The Halfway ‘Obama Doctrine’

Exclusive: President Obama’s counterterrorism speech failed to quiet his critics on the Left who want an immediate end to the “war on terror” and those on the Right who demand more Bush-Cheney policies. Obama charted a middle course of gradually reducing violence and asking for patience, reports Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

How to view President Barack Obama’s speech on counterterrorism can be likened to how you might think about a serious drug problem: you could deny that anything’s wrong and keep using; demand a cold-turkey withdrawal; or ratchet down the drug dosage over time to a minimal level.

Obama, both in his speech and his evolving policies, has opted for the third approach. Overall, he has reduced the levels of violence even as he has used some methods, such as lethal drones, with greater ferocity than his predecessor. Yet, even with drones, the number of strikes has been dropping in recent months.

President Barack Obama watches as graduates toss their hats at the conclusion of the U.S. Naval Academy commencement at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland, May 24, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The President also has withdrawn all U.S. combat forces from Iraq – to the dismay of Official Washington’s neocons – and has drawn down troop levels in Afghanistan after a 2009 “surge” advocated by his holdover Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the military high command.

In his May 23 speech, Obama also announced that he will resume repatriating Guantanamo Bay detainees who have been deemed not to represent a terrorist threat. Obama vowed, too, to revive his earlier effort to close the offshore prison despite vigorous congressional opposition.

In other words, one way to evaluate Obama — just past the expected halfway mark of his presidency — is by measuring the trends of American military violence as he has scaled it back, rather than judging each individual aspect which may have its own legal and humanitarian concerns, i.e. violations of international law from drone strikes and the deaths of more noncombatants.

For many of Obama’s critics on the Left, his measured approach toward gradually weaning U.S. national security policy off its heavy reliance on violence (like conventional war) and replacing that with more selective tactics (like drones) is still unacceptable. His strategy does, as they note, continue to flout international law.

To these critics, the use of weaponized drones in the airspace over other nations is a clear violation of their sovereignty and the killing of civilians (or even suspected terrorists) breaches standards on human rights and due process. Whatever sophistry Obama and his lawyers may devise, there is no doubt that these objections are correct.

International law offers no special permission for the United States to conduct a transnational war against shadowy organizations of loosely defined “militants.” Imprecise claims of self-defense are not what the United Nations Charter had in mind when it included that exception to prohibitions on military force.

One can only imagine how outraged Official Washington would be if some other country began sending unmanned aerial vehicles across borders to assassinate its “enemies.” Such a country would be branded an international outlaw or worse.

Moral Grays

Still, Obama’s speech represented something of a plea to his critics to see the problem in the moral grays of a shadow struggle against a ruthless foe eager to kill innocent civilians, not in the blacks and whites of a perfect world where the rule of law neatly prevails. In one of the most emotional parts of his speech, Obama said:

“America does not take strikes to punish individuals; we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat. And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set.

“Now, this last point is critical, because much of the criticism about drone strikes — both here at home and abroad — understandably centers on reports of civilian casualties. There’s a wide gap between U.S. assessments of such casualties and nongovernmental reports. Nevertheless, it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in every war. …

“For me, and those in my chain of command, those deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred throughout conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. But as Commander-in-Chief, I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives.

“To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties — not just in our cities at home and our facilities abroad, but also in the very places like Sana’a and Kabul and Mogadishu where terrorists seek a foothold. Remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes. So doing nothing is not an option.”

Implicit in his speech was a warning, too, that any president who ignores the terrorist threat invites even more draconian policies in the future if another 9/11 happens. However, Obama argued that even staying for too long on the course charted by George W. Bush would fundamentally alter the U.S. constitutional structure. He said:

“America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us. We have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that ‘No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.’ Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society.

“But what we can do — what we must do — is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend. And to define that strategy, we have to make decisions based not on fear, but on hard-earned wisdom.”

