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In a little-discussed section of his sixth State of the Union address, President Barack Obama offered important clues to what might be called an “Obama Doctrine” for the foreign and military policy that he will be pursuing for the rest of his presidency. Here are key “texts” from that section, and what I believe are the relevant subtexts. Imagine them as presidential thought-bubbles.
Text: “When I took office, nearly 180,000 Americans were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, all our troops are out of Iraq. More than 60,000 of our troops have already come home from Afghanistan …. We will complete our mission there by the end of this year, and America’s longest war will finally be over … And with the Afghan war ending, this needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.”
Subtext: I honor our troops. But I will be bringing them home from Afghanistan this year, as I did from Iraq. (As my pesky former Defense Secretary Bob Gates just disclosed, my heart was never really in the Afghanistan troop surge that I ordered.) And please let me close Guantanamo. This would conclude my effort to clean up what I inherited from my predecessor. From now on I get to make my own policies.
Text: “So even as we actively and aggressively pursue terrorist networks … America must move off a permanent war footing …. The fact is that danger remains. While we’ve put Al Qaeda’s core leadership on a path to defeat, the threat has evolved as Al Qaeda affiliates and other extremists take root in different parts of the world.”
Subtext: Osama is dead, but don’t think that all terrorist threats are over. I will do what I must to keep the homeland safe. But having already abandoned the language of a “global war on terror,” I will now go further to redefine us away from a state of war. Democracies don’t do well in a chronic state of emergency.
Text: “I will not send our troops into harm’s way unless it is truly necessary, nor will I allow our sons and daughters to be mired in open-ended conflicts. We must fight the battles that need to be fought, not those that terrorists prefer from us — large-scale deployments that drain our strength and may ultimately feed extremism.”
Subtext: We have been putting “boots on the ground” too frequently. We have been suckered by our enemies into massive overseas operations that have weakened us and strengthened them. Shame on us that we blundered into their traps. Not again, not on my watch.
Text: “That’s why I’ve imposed prudent limits on the use of drones, for we will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence …. That’s why, working with this Congress, I will reform our surveillance programs because the vital work of our intelligence community depends on public confidence, here and abroad, that privacy of ordinary people is not being violated.”
Subtext: The main way we will take the fight to terrorists is by continuing to deploy our almost unlimited surveillance and drone capacities. These are my best tools to defend our country. But people here and abroad are nervous that we are overreaching with both of these tools; so, under pressure, I will back off from both as little as I can get away with.
Text: “In a world of complex threats, our security, our leadership depends on all elements of our power — including strong and principled diplomacy.”
Subtext: My predecessor and some of you were and are far too enamored with force. But good diplomacy is an aspect of U.S. power and sometimes it actually works. I will not be bullied by Congress or anyone else into abandoning diplomacy.
Text: “I first met Cory Remsburg, a proud Army Ranger, at Omaha Beach on the 65th anniversary of D-Day …. He was a strong, impressive young man …, he was sharp as a tack …. A few months later, on his 10th deployment, Cory was nearly killed by a massive roadside bomb in Afghanistan.”
Subtext: America, do you see the human cost of our wars over the last 12 years? It is embodied in this suffering but brave young hero. I hurt looking at how much he has suffered. I lead us in honoring him tonight, and the many wounded warriors he symbolizes. But I — and we — have lost the stomach for making more such heroes.
In sum: Here we have the makings of an Obama doctrine. The president fully recognizes that the leader of any nation must defend its security. There can be no pacifist presidents, a fact which some Christians find very hard to accept. But our nation is indeed drained from war. So there will be no more boots on the ground. For the next three years, our foreign and military policy will center on diplomacy, spying and drones.
The Obama Doctrine is better than what this president inherited. But in the end it may prove unsustainable in its own way. Spying and drone warfare are already raising profound tensions in our relations with other countries, not to mention constitutional and moral problems. Their heavy use may soon undercut the effectiveness of our diplomacy, as other nations come to hate the all-seeing, death-from-the-sky power of the United States of America — almost as much as they hated seeing our troops in country after country around the world.