An Afghan Test for the Obama Doctrine

By David Ignatius
Thursday, October 8, 2009

Is there an "Obama Doctrine" lurking among the zigs and zags of the president's foreign policy over these first nine months? I think there is, in his repeated invocation of global rights and responsibilities. The problem is that this lawyerly framework hasn't been applied to the really tough issues, such as what to do in Afghanistan.

I have been looking for a "doctrine" because, frankly, strategic thinking has been this administration's weak spot. A pragmatic president has surrounded himself with pragmatic advisers -- a retired Marine general as national security adviser, a former senator as secretary of state, a career intelligence officer as secretary of defense. None are grand strategists on the model of Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Reviewing Barack Obama's major speeches, I do find one theme that he returns to again and again. To take the version that the president used in his inaugural address: "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility." This involves a reciprocal exchange -- "mutual interest and mutual respect" is how Obama put it that cold day in January, and he has returned often to that formulation.

This idea -- of balancing rights and responsibilities -- strikes me as a central pillar of Obama's foreign policy. Iran has the right to civilian nuclear power but the responsibility to abide by the Non-Proliferation Treaty; Israel has the right to live in peace but the responsibility to refrain from building settlements, which Obama rejects as illegitimate.

My reading of Obama's speeches was prodded by an administration official who thinks that journalists have been missing a theme that has been staring us in the face. And it's there, sure enough, as a recurring leitmotif. But there is dryness to this formulation -- a picture of international relations as a static structure of rules and norms -- that is part of this administration's weakness on issues that are wet with blood and emotion. Again, Afghanistan is the obvious example.

In Obama's formulation, America has regained its authority because it has returned to the global framework that the Bush administration disdained. Obama said this plainly in his Sept. 23 speech to the United Nations General Assembly. He talked about how the United States has "re-engaged" the world by dealing with issues that "fed an almost reflexive anti-Americanism." Obama listed his deliverables -- banning torture, ordering the closure of Guantanamo, withdrawing from Iraq, embracing negotiations on climate change and even paying America's bills at the United Nations.

Now it's your turn, was Obama's corollary message. For nations that defy international norms (read: Iran, North Korea), Obama warned of isolation: "America intends to keep our end of the bargain," he said. "Those nations that refuse to live up to their obligations [as signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty] must face consequences."

You can find similar language in almost every major address Obama has given. In his June 4 speech in Cairo, he spoke of Israeli and Palestinian "obligations" under international agreements. In a July 11 speech in Accra, Ghana, he told Africans that partnership with the United States "must be grounded in mutual responsibility and mutual respect." When he disclosed Iran's secret enrichment facility on Sept. 25, he blasted Tehran for "refusing to live up to [its] international responsibilities."

This vision of a global rule of law exemplifies what we are coming to understand as Obama's way of thinking -- optimistic, rational, practical. But like the mantra of "change" that got him elected, it is an empty vessel waiting to be filled with the details of real life. It's not a strategy. It's a formula for how to solve problems -- which is not the same as global leadership.

Obama hasn't applied this doctrine directly to Afghanistan, but let me briefly try: The international community has made a commitment, through the United Nations and NATO, to help rebuild Afghanistan. That mission is limited, but it does carry continuing responsibilities. Training the Afghan army and promoting security is one; supporting economic development and better governance is another; encouraging Afghan political reconciliation is a third.

The notion that the United States can break with that mission -- and opt for a more selfish counterterrorism strategy that drops the rebuilding part and seeks to assassinate America's enemies with Predator drones from 10,000 feet -- would not fit well with any reading of the Obama doctrine. That approach, to be blunt, would be lawless.

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