Political Imbalance

In effect, Obama was acknowledging the reality of today’s U.S. political/media structure that has made “security” against terrorism a prerequisite for holding high office. So, rather than go “cold-turkey” on America’s addiction to endless warfare – the narcotic to dull the fear of another 9/11 – he opted for a gradual withdrawal from this dependency.

Obama’s approach has led to a zigzag path in his national security policies. He kept on Bush’s last Defense Secretary Gates and Bush’s high command, including Gen. David Petraeus, a neocon favorite. As a nod to more hawkish Democrats, Obama named Hillary Clinton his Secretary of State.

Obama ignored warnings from some analysts that he risked getting boxed in to more military-oriented solutions than he might personally prefer – which happened in 2009 when Gates, Petraeus and Clinton pushed for a major troop escalation in Afghanistan, a move that some administration officials say Obama regretted almost immediately.

However, he twinned the escalation with a commitment to phase out the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. He also stepped up drone attacks against al-Qaeda-related targets in Pakistan, Yemen and other countries as he pressed ahead with a military withdrawal from Iraq, a pullout that was completed by the end of 2011.

Bending to Secretary Clinton’s wishes, Obama authorized use of U.S. air power in the military campaign to oust Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. But Obama refused to commit combat forces in Libya, and in the Syrian civil war, he resisted pressure from Petraeus (who had become CIA director) and Clinton to arm the Syrian rebels in their struggle to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. Both Petraeus and Clinton were soon gone.

Obama also has rejected Israeli demands that he join in air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities, relying instead on economic sanctions to restrain Iran’s advancement of its nuclear capabilities and insisting that military action would be only considered as a last resort to stop Iran from building a nuclear bomb, which its senior officials say they don’t want anyway.

So, one way to assess what might be called the Obama Doctrine is to recognize the nuances that he has added to the U.S. use of military force, especially when compared to the policies of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. In particular, Cheney’s “One Percent Doctrine” insisted on a violent response against a possible terrorist threat even if the perceived risk were only one percent.

If the Obama Doctrine continues for the next three-plus years without any major reversals – i.e., no large-scale terrorist strike inside the United States or some new conflict abroad – it’s likely that American military forces will be more at peace than at any time since 9/11. Even drone attacks would be a relatively rare event.

And, if Obama lives up to his commitments in his May 23 speech, the number of detainees at Guantanamo (or some successor site) would be dramatically reduced, presumably down to several dozen men identified as dangerous terrorists, including some implicated in the 9/11 attacks.

Frustration of Gradualism

That gradualism, however, is not acceptable to Americans who favor the “cold-turkey” response to the U.S. addiction to the Bush-Cheney anything-goes behavior after 9/11. They insist that Obama abide by international law, renounce use of lethal drones and accept unconditionally the constitutional principles of legal due process – now.

Besides the civil liberties concerns, people in this group argue that the goal of reducing terrorism is best advanced by closing U.S. military bases around the world and addressing legitimate grievances of Muslims and other groups alienated by decades of American double-talk and double-standards.

That way, this group maintains, the United States can be both true to its ideals and safer. They believe that Obama’s approach of simply phasing down the Bush-Cheney lawlessness only invites more anger in the Islamic world and more danger at home.

There is, of course, the third grouping, Americans who still favor the Bush-Cheney “tough-guy-ism.” This group asserts that U.S. “enemies” only respect American force and that any hesitancy to use it shows weakness and vulnerability. Many in this group believe that a “clash of civilizations” is under way and that political Islam must be categorically defeated.

Though these advocates for “the Long War” have been on the defensive since Bush’s failures in Iraq and Obama’s election in 2008, they remain a powerful force in Official Washington and throughout the U.S. news media. They include leading politicians such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham; many analysts at prominent think tanks; and many commentators at media outlets from Fox News and right-wing talk radio to the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Whenever there’s a setback in Obama’s strategy, these loud voices are quick to denounce his perceived “failure” on “terror,” as we’ve seen after last year’s Benghazi attack and this year’s Boston Marathon bombings.

