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Obama Has a Foreign Policy Doctrine—And He's Ignoring It

Explaining why that speech was so muddy

Obama’s Syria speech Tuesday night was strange for a variety of reasons, not least the odd spectacle of hearing a case for military action (the first half of the speech) punctuated by a plea for diplomacy (the second half). As my colleague John Judis put it, “The speech did not have the structure of an argument, but of a television drama in which the viewer’s anxiety is finally relieved by the promise of peaceful resolution.”

Still, for my money the real oddness had less to do with rhetorical structure or thematic lurching than a basic analytical tension. The speech struck me as implicitly self-refuting.

The tell was the way Obama buried his own foreign policy doctrine so deep in the text as to constitute a smothering. It wasn’t until the second to last paragraph—the last graph if you don’t count the pro forma blessings—that Obama said the following: “[W]hen, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death … I believe we should act.”

As a principle for navigating the world, or at least crises that don’t directly threaten our national security, this has much to recommend it. It’s modest—there are many who’d prefer we stop mass death and suffering even when it entails much risk and effort—without being defeatist or amoral. In any case, it’s probably as ambitious as a U.S. president can be in the post-Iraq world, a reality Obama acknowledged in the previous sentence. (“Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong…”)

Above all, what makes the Obama doctrine compelling is that it deals with a potential overseas engagement on its own terms. If the likely benefits to the country on the receiving end—in terms of bloodshed averted—outweigh the likely costs to that country and to us, there’s a good reason to do it. If likely costs exceed the benefits, then we drop it.* This seemed to be the rationale for getting involved two years ago in Libya, where a weakened Qaddafi was plotting a final murderous rampage, while staying out of Syria, where the civil war is so tangled and fraught it is tough to game out the consequences of an intervention, much less be confident that they’d be favorable.

The problem with Obama’s speech, and really his entire case for action so far, is that Syria itself plays very little role in it. Each of his stated rationales have to do with something other than Syria per se. Restoring the international norm against chemical weapons? A noble goal, but one that’s more about dictators outside Syria than the one clinging to power inside of it. Convincing Iran we mean what we say? Clearly important, but if not for Obama’s fateful use of the phrase “red line,” it would be hard to see what this has to do with the mass killing going on in Syria right now. Obama’s national security rationale—“over time, our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield”? Again, a worthy goal. But it’s hard to believe intervening in Syria is the only, or even the best, way to protect our troops from chemical warfare at some indeterminate date in the future.

For that matter, even if Syria were the best way to accomplish any or all of these things, they still wouldn’t add up to a dispositive case for intervening. The big problem with second-order arguments for military action is that they overlook the first-order challenges of succeeding in the country where you’re engaged. Obama says the action would be “targeted” rather than “open-ended.” But how can he know this—or at least persuade anyone of this—without grappling with the particulars of Syria itself? If the goal really is to restore the norm against chemical weapons or focus the minds of Iran’s mullahs, the engagement may have to be decidedly open-ended. After all, we will have shredded rather than enhanced our credibility if we launch a limited strike against President Bashar al-Assad and then fail to respond if he escalates.  

But, of course, Obama understands all this. As I say, his preferred foreign-policy doctrine is very much a first-order proposition. Which makes it hard not to draw an obvious conclusion: Obama has resorted to non-Syria arguments for intervening in Syria because he can’t justify an intervention on its own terms. That was the message his speech blared on Tuesday. And that’s why the administration’s thinking on Syria has felt muddled from the get-go. 

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow @noamscheiber

*Obviously Obama has been less cautious when it comes to drone strikes. But this is a somewhat different calculus since the strike targets presumably represent a more direct national-security threat.