The Obama Doctrine, Revisited

Several weeks before President Barack Obama announced an escalation of the Afghanistan War at West Point, a group of journalists and think-tankers met for dinner at the Washington, D.C., embassy of a NATO ally to debate war strategy. Chatham House rules apply to the dinner, so I'm not allowed to tell you who said what or even what embassy it was, but for all the disagreement among intelligent people about a sensible way forward in Afghanistan -- or out of it -- one clear, declarative, and unchallenged statement emerged. Whatever troop increase Obama decided was necessary, NATO would make sure the U.S. was not alone.

To say this was hardly a foregone conclusion is an understatement. Since taking office in 2006, Robert Gates, the secretary of defense Obama chose to inherit from George W. Bush, has dutifully trudged to NATO defense ministerials and special summits to implore the Europeans to increase their troop commitments to Afghanistan. Each time, Gates has made an impassioned plea about the future of the alliance and the necessity of the Afghan mission, and each time, he has received a polite reception and a pittance of troops, if any. Asked at the dinner why this time would be different, especially with Afghanistan skepticism rising in Europe, the foreign diplomats first expressed a desire to see Afghanistan become a stable nation and then leveled with us: The allies have an interest in the success of the Obama administration.

In early 2008, I interviewed the foreign-policy and national-security brain trust of the Obama campaign for this magazine to gain a sense of what a world led by President Obama would look like. There were two big takeaways. The first was something I called "dignity promotion," an inchoate idea that the architecture of international alliances and institutions ought to prioritize human dignity, material as well as aspirational, in order to achieve global stability and prosperity. Implicit in the idea was that Obama would return the U.S. to its pre-Bush role as leader and champion of international cooperation to build a world in which American power and global prosperity were seen as mutually supporting objectives. The second was a meta-point about a path to get there: by confronting what Obama's advisers called the "politics of fear" that restricted what was possible for America to achieve on the world stage.

Now that the Obama administration has been in office for nearly a year and a half, it's time to return to those ideas and judge their merits, their impacts, and whether they have guided Obama's presidency at all. It would be unfair to offer firm judgments over such a short period in office. (Rendering a verdict on the Bush administration's foreign policy in April 2002, for instance, would miss an entirely unnecessary war.) But Obama's foreign policy so far contains a magnitude and a direction, and it remains notably similar to what he promised to deliver in his 2008 campaign.

On dignity promotion, the administration has racked up real successes and set the stage for several more. Obama has proved that the world is prepared for positive-sum American leadership -- whether it's by restructuring U.S. global economic partnerships through the G-20 instead of the more restricted G-8 set of powerful nations; whether it's resetting relationships with great and rising powers like Russia and China over contentious issues like Iran and climate change; whether it's explaining to the Muslim world that America's commitment to its well-being reaches far beyond securing its cooperation in the fight against terrorism. Dignity promotion, a new twist on the very old idea of liberal internationalism, is still taking shape. But the early evidence is that it's working -- for America and for the world.

Where Obama hasn't made nearly as much progress, to the disappointment of his supporters, is on confronting the politics of fear. The first days -- literally -- of the administration were defined by sweeping pledges to end torture, close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, and revise the U.S. approach to terrorism detentions. But that early promise is over. While the administration has taken political risks, revamping interrogations around humane information-gathering methods and charging top terrorism captives in civilian courts, it has lost battle after battle with Congress over Guantánamo. Instead of ending the Bush administration's military commissions, an ad hoc and unsuccessful forum for trying war criminals that the courts have rejected, the Obama administration has merely revamped them. It has reserved the right to hold people it considers dangerous indefinitely without charge, which violates the fundamental spirit of the Constitution. And its plan for closing Guantánamo involves moving the detainees to an Illinois prison, preserving the two key features that have made Gitmo an international symbol of lawlessness -- military commissions and indefinite detention. The most charitable judgment possible is that the administration picks its battles with the politics of fear very carefully.

It's tempting to conclude that as long as the administration racks up substantive international successes, its handling of domestic politics will appear trivial. After all, the right-wing outcry over Obama's refusal to torture Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be Christmas bomber, was tempered by the revelation that Pakistan and the CIA have been arresting the Afghan Taliban's top leadership, something absolutely no one in Washington thought likely during the last decade. But to count this as a success is to misunderstand the ambition and promise of the Obama doctrine.