Part of Obama’s trouble here is the continuing inability of the Left to build any significant mechanism for reaching out to the American people with information and analysis, certainly nothing that compares to the billions upon billions of dollars that the Right has spent to build its vertically integrated media machine, from newspapers, magazines and books to radio, TV and well-funded Internet sites.

That imbalance has left Obama on the defensive any time a terrorist attack succeeds. Not only does he get bashed from the Right but from the mainstream media, as occurred in the months since the Benghazi attack over something as trivial as the preparation of “talking points” for a second-tier official appearing on TV.

An Imperfect Strategy

Yet, instead of investing in a media apparatus that can begin to counter what the Right has created, many on the Left seem content to berate Obama for his imperfect strategy. In their view, it’s not enough for Obama to have reduced the bloodshed. It will not be enough even if he has all U.S. combat troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan and makes the targeting of suspected terrorists a rare event. Any violent acts – no matter how seemingly justifiable and isolated – will still be condemned, as will Obama.

Nevertheless, the emerging reality is that the Obama Doctrine is slowly – arguably way  too slowly – eliminating many of the worst violations of international law and the rules of war that were central to the Bush-Cheney Doctrine. A new equilibrium is emerging between homeland security and human rights. This rebalancing is far from perfect and needs continued criticism and vigilance, but there have been undeniable steps in a less violent and a less lawless direction.

Nothing that Obama has done in office can reasonably be compared to Bush’s illegal invasion of Iraq with the resulting deaths of nearly 4,500 U.S. troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. That was both a gross violation of international law, a humanitarian catastrophe (which continues to this day in Iraqi sectarian violence), and a gateway for many young Muslims to develop hatred toward the United States.

Yes, I know that force feeding hunger strikers at Guantanamo inflicts pain and can be regarded as torture, but it is not the same as torturing detainees with waterboarding and other brutal techniques for the purpose of extracting information. One procedure is done to keep people alive; the other put lives at risk and, in some cases, resulted in deaths.

The answer to the hunger strike is to do what Obama has belatedly committed himself to do: transfer cleared detainees to other countries as quickly as possible, waiving whatever restrictions Congress has imposed, and to put other detainees on trial, preferably in civilian courts which have been much more effective in handling terrorism cases than the makeshift military tribunals. It also might help if ending the “war on terror” was made an issue in the congressional elections in 2014.

In summation, to return to the metaphor of drug abuse: The American political system is far from clean. It still wants a security “fix” from time to time. But the dosages are down and declining. This gradual withdrawal is making the patient healthier albeit slowly. Yet there remains a big danger of a relapse.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).

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17 comments on “The Halfway ‘Obama Doctrine’

  1. William Shanley on said:

    Policy, policy, policy. What ever happened to international law and simple morality? Anyone who has studied the so-called War on Terror, and is not beholding to controllers of purse strings, fear of ego-shame, or more serious squelching, knows that psychopaths who control our government are creating what they’re looking for. History reports that Osama bin Laden, Carlos the Jackal, Josef Mengele, Ilyas Khamzatovich Akhmadov (the Chechen terrorist who when granted US asylum gave Zbig Brezezinski “the happiest day of my life”) and a long list of other madmen have been incubated, controlled by, or otherwise had intercourse with the rotten elements of the CIA, the Deep State, the Rogue Network, the Secret Team, the Parallel Government–take your pick. Terrorist one day, freedom fighter the next, terrorist again. When will we ever learn to see the spin cycle you’re in?

  2. Carroll on said:

    We have ridden the tiger so long now we don’t know how to get off. As the prophet Nathan told king David “The sword will never leave your house.” After sending violence all over the world it is now coming home.

  3. Dennis Brasky on said:

    Robert Parry’s defense of Obama is the ultimate in lesser evilism. Let’s call it by its proper name – “the more effective evil.”

