as these, which involved humanitarian rationales, have been deeply problematic. Few succeeded In the Philippines, American troops battled their former revolutionary allies in a war that lasted from 1899 through 1902. That island nation did not receive independence until 1946, despite the democratic rhetoric of rapid independence issued by President McKinley when the U.S. annexed it in 1899. In Bosnia, it took roughly four years until the U.S. joined with NATO in 1994 to use air power and troops on the ground for international peacekeeping to prevent mass killings. Still, as atrocities and war stretched over almost a decade, U.S., NATO, and international actions and pressures heightened to eventually push heinous Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic out of power and toward peace. But what exactly is victory or even an exit strategy? Humanitarian missions are complicated. Their ends are difficult to define. But inaction can be worse. Can splitting the difference be effective? Herein lies the rub for what seems to be the underlying consistency in the Demi-Doctrine. It takes for granted that the inglorious historical lack of U.S. intervention regarding atrocities and genocides, most notably in Armenia early in the last century and in Rwanda in the 1990s, represents nothing less than a national (and international) shame. At its core lies an idea championed by such Obama policy advisors as Samantha Power, Secretary of State Clinton, and by the U.N. of a broadly attractiveyet quite vagueconcept of the U.S. and U.N./NATO responsibility to protect oppressed and endangered individuals and groups around the world. Citizens as well as pundits and politicians are unclear about this as a mission. Those seeking a singular policy paradigm or clear boundaries to current interventions cannot find one. If anything, what they see they do not like. A recent Quinnipiac poll underscores this point and illuminates an isolationist tendency: 54 percent of those polled said the U.S. should not be involved in Libya. A mere 33 percent agreed that the U.S. was doing the right thing in Libya. Americans are rightly skeptical of overreach in the name of humanitarian intervention. But what are we to make of this trend and how does it fit with Obamas decisions? The main challenges for the 21st century post-Bush U.S. foreign policy are two-fold. First, at home, policy requires far more transparent explanations not just about when and where to intervene but also regarding why and how engagements will end; doing so may shore up support for continuing U.S. engagement abroad. Second, globally, the nations multiplying and unwieldy commitments are most evident today in Libya (and Afghanistan). But they also appear starkly in Syria and Egypt, as well as in Jordan and Bahrainall nations with ties to America and places of non-intervention (so far). In the case of Libya, the U.S. took multilateral action with NATO under a United Nations resolution and with support of the Arab League. Assuming Gaddafis threats were credible, the no-fly/no-drive zone near the rebel-held city of Benghazi may well have saved many lives. While the initial goal of protecting civilians has largely been met, at least for now, the collapse of Colonel Gaddafis dictatorial regime is proceeding slowly. NATO has stepped up attacks to destabilize the Gaddafi government. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has called for a cease-fire. The central conundrum for the U.S. in Libya, however, results

primarily from two factors: first, America struggles to help a fractious coalition in which it has ceded control to NATO; second, though regime change was initially disavowed by President Obama it is clearly the main goal given the latest heightened NATO bombing campaign. In turn, international allies cast increased NATO involvement as required due to the relatively weak and unstable Libyan rebel forces on the ground. This is what many of those polled by Quinnipiac University are responding to. As the Obama Administration confronts domestic critics, recasts a new multilateral foreign policy and stands poised to announce a large scale pull out of troops from Afghanistan, and in the wake of recent efforts in Libya and the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, Americans should be mindful of Arkansas Democratic Senator William Fulbrights antipathy to the arrogance of power. As he put it in 1966, Power tends to confuse itself with virtue conferring upon it a special responsibility for other nations to make them richer and happier and wiser, to remake them, that is, in its own shining image. This Vietnam Era attitude is one that Obama and his advisors take to heart. As they have for over a century, complex visions of multilateralist foreign policy continue to coexist uneasily with American impulses toward using power to reshape the world unilaterally or via direct international leadership. So, we should pause to consider one final related historical tendency: hubris generated by military and diplomatic successes has tended to inflame interventionist inclinations. Just as Franklin Roosevelt learned a great many foreign policy lessons from the diplomatic and political failures of Woodrow Wilsons idealistic internationalism at Versailles and with the League of Nations, Barack Obama suggests that he has learned from the flaws of George W. Bushs unilateralist and doctrinal national security strategy and nationalistic rhetoric. The jury is still out

