We finally have an Obama Doctrine

It's just not one Obama would have chosen

Obama's speech
(Image credit: Getty Images)

On Wednesday night, President Obama laid out a four-point plan to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the Islamist State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group. This is in America's core interest, Obama argued, because ISIS is threatening Americans overseas already and, if left unchecked, may launch attacks in the U.S., especially using the U.S. citizens who have gone to train and fight with ISIS.

Obama's "comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy" involves a few pieces:

1. Continued airstrikes in Iraq and bombing ISIS targets in Syria.

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2. Upping support for "moderate" Syrian opposition militias and Iraqi and Kurdish forces.

3. Using America's "substantial counterterrorism capabilities" to prevent ISIS attacks and cut off its funding.

4. Providing humanitarian assistance to civilians and ethnic/religious minorities caught in ISIS's crosshairs.

The strategy "will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil," Obama promised. "We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq." He made a strong case for not going it alone. Saying that countries in the Middle East have to take responsibility for their own problems, he noted that America "cannot erase every trace of evil from the world" and laid out some humanitarian reasons the U.S. has to take on this particular "cancer."

He acknowledged that as with any military action, "there are risks involved." But basically, Obama promised a war that's pain-free for America: "This is American leadership at its best: We stand with people who fight for their own freedom, and we rally other nations on behalf of our common security and common humanity."

All of that is pretty classic Obama: Peace, love, and understanding, mixed with deadly airstrikes and Special Forces raids. But tucked in among the strategy and soaring talk about American responsibilities and values — "we stand for freedom, for justice, for dignity," in case you were wondering — is what appears to be the elusive Obama Doctrine.

For some reason, it has been very important for Obama to have a foreign policy "doctrine" — and no, "don't do stupid stuff" doesn't suffice. But Obama's apparent habit of taking each foreign policy challenge on its own merits has left commentators frustrated or perplexed. In May, Obama laid out some key ideas in a big foreign policy speech at West Point. On Wednesday night, Obama boiled down his foreign policy to near bumper-sticker size.

Here are the three relevant lines:

  • "I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are."
  • "This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven."
  • The ISIS strategy "is consistent with the approach I outlined earlier this year: to use force against anyone who threatens America's core interests, but to mobilize partners wherever possible to address broader challenges to international order."

This fits with Obama's past major actions: The raid that killed Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan; the drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia; the hands-off air and sea campaign in Libya.

But it's a really expansive, almost shockingly realpolitik foreign policy, especially for an internationalist like Obama. You can "threaten America" in lots of way and define U.S. "core interests" pretty broadly, and the "wherever they are" line can't be comforting to the countries around the world who believe their borders to be sovereign.

Obama specifically mentioned Yemen and Somalia as models for this new model of stateless counterterrorism actions, and they aren't bad analogies, given the border we're going to cross in this conflict is Syria's. Like Yemen and Somalia, Syria is a weak state where the government is in mortal combat with Islamist rebels — the difference is that in Yemen and Somalia, the U.S. is working with the government; in Syria, America is arming (some of) the rebels.

Now, Obama was never particularly dovish, either as a candidate or president. But he "is a man who does not want to be a war leader," says the BBC's Jon Sopel. "And you can imagine that the address he gave the American people from the State Floor of the White House was something he had been desperately hoping to avoid."

Still, here we are. It apparently took the brutal beheading of two Americans to whet America's appetite for war again. The U.S. isn't going to get a war in the traditional sense, at least not while Obama is in office. But at least for the next two and a half years, the world is on notice: America has adapted to the new kind of global asymmetric warfare, and if you get on Obama's radar, niceties like sovereign borders aren't enough to keep you safe.

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.