Shaping a Presidential Legacy

March 11, 2016 The limits of Obama’s office played a significant role in creating his ‘doctrine.’

|March 11, 2016

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By Kamran Bokhari

In an article published yesterday in The Atlantic titled “The Obama Doctrine,” U.S. President Barack Obama called on Saudi Arabia and Iran to establish a form of “cold peace” in order to manage the growing chaos in the Middle East. In the extensive interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama warned that the region cannot see an end to anarchy unless the Salafist kingdom and the Islamic republic can come to terms with one another on how to “share the neighborhood.” The interview clearly shows that the president is more frustrated with traditional U.S. ally Saudi Arabia than with Iran, which for nearly two generations has been a foe of the United States. In the article, Obama criticized the Saudis for the kingdom’s role in spreading violent extremism in the wider Muslim world and for oppressing women at home.

The phrase “The Obama Doctrine” is just a way of describing the decisions Obama had to make in the past seven years. The driving force behind the doctrine was ultimately not Obama’s personal ambitions or ideals, but rather the U.S. moving toward a balance of power strategy. It’s a retrospective designation, trying to make sense of eight years of decisions, rather than an orienting principle through which Obama directed U.S. policy. Policy is what someone wants to happen – geopolitics is what does.

The article and the debate it has generated in the news and on social media is focused on Obama’s personality and the popular assumption that individual presidents have a great degree of latitude in making policy decisions. Geopolitics, however, teaches us that individual presidents are highly constrained in their ability to effect change. All leaders – more or less – inherit the same narrow menu of options that was available to their predecessors. Indeed, constraints upon political actors (individuals, groups and states) remain highly under-appreciated.

Leaders are criticized by their opponents either for a decision they made or for one they did not. A good chunk of the Goldberg article focuses on the domestic and international criticism of Obama’s policy toward Syria. The view of these critics is that, had Obama come to the aide of the Syrian rebels early on, the battlespace would today not have been dominated by the Islamic State, al-Qaida’s Syrian branch called Jabhat al-Nusra and most of the other rebel groups that subscribe to one form of Salafist-jihadism or another. Among the most vocal in this criticism are some key American allies in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia and other Sunni powers.

The Saudis have long been upset with Obama for what they consider his reckless foreign policy that seeks to upend the U.S.-Saudi alliance (which dates back to the FDR administration) by reaching out to Iran. What the Saudis easily forget is that their bitterness towards their historical great power patron goes back to the days of Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush. It was the Bush administration, in complex cooperation with Iran, that toppled the Sunni-dominated Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003, leading to the rise of a Shiite-dominated polity closely aligned with Iran. It was the same Bush administration that began the negotiations with Tehran on the nuclear issue, which Obama was able to build upon after the current Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, came to power.

The point is that no individual president is able to radically alter course. The Republican debate for the 2016 election is saturated with vows by different candidates, especially Donald Trump, on how they will be markedly different from Obama, especially in dealing with with foreign policy issues. Indeed, the American president, as per the founders’ intent, has more room to maneuver on the foreign policy front than on the domestic one. However, there is no escaping constraints, and therefore whoever becomes the 45th president, even if it is Trump, will not be able to deliver on many of the campaign promises – as has been the case with Obama and all those who have come before.

Obama came into office in 2009 with the optimism that outreach to the Arab/Muslim world would make a difference. Hence his famous June 2009 speech in Cairo titled “A New Beginning,” in which he sought to repair relations with the Islamic world. It did not take long for him to realize how hard it would be to change U.S. relations with the Muslim world. As Goldberg notes, “the rise of the Islamic State deepened Obama’s conviction that the Middle East could not be fixed – not on his watch, and not for a generation to come.”

Goldberg’s interview with Obama is highly instructive in that it highlights the limits of presidential – and with it American – power to shape events around the world. In fact, Obama openly acknowledges this when talking about his resistance to intervening in Syria. He goes into considerable detail about the U.S. strategy to let regional players (Turkey as well as Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states) take the lead in managing the Mideast turmoil – as we have consistently pointed out in our assessments. Obama’s call on the Saudis and the Iranians to reach an understanding underscores our analysis that the United States has for some time now been pursuing a balance of power strategy.

In many ways, this strategy predates the Obama administration, however, it has emerged more clearly during his term in office given the way in which pandemonium has engulfed the Middle East. This is not just a two-way balance of power involving the Saudis and the Iranians, but rather a more complex one involving the strongest regional player, Turkey. We have been making the argument that the United States is relying on Turkey to play a lead role in dealing with the situation in the Middle East. Obama expressed dismay over Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s refusal to use Turkish military power to stabilize the situation in Syria.

The Turks do not want to be left doing the heavy lifting in Syria and the wider region for decades to come. However, eventually they will have no choice but to intervene in Syria – and not because Obama wants them to. The impersonal objective forces of geopolitics will force them to act. At that time, the subjective preferences of Erdogan, or whoever will be at the helm in Ankara, will not matter.

Obama’s interview in The Atlantic was motivated by the president’s desire to shape his legacy by explaining his various foreign policy decisions. It is unlikely that the president intended it to shed light on the nature of geopolitics and the position of the American president and all world leaders. However, it certainly has been instrumental in showing how personalities only matter so much and emphasizing the serious limits presidents must deal with when making decisions.

Presidents and individuals can exert power at particular moments, but the moments are not often of their choosing. Obama opposed the Iraq War and wanted to withdraw all troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, but his presidency is going to end with American forces still on the ground in both countries. He realized very quickly that he had to play the hand he was dealt, even if it was not the hand he may have wanted.