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Obama’s Doctrine and the Friendly Face of Imperialism

Obama’s Doctrine

It has been said that the last months of a president's tenure is like the last act of a drama. While Obama has been portrayed as a "Great man and Good President In Bad Times" in the US mainstream media, what does "The Obama Doctrine,“ as it has been portrayed by the Atlantic, have to say regarding the liberal conception of power?

A few years after Obama’s address at the U.N. General Assembly, who acknowledged the US is prepared to use all elements of its power, including military force, to secure its core interests in the region, the challenging years of American foreign policy under his doctrine is approaching its end. Despite his naked sort of declaration of imperialism in this speech, what is at stake is the way in which Washington’s international liberal order has been pursued with an apparently less aggressive approach, the kind of approach that might be in the center of the convergence of liberal and conservative think tanks to pursue US interests in the coming decades.

Having read Obama’s latest interview with the Washington-based Atlantic magazine, one can see how he still remains a believer in the significance of the US leadership. In contrast with the Liberal narrative of the US foreign policy, from normalized relations with Cuba to the Iran Deal and signing a climate deal with China, what’s particularly striking is how the American “liberal order,” the prescription of Woodrow Wilson’s John Ikenberry and “Decline Empire” of Niall Ferguson are interlinked. Although, the president recognizes “the limits of American power” and rejected the idea of the “Washington playbook, “his Libyan disaster is bigger than what he said in this interview. Nevertheless, by trying to get away from Samantha Power’s faith in the therapeutic possibilities of military force, one has to admit that Obama is still able to shut the mouths of his winded pundits like Niall Ferguson. However, the way the president sees the intervention in Libya as a ‘game’ once again is another indication of more or less similar approaches of the two pundits at Wilson and Hoover.

Putting aside the leading intellectual proponents of “the responsibility to protect” at the both neo-conservative and liberal think tanks, the Atlantic interviewer predictably did not remind the president that for the Libyan people and the rest of MENA, who saw their countries and lives destroyed, it is not certainly a ‘game.’ Obama said he thinks the intervention went “as well as it could.” Thus, the inevitability of intervention and defending the essence of the action by Obama in the face of the conspicuous catastrophe can only be grasped by tracing the interest convergence of the representatives of the liberal and conservative think tanks in the US.

The Decline of the American Empire?

If the term “cold war” has become the prevailing discourse to describe the half-century conflict between on the one side the US and its allies and  the other side actually existing socialist countries struggling to break free from colonial and imperialist domination, the assumption of declining empire is still challengeable for many scholars in the field of international relation. Nevertheless, American power, as the capacity to direct the decision and actions of others is still in the center of the ongoing upheavals. What is at stake is how this declined empire is still able to pursue the arts of its war, espionage and diplomacy. The significant aspect of American power is power as influence which should come to help the empire to control natural resources of the semi-periphery countries.

Although the mechanisms of influence and the different approaches of the Hoover and Wilson case studies is the crux of the matter. In this case, our Wilson pundit, like many other "realists," attempts to maintain the balance of power from the development of meaningful diplomatic relations that can create hegemony within the region.

John Ikenberry acknowledges that a slow diffusion of power away from the United States is manifested in the rise of new powers in Asia and elsewhere; he also mentions the decline of unipolarity, coupled with the simultaneous rise of greater economic and security interdependence. Nevertheless, the buzzword “unipolarity” which was first used by Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer in then-emerging neo-conservative circles is not able to depict the whole scene anymore. One has to see how “the multifaceted character of American power” places it in the category of its own, power as material resources and power as influence. Yet, the Waltz logic of a bipolar system emerges in understanding of the “new world order” with the presence of the aforementioned political and economic actors in the act of president Obama.

Interestingly, the Hoover pundit who believes that the U.S. has failed to embrace its role as an empire and ruefully making comments of the need to a more direct interventionist policy has also the same “realistic” approach as well as the liberal ones. Niall Ferguson acknowledges the significance of G7, the BRICS nations and the G20 as the form of governments that exercise varying degrees of influence within the international system. The persistent myth of a lost hegemony is more than ever traceable in the confrontation of the two major conceptions of American power and the way in which “the cost of hegemony” has to be imposed to the rest of the world.

The differences and similarities of the approaches boils down to Fergusson’s conception of “rough regimes,” when his “decline empire” with Obama in office, has been pathetically tried to reinforce its liberal international order with the best cost-benefit in the post Clinton-Bush era. Nevertheless, however Libya and Afghanistan are the only direct military interventions by Obama and his “realist” supporters, as Ikenberry acknowledges, “democracy promotion” was not taken off the American foreign policy agenda, but rather it has been pursued in much more indirect ways. The history of his coup-making and “regime change” policies from Iran to Venezuela and Ukraine and the ongoing tragedy in Syria speaks volumes.