  4. Mark Stephens on said:

    This piece, like countless others analyzes well the the speech from several perspectives. However, repeatedly missing is the BASIC CAUSE of attacks on the US and NATO countries: our presence and occupation of foreign countries, propping up and arming despots and undemocratically-elected rulers, to “protect” US interests (businesses) and plunder resources like oil and minerals. When that is addressed we are on the road to a secure state and world peace. Other countries like China protect and expand their businesses and national interests partnering with other countries without wars, conflict and military operations.

  5. calzone on said:

    What this analysis is missing is a simple appreciation for the fact that we could stop ALL the killing if we wanted to. Going from the mass murdering Bush administration to the slightly less mass murdering Obama administration is progress, I suppose, but only in the same way that it is progress when a serial killer slows down his rate of killing innocent people.

    What Obama failed to acknowledge in his Bush-like introduction to the speech the other day is that when were attacked on 9/11, it wasn’t like it just came from nowhere, as if we were some innocent victim minding our own business. We had already been meddling in the Middle East for decades, killing and starving Iraqis, oppressing the Palestinians, occupying Saudi Arabia, etc. 9/11 — if you believe the official story — was retaliation for our decades of US-sponsored violence in the Middle East.

    So how did we respond? With more violence naturally. Now, Obama has reduced the slaughter a bit, and we are supposed to be grateful for this “progress”?

    Only in a madhouse like the USA would that be considered progress.

    • Eddie on said:

      Exactly ‘calzone’! As Commander in Chief, the POTUS has ultimate control over the non-fiduciary activities of the US Military, so — for better or for worse — he can move troops & materials in and out of places as existing treaties permit. He could give the order tomorrow to start troop evacuation from Iraq, or the Mid-east, or Japan, or Guantanamo etc, etc. That’s what pisses me off the most about Obama, his duplicity. He tries to finesse all of this as if he’s being FORCED to do these things! Here he is, the most powerful man in the world (definitely militarily, and arguably economically), and yet he’s playing it (at least in the media) as if his hands are tied, like he’s a low-level bureaucrat in central Kansas or somewhere. If some wife-beater down the block claimed that he was reducing the beatings to his family down to once a week instead of every other night, most of us would know that it was still too much. But when it comes to nameless/faceless people in foreign lands (especially those with darker complexions), killing 1/2 as many innocent people is considered laudable.
      And yes, I realize he can’t get legislation passed by himself, but I’ve seen better bargaining abilities on some of those hokey cable-TV ‘reality’ shows. Obama ‘pre-haggles’ his offer to BELOW what he expects his opponent to offer (maybe hoping to disorient them??), and then claims he had no choice, with his health-care package being a prime example. He takes a strong hand (especially in 2009) and virtually turns it into a loser. I suspect that he’s just taking the path of least resistance and timing any controversial things to happen pretty much at the end of his 2nd term.

  6. William Shanley on said:

    Sorry about the error… The name should be Klaus Barbie, not Josef Mengele. Here, with correction:

    Policy, policy, policy. What ever happened to international law and simple morality? Anyone who has studied the so-called War on Terror, and is not beholding to controllers of purse strings, fear of ego-shame, or more serious squelching, knows that psychopaths who control our government are creating what they’re looking for. History reports that Osama bin Laden, Carlos the Jackal, Klaus Barbie, Ilyas Khamzatovich Akhmadov (the Chechen terrorist who when granted US asylum gave Zbig Brezezinski “the happiest day of my life”) and a long list of other madmen have been incubated, controlled by, or otherwise had intercourse with the rotten elements of the CIA, the Deep State, the Rogue Network, the Secret Team, the Parallel Government–take your pick. Terrorist one day, freedom fighter the next, terrorist again. When will we ever learn to see the spin cycle you’re in?