"What we're trying to get to is a sustainable approach," says Ben Rhodes, the influential deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. "Something that won't just be the Obama administration's approach to these issues but will be the next administration's." Unless the administration begins more forcefully confronting the politics of fear, it won't be able to instill public confidence and build political will for durable international institutions and global partnership. Dignity promotion will not outlast Obama unless he more thoroughly confronts the demagoguery it inspires.


Most U.S. administrations would have sent a military presence to assist in a humanitarian disaster in the Western Hemisphere. When Haiti was hit by a major earthquake in January, the Obama administration sent much more: an entire Army brigade as well as the medical ship the USNS Comfort, the USS Bataan, and the Bataan's detachment of 2,200 Marines -- even with two wars going on. The administration also tapped the civilian elements of government to aid the Haitian rescue and reconstruction mission. Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), practically lived in Haiti for a month coordinating development and reconstruction aid from the front. When firefighters from Los Angeles County pulled an elderly woman from the remains of a collapsed building, Haitians actually chanted "USA!" A video of the scene has been viewed more than 70,000 times on YouTube. Dignity: promoted.

Of course, aiding Haiti comes with no political cost. In other nations and other situations, building an architecture of international cooperation that favors human dignity can provoke a backlash, so the first step is securing the cooperation of often-recalcitrant nations. For the Obama administration's gamble to work, the rest of the world first needs to see that the U.S. is once again "willing to commit to a new era of engagement based on mutual interests and mutual respect," as Gen. Jim Jones, Obama's national-security adviser, told the Center for American Progress in January. Jones called that commitment to engagement "the defining feature of our foreign policy."

There is evidence that this feature is paying off. After a series of high-profile embraces of Russia in September, President Dmitry Medvedev for the first time indicated he was open to U.S.–backed sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program and began negotiating a new bilateral treaty to mutually reduce U.S. and Russian stockpiles of nuclear weapons and secure loose nuclear material. Remarkably, Georgia, which went to war with Russia in 2008, also has maintained its relationship with the U.S., as Eka Tkeshelashvili, Georgia's national-security adviser, told me in February. Georgia even sent a battalion of soldiers to Afghanistan's volatile Helmand Province, which it calls the "Holbrooke Brigade" after the Obama administration's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama's visit to China in November earned rave reviews, and Obama gave a speech in Shanghai outlining a future of mutual cooperation, challenging China in a non-confrontational way to ease its restrictions on civil, political, and human rights.

There have been disappointments as well. At the global climate summit in Copenhagen, Obama and other world leaders were unable to yield "anything more than a decision to 'take note' of an intention to act" on climate change, as Al Gore put it, due to the mutually reinforcing downward spiral of Chinese obstructionism and U.S. legislative inaction.

Still, if there is an example of how "engagement based on mutual interests and mutual respect" has succeeded beyond anyone's expectations, it's Pakistan. For years, intelligence professionals and military officers warned that the Afghanistan War could not be successfully concluded while the Pakistani government allowed the Afghan Taliban leadership to operate from its territory, providing resources, guerrillas, and strategic direction for its forces across the border. And for just as long, the Bush administration issued directives to the Pakistani military that the Pakistanis promptly ignored. Once Obama came into office, his national-security team absorbed Pakistani complaints that U.S. policy was limited merely to terrorism. Obama opened the aperture, pushing Congress to pass a $7.5 billion, five-year aid package for Pakistani governance and civil society, along with a new military aid package for counterinsurgency support. The administration stopped publicly criticizing Pakistani lassitude on counterterrorism and gave it two major pieces of additional support: CIA drones began targeting the leaders of Pakistan's own Taliban, who had killed and terrorized hundreds of Pakistanis, and pressed India to return to diplomatic dialogue.

In February, the effort began to pay dividends. Pakistanis aided by the CIA arrested Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the deputy commander of the Taliban, by far the highest-ranking Taliban capture in eight years of war. Within days, the Pakistanis began to round up more leaders of the Taliban movement it had sponsored by proxy since the mid-1990s. No one is quite sure what the Pakistanis' gambit is, and the cynical explanation is that they are trying to shape the terms of a peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government. If that's true, however, it entails a conclusion to the Afghanistan War around circumstances that favor U.S. interests.

