The Emerging Obama Doctrine

News broke seemingly without warning this afternoon that the U.S. is significantly increasing its military assistance to Uganda, enough that U.S. president Barack Obama felt it necessary to send a letter to Congress for War Powers purposes. The soldiers will be noncombat advisers helping regional militaries fight the Lord’s Resistance Army and its leader Joseph Kony.

The sheds some light on the “doctrine” of the Obama Administration. American administrations typically have a doctrine associated with them–the Truman doctrine, for instance, was a standing offer to assist any nation threatened by Communist agitation, while the Reagan doctrine supported rolling back and undermining Communist influence. Presidential doctrines seem to become more complex with each Administration–the (George W.) Bush doctrine, for instance, included a range of propositions about how the U.S. would prevent threats from overseas and resists straightforward definition (thus, with chagrin, I must admit that the normally oversensitive Sarah Palin was justified in claiming that an interviewer’s question about it may have been a trap intended to make her look foolish).  We are more than halfway through the Obama Administration, yet it has so far not made a clear statement of doctrine. This has drawn some praise–the post-Cold War world is complicated enough to resist those who would simplify it. However, the Uganda and Libya actions suggest that if there is not a doctrine, there is certainly a tendency. Behold, the Obama Doctrine:

The United States will intervene militarily on behalf of peoples threatened with severe, organized violence, as long as:

  • There is an organized, viable opposition that will bear the brunt of the fighting.
  • There is a need for assistance that only the U.S. is capable (and not merely willing) of providing–technical assistance, sustained campaigns by projected forces, etc.
  • Without this assistance, the severe, organized violence will occur (i.e. assistance is necessary, but not sufficient, for preventing or stopping the violence).
  • The U.S. effort will extract an insignificant portion of America’s economic and military might.
  • There is a low risk of entanglement because the organized force perpetrating the violence is weak.

Note that there is one thing missing from this: any notion of the U.S. national interest or of strategic gains that can be made by the application of force. The doctrine is purely humanitarian in nature. This makes it distinct from the Clinton doctrine, which holds that allowing mass human rights violations creates instabilities that will eventually harm America.

(AP photo, via Born at the Crest of the Empire)

It’s hardly an inspiring doctrine–it should leave both staunch realists and eager humanitarian interventionists cold. It is, however, a low-risk, low-profile doctrine, which may be appropriate for the current economic context, if not for the global context. It doesn’t matter that the U.S. is not advancing a vital interest, because the wars are cheap. This does preserve American power so that it remains a threat to the range of global ne’er-do-wells like Iran and North Korea that became notably more aggressive while the U.S. was entangled in Iraq. However, the emphasis on only engaging low-hanging fruit does not suggest that America is willing to actually use that power when the circumstances are less than clear, which might actually encourage those forces that the doctrine seeks to deter.

The increased presence in Uganda will be interesting. Kony is a madman, a man who has committed evil acts so frequently, so needlessly, and in such variety that a case can be made that he is one of the worst humans that has ever lived. His defeat would be a positive development for the region. However, he has also shown himself to be quite capable of surviving against government pressure. He also is just one feature of one of the world’s most terrifyingly complicated and violent regions, one that the U.S. should be very wary of sending its soldiers into without urgent national interests at stake. The U.S. has failed to build a national society and strong central government in Afghanistan. The African Great Lakes region makes Afghanistan look like the Hamptons. America’s leadership should be very, very wary of mission creep in Africa.


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