If Indians and Japanese, Poles and Latvians, Israelis and Saudis are convinced that the United States damaged its deterrence and invited aggression — and that they must adjust their own policies accordingly — it almost doesn’t matter if Obama is right in insisting that Putin and Xi Jinping took no cues from him. The global conventional wisdom has created its own reality. Recent events have been reinforcing: If the president believes Putin’s recent military adventure in Syria had nothing to do with the 2013 decision, he is virtually alone.
So observes veteran foreign policy pundit Jackson Diehl, who says that at the time of the Syria reversal he was willing to believe the President might have “stumbled into a tactical victory,” but that he now sides with area experts and foreign ministers who hold the opposite view.
Diehl assesses the Obama Doctrine, or Jeffrey Goldberg’s Obama’s Obama Doctrine, as, in a word, neurotic – as much a psychological construct or defense mechanism as a policy – enabling the President to minimize the importance of any setbacks, the alternative being emotionally intolerable:
In fact, despite his protestations, Obama seems to be haunted by his Syrian retreat — so much so that he has concocted a kind of negative doctrine around it. It is, says Goldberg, that the Middle East “is no longer terribly important to American interests”; that even if it is, there is little the United States can do “to make it a better place”; and that any attempt to do so leads only to war and “the eventual hemorrhaging of U.S. credibility and power.”
For Diehl, Obama’s subsequent policy decisions – foremost his “dispatching 4,000 troops and and scores of warplanes … to fight the Islamic State” – contradict the contradiction. The contemporaneous evidence, from the vulgar statement of dismay and surprise by Secretary of State Kerry to the President’s own self-contradictory rhetoric, indicates that, whatever else the Syria reversal was, and however much pride the President now takes in throwing out the “Washington playbook,” the decision, or retraction of decision, was far from any carefully executed implementation of a well-thought out plan.
Aside from having appeared inept at the time, and appearing defensive now, the President complicates his own argument, and the predicaments of his allies and eventually of his successor, in multiple ways. Unlike regime change and its alternatives in Syria, getting to a nuclear deal with Iran was a focus of Obama foreign policy, but it went largely un-discussed in “The Obama Doctrine.” Intervention against Assad, and therefore against Iran’s as well as Russia’s client, was thought likely to imperil the negotiations (in which Russia was also formally a party), and that factor may have explained Obama’s reticence as much as any broad historical-theoretical perspective on the region and its meaning for the U.S. Yet the President cannot expect much credit for or even take much pride in an accomplishment in a region where there is nothing for us to accomplish.
As for U.S. allies in the “no longer terribly important region,” they might be expected to look to their own defenses – and defense mechanisms. The headlines lately, as at many times over the last 50 years at least suggest that this region has a way of becoming very terribly important in an instant, whether by light of one or another pseudo-objective analysis it should be or not. People who get the feeling they are no longer held to be terribly important… can be like that.