Perhaps the most complex problem from the perspective of dignity promotion is Iran. During 2009, Obama made a visible effort to reach out to Iran on a variety of fronts. He recorded a video for the Persian New Year to offer respect and goodwill to the Iranian public and wrote a personal message to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the leader of the clerical regime, earning him the mutual ridicule of the Iranian regime and the American right. But in the middle of the year, the Green Movement -- the massive and sustained popular protests against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and, within months, the entire regime -- challenged the administration's presumption that Iran at least had stable leadership. Suddenly, repression increased to levels not seen since the short-lived student protests of the 1990s, all as new revelations of hidden Iranian nuclear progress emerged by the fall.

For the first time in the administration, dignity promotion was a poor guide for bilateral relations. Diplomatic outreach appeared to violate its spirit, as the one fairly clear message from the Green Movement to the outside world was to not legitimize the regime through diplomacy. But promoting the stability of the region depended upon forestalling a nuclear Iran, especially as Israel threatened airstrikes against the Iranian nuclear program. As soon as the Green Movement emerged in June, conservatives pressed Obama to adopt a more hostile posture and doubted his commitment to human rights when he didn't.

Instead, Obama sought to remove the U.S. from the equation -- and in doing so, he advanced Iranian dignity and nonproliferation efforts at the same time. Obama did not embrace the Green Movement, speaking instead about the regime's need to live up to its international human-rights obligations, a measure preventing the regime from portraying the Greens as American stooges. "The power of the Green Movement is that it's not an American-sponsored movement; it's an indigenous movement," Rhodes says. All of a sudden, a regime reliant on demagogic hatred of the U.S. was unable to sell its familiar story. "This isn't about the United States and a conflict with the Iranian government anymore," Rhodes continues. "This is about the Iranian government and what it can tell its own people about the future it has for them."

At the same time, Obama's visible and unrequited efforts to respect the regime's legitimate rights to peaceful nuclear energy helped convince once-recalcitrant nations like Russia, formerly Iran's de facto protector at the United Nations Security Council, to consider sanctioning Iran for its illicit enrichment. (That "reset" with Russia paid dividends.) At the Security Council later this spring, Ambassador Susan Rice will push through a sanctions package targeting the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, a hard-line wing of the Iranian military that both largely controls the nuclear program and is responsible for much internal repression. A Green Movement activist in Tehran told me that Iranians, typically unenthusiastic about economic pressure, would not oppose sanctions aimed at the IRGC.

"The international community is more united than it's ever been on Iran. You see nonaligned countries voting to censure Iran. That hasn't happened before in the kind of margin that we saw in the [International Atomic Energy Agency] Board of Governors' vote," Rhodes contends, referring to a rare diplomatic victory against the regime last year. "Iran, by any measure, is in a weaker position today than it was when we took office, and the international community is in a stronger position today as it relates to Iran than when we took office." So far, dignity promotion passed one of its hardest tests, demonstrating that it can be a creative solution to unlocking the facile and binary choices between promoting human rights and promoting global security.

But at the same time, the Iranian regime's internal repression and self-marginalizing geopolitics deferred what will be among the most domestically controversial principles of the Obama administration: direct negotiation with unsavory and anti-American international actors. Obama has not yet convinced the public that he should put American prestige on the line for such talks. That fits a familiar pattern for Obama throughout 2009 -- one that could upend his administration's international agenda.


By this summer, the Afghanistan surge should be complete, which will mean Obama will have nearly tripled the number of troops there; placed one of the leading lights of the U.S. Army at the effort's helm; reconfigured war strategy overwhelmingly; and, perhaps most important, demonstrated a willingness to stake his presidency on the successful conclusion of a war his predecessor considered an afterthought. Yet a recurrent feature of GOP criticism is that the president is, as Dick Cheney put it in December, "trying to pretend we are not at war."

The administration rose to the bait. Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, blogged a compendium of practically every utterance of the word "war" by Obama. What he might also have mentioned was Obama's vast expansion of the CIA's drone-strike program in Pakistan; an expanded but still largely unclear role for the Joint Special Operations Command for counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and another expansion of military operations against al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia. That's a lot of war.

Notice what the White House didn't say. The administration didn't challenge the presumption, by Cheney and his allies, that the default posture against al-Qaeda ought to be ceaseless war. Intelligence and counterterrorism professionals say fairly frequently that granting al-Qaeda the rhetorical status of "warriors" plays into the extremists' hands. What they can't take is being called criminals and murderers, particularly murderers of innocents. That's why, for instance, Ayman Al-Zawahri, bin Laden's deputy, took the rare step of directly soliciting and answering critics' questions in a 2008 audiotape that centered largely around refuting the charges of murder. A February 2010 video, by contrast, said that Obama's policies "are no less ugly than the crimes of his predecessor."