Why Conservative Revolutions Fail

David T. Courtwright is Presidential Professor of History at the University of North Florida and author of No Right Turn: Conservative Politics in a Liberal America, in which he argues against the prevailing narrative of a conservative revolution in American politics since the mid-1960s. You can read an interview with Courtwright about the book at Rorotoko. Below, a day after President Obama released his budget for the 2012 fiscal year, Courtwright reflects on the continuing reluctance of the Republican Party to fight for fiscally meaningful cuts in entitlement and defense spending. ----The history of modern conservatism is the history of revolution deferred. Voters pummeled liberals in 1938, 1946, 1952, 1966, 1968, 1980, and 1994, just as they did in 2010. Yet no Republican beneficiary, not even Ronald Reagan, achieved conservatisms central domestic aims. They never overturned the New Deal, or peoples growing reliance on government, or the liberalization of sexual mores and gender roles. They did achieve some victories on taxes and regulation, but they failed to do much for their most long-suffering constituency, the fiscal conservatives. Consider national debt as a percentage of the gross domestic product. That figure declined under every Democratic president from Harry Truman through Bill Clinton. Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon managed the same feat. But every Republican president from Gerald Ford on left office with the debt percentage higher. Ford had to cope with recession for much of his brief presidency. Reagan and George W. Bush had no such excuse. They also

enjoyed partial or complete GOP congressional control for six of their eight years. The spending problem went beyond entrenched Democrats. In 1986 David Stockman, Reagans first budget director, published The Triumph of Politics, still the best memoir of conservative frustration. Politics triumphed because individuals wanted entitlement checks, corporations contracts, and congressmen pork. Reagans decision to cut taxes, spare entitlements, and take rearmament off the books simply made the situation worse. Instead of building a modest welfare state on the foundation of a regulated capitalist economy, as Franklin Roosevelt had done, Reagan wound up restoring a partially deregulated capitalism on the foundation of an enlarged defense and welfare state. Without sufficient revenue, Stockman knew, the arrangement could not last. Tea-Party activists, burned by George W. Bushs hypertrophied Reaganism, have pledged to hold Republicans accountable for deficit spending. But because they live in a two-party system, they cannot wring concessions by threatening to withdraw from coalitions, as their counterparts do in closely divided parliaments. So they have resorted to targeting biggovernment collaborators and backing primary challengers. This approach seems to have worked. Republican congressmen are plainly terrified of their base. Just as plainly, meaningful deficit reduction will require cuts in entitlement and defense spending, even if accompanied by net tax increases. That was the starkand, so far, ignoredmessage of the 2010 Bowles-Simpson commission. Having ruled out tax hikes, conservative activists are left with only spending cuts. But the most fiscally consequential ones, such as implementing advanced retirement ages and closing military bases, would not sit well with voters. Seniors would revolt if most doctors no longer accept Medicare or nursing homes Medicaid. At bottom, conservative revolutions are no different from any other. Self-interest acts as a brake on their momentum, and popular sentiment shifts when it becomes clear that the losers include more than the official villains. The grand compromise at the end of the last Congressextend the Bush tax cuts, add more tax cuts, and extend expiring unemployment benefitsoffers the clearest possible evidence that neither national party is yet serious about the debt. The current wrangling over nonmilitary discretionary spending simply adds an exclamation point. As for repealing Obamas health-care plan, even that unlikely victory would leave unsolved the real problem, the fiscal burden of covering an aging population with the worlds most expensive and least costeffective health-care system. Credit worries and constitutional limits on deficit spending have prompted some state and local governments to make significant spending cuts and tax hikes. But anyone who thinks the current crisis will provoke comparable federal reforms should remember what Stockman confronted in 1981: a prime interest rate of 21.5 percent and a plague of lingering stagflation. Yet even in those dire straits Edwin Meese, James Baker, and Michael Deaver, the leaders of the Reagan administrations right-conservative, pragmatic-centrist, and public-relations factions, all rejected Stockmans pleas to erect a fiscal guillotine. They preferred red ink to real blood, and regarded cuts in programs like Social Security as suicidal. They, and the president they served, got through the crisis by kicking the entitlement can down the road. So far their successors have done the same