The Middle East: The Battlefield for the US Liberal Order

What is the legacy of Obama’s “liberal order” and the assumption of “declining empire” when it comes to the question of influence in the Middle East? When it comes to pursuing the agenda of empire, was really Niall Ferguson a loser eight years ago as he described himself following the Obama’s first term? The day after Barack Obama’s election as president, Ferguson talked about “the grand scheme of history.” He looked disappointed about the “liberal” president later. Putting typically the GOP attacks against Obama’s domestic policies aside, Fergusson’s points in the realm of foreign policy might elucidate the place in which he stands regarding the Obama Doctrine. In terms of the Middle East upheavals, Ferguson’s wish for a more interventionist policy has been met by Barack Obama.

Though he believes that Obama in the case of Iran did “nothing,” and “the thugs of the Islamic Republic ruthlessly crushed the demonstrations.” By this, he acknowledges that the Obama think tanks failed attempt to fish in the troubled waters in the aftermath of 2009 elections in Iran though as Ferguson believes, it didn’t pan out. He has the same critique about Syria, when Obama’s regime (the state department) was almost on the verge of declaring another war in the Middle East based on the false assumption of Sarin chemical attack by Assad regime. On the other hand, our liberal pundit, close to Obama, who believes the U.S. has been “successful in creating a liberal international order,” also believes that NATO expansion was “worth the risk of provoking and upsetting the settlement between Russia and the United States.”

The way Obama understands “the rationale,” and the ways his policy makers like Ikenberry believes that NATO expansion, “did some good things in reinforcing civil-military relations in Eastern Europe and providing frameworks for these states’ economic and political integration into the wider European region.” speaks volumes. Strictly speaking, the two approaches to American power, Ikenberry versus Fergusson, intentionally or unintentionally come to the same end.

Woodrow Wilson and Hoover: Single Soul Inhabiting Two Bodies 

Taking Wilson’s approach versus Hoover institution over the so-called “Iran nuclear crisis” is also another significant example to assess Obama's Neocon Doctrine. One can trace the way in which part of the centrists and hawkish pundits are able to meet each other by the virtue of Ikenberry’s “rationality.” The case of Ferguson’s Persian speaker counterpart at Hoover might help us to see the similarities of the two approaches. Abbas Milani, a contrite Maoist in the 70s and yet Ferguson’s colleague at Hoover Institution, was one of “the Iran experts” who suggested that the United States and other nations should impose multilateral "crippling sanctions" and not merely "half-baked" measures. At the same time, Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution and Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace informed the Congress committee that "many members of the opposition and the population actually are starting to come around. Their views towards sanctions have changed. They are not in a position to publicly articulate that right now...

They're starting to see value in it." Obama’s Doctrine from imposing "crippling sanctions" to initiating "covert operations," from the threat of military attack by Israel and/or the United States to the Obama’s “breakthrough” over Iran Deal and yet advocating a foreign direct investment (FDI) policy in Iran, when Iran’s “moderate” president Hassan Rouhani and his US-educated neo-liberal collaborators has become the center of attention of “liberal” think tanks in the US. One can trace the attempt of the two kinds of approaches to reinforce American power across the globe, particularly in the Middle East today.

Here is where one can see the traces of “smart power” at Harvard and many other academic venues in the West, when a bunch of “Iran experts” including mainstream journalists and pro-West activists, entrepreneurs, Iran-US lobbyists and that ilk have been striving to sell Washington’s “liberal order” and the “moderate” government’s formula to the public, when privatizing the school of thought in Iran has been lost amidst their ongoing hue and cry over “Iran deal” which has never been a peace deal as the MSM want us to believe.

Interestingly, it is also Harvard University Professor Joseph Nye's notion of “soft power” which can help us to delineate the attempt of the two approaches regarding American power and Obama Doctrine in the region. According to Nye, "Smart power is neither hard nor soft - it is the skillful combination of both." Putting aside the two aforementioned approaches to the conception of American power or the self-delusion of empire as part of the Obama Doctrine, with any of these candidates in the Capitol Hill pursuing smart power will be the name of the game. If the post 9/11 era allowed Ferguson to declare, “The barbarians have already knocked at the gates, Ferguson’s “guns and butter empire” is now a transparent objective of the future U.S. president to reinforce its liberal international order.


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