The politics of fear may have lost some of its potency since Bush left office. But the Obama administration has occasionally governed as if that fear continues unabated, particularly concerning terrorism. In May, Obama announced that some Guantánamo detainees would be tried in military commissions -- the quasi-legal system created after September 11 that has convicted exactly three terrorists, compared to more than 300 sentenced by federal courts -- and which Obama had opposed as a senator. What's more, Obama floated the prospect that some detainees could neither be charged nor released, requiring instead some form of indefinite detention without charge, a decision embraced in early 2010 by a Justice Department task force. Obama did not explain how he knew someone was dangerous but couldn't convince a court of that danger. The substantive effect was to transform Obama's pledge to close Guantánamo into a bargain to transfer detainees to a facility in Illinois where they will face either indefinite detention or military commissions -- in other words, exactly what they face at Guantánamo Bay.

Predictably, the president's conservative critics didn't embrace his rightward move as a well-intentioned compromise. They doubled down on the line that his pledge to close Guantánamo is endangering America, and they concluded from his embrace of indefinite detention that he can be compelled to abandon the pledge entirely. Sen. Mitch McConnell gave a speech in February advancing every argument possible against closing Guantánamo, even the civil-libertarian contention that al-Qaeda will use "a new long-term detention facility inside the United States for the same recruiting and propaganda purposes for which they've used other courts and Guantánamo in the past." In February, Sen. Lindsey Graham conditionalized GOP support for closing Guantánamo -- a position once supported by John McCain -- on the administration abandoning its plan to try 9-11 attacker Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in a civilian court.

In other words, a compromise plan on Guantánamo Bay has disappointed progressive supporters and only intensified right-wing criticism of Obama. It is impossible to say that Obama would be in a better political position had he simply announced he would either try terrorism suspects in civilian courts or release them if there wasn't compelling evidence against them. As the criticism intensifies, though, the Obama team has played to win the news cycle rather than change the debate. After a cable-news-driven outcry against Obama's decision to put the would-be Christmas bomber on trial, the White House's counterterrorism chief, John Brennan, wrote a pugilistic op-ed in USA Today pointing out that "there have been three convictions of terrorists in the military tribunal system since 9/11, and hundreds in the criminal justice system." A compelling point, had Obama not embraced those military tribunals.

It's not as if Obama hasn't confronted the politics of fear at all. Some fever swamps of the right still lambaste Obama for not stressing the Islamic character of al-Qaeda. In fact, Brennan explained in August that the administration deliberately didn't use the word "jihadist" in order to deny al-Qaeda any claim to Muslim heroism. "We don't afford them any religious stature," Rhodes says. "That's more important to them than being called 'warriors.'"

But Obama's inconsistent confrontation of the politics of fear fails to build a constituency for the very large changes that he envisions. And it's coming at a time when his broader agenda is running into a rejectionist and hyper-empowered GOP Senate minority that is very likely to grow after November. The White House's greatest shortcoming is that its efforts at political combat are aimed at staving off defeat rather than sowing the seeds of victory.

Obama, however, has an advantage: The politics of fear appears less potent now. After the failed Christmas bombing, the GOP campaign against Obama was relentless, with politicians and mouthpieces lining up to denounce the president's weakness. While his critics brayed, Obama launched a systemic review, made recommendations, stepped up assistance to the Yemeni government against al-Qaeda, refused to torture Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, charged him in criminal court and ultimately got him to talk to interrogators by shaming him with his disappointed family. A Washington Post poll in early February found that Obama's approval rating on counterterrorism actually increased three points. The public trusted him to handle terrorism by five points more than the GOP, which had enjoyed a polling advantage on national security since at least Vietnam.

By any measure, the attacks on Obama failed. But they haven't stopped, as the GOP considers them an investment in a future public repudiation of Obama. And fending off an anachronistic and failed set of policy alternatives was not the promise of the Obama presidency. The Obama team pledged to be present at the creation of a new American-led internationalism, with the promotion of human dignity at its core and lasting stability and prosperity as its promise. And there the administration's pragmatism is a blessing and a burden. "If we measure our efforts against an ideal, we won't succeed," Rhodes says. "But if you measure them with regard to progress, then we are confident that the legacy of this administration can be an America that has renewed its leadership and its strength and influence in an international system that is functioning better." The past 17 months have proved that the world will largely follow where President Obama will lead -- if he's willing to lead.