Failures of the Obama Doctrine and the Obama Rationale

Historians have begun to debate the “Obama Doctrine” and its impact on global stability. The Doctrine itself is not so novel or controversial.  It is the “Obama Rationale,” his underlying worldview, and how he applies the doctrine’s principles, that are causing the destabilization of global security.

Obama Doctrine
President Obama defining his “Obama Doctrine” with Thomas Freidman
April 2015 (photo: New York Times)

The Obama Doctrine
We will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities”

In April 2015, New York Times Op-Ed columnist Thomas Freidman penned a piece called “Iran and the Obama Doctrine.” In a long interview with US President Barack Obama, Freidman came to conclusions about Obama’s approach to foreign affairs. In short:

  • Engagement over Sanctions, Isolation and War. Obama stated a problem ignored is not a problem solved.  However, dialogue opened a possibility to change people’s hearts and minds. Diplomacy should always be the first option, both with allies and foes.
  • A Single Foreign Policy. The Executive Branch of the United States government must be the sole representative of US foreign policy. Senators and congresspeople should not engage with world leaders with messages that contradict those decided by the president.

Liberals and Conservatives may agree or disagree with this formula for engaging the world. Presumably, many would agree with these approaches in general.

Then why the terrible polls for Obama’s foreign policy?

Failed Implementation

There is a significant percentage of Americans who strongly disagree with Obama’s handling of foreign policy. Those reasons may have less to do with the Obama Doctrine itself, but how it is applied.

  • Negotiations with Foes. Engaging with friend or foe should yield results to one’s liking. Many Americans criticized the Obama team in that it did not extract enough concessions from negotiations.
    • Cuba was opened up with nothing to show for it.
    • Syria was given a pass for using chemical weapons even though Obama threatened the country with military force.
    • Iran was left with an enormous nuclear infrastructure, even though sanctions had pushed the country to the brink.
    • Russia actively established itself on the world stage including annexing part of Ukraine, as it knew that Obama would not take military action.
    • Engagement is okay, if it achieved the desired outcome, but Obama showed a pattern of coming away with only modest achievements at great costs. He resorted to touting the engagement itself as the victory, rather than tangible goals.
  • Engagement with Allies. Foreign policy is equally about managing relationships with allies. Yet Obama has shown an inability to keep allies close, work for American interests and make reforms, as necessary.
    • Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was a longtime ally of the United States, and Obama made a point of visiting Cairo in his first international trip. Yet Obama quickly turned on this one-time ally and blessed his overthrow.
    • Israel has rarely had such a cold treatment form any US administration. The lack of trust has not produced an environment conducive to peace negotiations.
    • Saudi Arabia is an oppressive regime that is nevertheless a US ally. The kingdom has never been so unsure of America’s leadership, nor has it beheaded as many of its own citizens.
    • Turkey’s leader Erdogan has been described by Obama as being one of his closest allies.  Yet Turkey has dragged its feet in allowing the US to use its territory to fight ISIS and prefers using its Turkish troops to bomb Kurds than ISIS.
    • Despite an established agreement with Ukraine, Obama let the country fall to Russia.
  • Terrorism. More than almost any issue since 9/11/2001, has the world been focused on terrorism. Obama has been unsure how to utilize his “Doctrine” when the counter-party is not an official government, but a terrorist organization.
    • Islamic State/ ISIS has been targeted for destruction by Obama in words, but he has engaged in militarily confronting the group only sporadically. Meanwhile, the group continues to expand its attacks in Lebanon, Egypt (against a Russian airliner) and France.
    • Boko Haram; Al-Shabaab, Hamas and other Islamic terrorist groups do not get any engagement from Obama at all. Obama considers them local problems for local governments to handle and does not consider the global aspirations of the affiliates groups.  Never mind that these group like Ansar al-Sharia in Libya have attacked and killed Americans, including Ambassador Stevens.

The Obama Doctrine by itself is not that controversial to many Americans, however, it’s implementation is roundly criticized.  Further, the underlying Obama worldview which governs his approach to engagement is considered a disaster.

The Obama Rationale

President Obama has spent seven years outlining his thoughts as to why people use terrorism. The rationale leads directly to his proposed solutions, so appreciating those views is key to understanding his tactics.

In February 2015, not long after the terrorist attacks in Paris in January 2015, several world leaders met to discuss ways of combatting terror. President Obama addressed the American people and outlined his thoughts about the root causes of terrorism and his associated game plan:

  • Frustration with Injustice and Corruption. Obama stated that “anger that festers when people feel that injustice and corruption leave them with no chance of improving their lives.
  • No Outlet other than Through Violence. He added that the frustration was exacerbated by “[g]overnments that deny human rights play into the hands of extremists who claim that violence is the only way to achieve change
  • Misguided Belief that West is at War with Islam. Obama stated that some clerics and groups have a “twisted interpretation of religion” and that “al Qaeda and ISIL peddling the lie that the United States is at war with Islam

The Obama rationale for terrorism is that there is a very small number of people who have twisted religion and then prey upon people’s “legitimate grievances” (his words).  His approach to addressing this terrorist threat is an extension of his Obama Doctrine.

The Obama Solution to Terrorism

  • Broadcast the Voices of Muslim Moderates. “The world must continue to lift up the voices of Muslim clerics and scholars who teach the true peaceful nature of Islam”  Americans should show “support of their family, friends, teachers and faith leaders.”
  • Export Democracy.  While Obama has shown a reluctance to nation-build, he nevertheless thinks that advancing democracy would help stop terrorism: “Efforts to counter violent extremism will only succeed if citizens can address legitimate grievances through the democratic process and express themselves through strong civil societies.
  • Community Development.  Showing his roots as a community organizer, Obama advocates for local job creation, whereby “economic, educational and entrepreneurial development so people have hope for a life of dignity.” That’s why spokespeople like Marie Hart from the State Department continue to push the notion that a jobs program is the key to stop terrorism.
  • Repeat that the US is NOT at war with Islam. Obama consistently repeats over and again that America is not at war with Islam and that Islam is a religion of peace.  Such efforts, he believes, keep the terrorism from spreading to America’s shores and allies.

These approaches to terrorism are very much like the Obama Doctrine: engage and assist people in reaching democratic aspirations.  The small number of terrorists with hateful ideology would be eliminated (using “all capabilities”), while the masses should be “engaged”.  As Obama said:

Our campaign to prevent people around the world from being radicalized to violence
is ultimately a battle for hearts and minds.”

However, this approach has not slowed the advance of terrorism which continues to kill in France; Egypt; Israel; Lebanon; Nigeria; Kenya and elsewhere.

Critics of Obama say the battle is not “FOR the hearts and minds” but “OF the hearts and minds” of a broad number of Muslims.  They point out the murderous governments throughout the Muslim world, and the gross intolerance of their societies, that are not just offended by what people say or do, but who they are.

Many of these critics believe that the terrible state of global security is solely because of Obama’s worldview.  They argue that there is no administration failure to execute; the team is executing the Obama Doctrine according to the Obama Rationale: Give the various regimes money, jobs, trading, asylum and the like.  Remove American troops from the MENA region, engage economically, and peace will prevail (or if it doesn’t, it will be a local problem).

Obama’s critics dismiss this approach and believe the “clash of civilizations” goes beyond a handful of terrorists.  The world is too flat and integrated to believe such a naïve approach will keep America and its allies safe.


As Americans consider their next president, it will be important to not just consider whether they agree with the Obama Doctrine, but with the Obama worldview. If terrorism continues to occur over the election season, the Obama Rationale will take center stage in the debates.

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