  7. Berry Friesen on said:

    Poor President Obama. He’s trying so hard to reduce the level of violence but those crazy Muslims keep blowing stuff up and those war-loving right-wingers keep holding his feet to the fire and those impatient lefties keep demanding perfction before they’ll be happy. Sigh

    What a classic exasmple of false framing, Robert Parry.

    Truth is, President Obama is working off the same list of targets for regime change (Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Syria, Iran) that President Bush put together 12 years ago, but prefers special ops and CIA field ops to troops on the ground.

    The illegality nor the moral repulsiveness of the policy hasn’t changed, nor the level of violence, but only the number of Americans who die.

  8. elmerfudzie on said:

    The selection and election of Obama by powers unseen was and is predictable. Obama’s formal education in constitutional law was not reflected in his senatorial voting record (Illinois) and further, he despised constitutional law and has a well known close affiliation with Cass Sunstein, in my opinion, a bill or rights felon. Now, in terms of the Office of the Presidency it must be pointed out that the occupier is not identical to the office itself. The office too was compromised and long ago by money changers or in today’s vernacular by banksters. In order to defeat the aspirations of these dark powers it will require that the public at large promote bartering methods, bit-coining, or issue state coinage and or other legal tender currencies. These actions collectively quash the plans of the money changers and their influence over the office of the presidency. The powers unseen are represented by such officials as Senator(s) Rockefeller and Simpson who with the aid and influence of Chase, Morgan and other large banks, conspired to liquidate our national wealth and destroy the economy. By manipulating both the office of the president and the men who occupy that office, President Clinton and his successors merged speculative holdings with investment groups. Obama is merely a shadow, a figure head, in a centuries long and projected effort by the Rothschild’s of this world to control the education level and politics of our great nation. To paraphrase Jay Rockefeller himself; the internet should never have existed. This memorable comment translates into the fact that citizens at large have come to acquire true knowledge and at the same time, avenues to free themselves from the long standing privileges held by banking cartels. In short, the gigs up gentlemen.

  9. F. G. Sanford on said:

    Without going into particulars, I listened to an analysis of the “Obama Doctrine” speech by Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Law. Essentially, by applying legal standards and laying out the facts as they actually stand, it is clear that not only have policies NOT changed, they have been cloaked in language more deceptive but retain the same insidious objectives.

    We refuse to accept, discuss, identify or acknowledge any of the actions that we have taken which might help to answer the question, “Why do they hate us”? We are Goliath. It is not unreasonable to assume that, sooner or later, a David will emerge. Until we are willing to entertain the idea that injustice begets retaliation, we will remain in a state of perpetual war.

    What we witnessed in this speech was “left cover” for the same agenda, with no intention to address the root causes of this self perpetuating dilemma. It was the “smiley face” of American imperialism. It reminded me of Chrysler’s strategy many years ago. They put the optimistic son of immigrants, an American success story from hot-dog stand beginnings to corporate CEO celebrity, Lee Iacocca, on the campaign trail to resusscitate the brand. Has anybody seen a Chrysler “Imperial” lately?

    Maybe we can keep playing whack-a-mole and prevent another American tragedy, at least until the next election, with our drones. Maybe we can evaluate those detainees, as The President said, “on a case by case basis”. Let’s just pretend that eighty six of them haven’t already been cleared on that basis, and pretend to “look forward, not backward”.

    Maybe it’ll work. In the meantime, I’ll be hoping David doesn’t get his hands on anything more destructive than a sling. As far as Consortium News is concerned, I’ve had just about enough of “Fair and Balanced”. We can get that at Fox.

  10. Terry Washington on said:

    All I can remind Obama’s absolutist critics on the Left is to recall John F.Kennedy’s reminder that “we must deal with the world as it is and NOT as we would like it to be!”( Georgetown University address of June 1963)!

    • Snake Arbusto on said:

      Except that the US is responsible for the world being as it is. Its ceaseless efforts at control, from Alabama in the 1830s to Syria today, have turned the world into an armed madhouse, as Greg Palast puts it.

      • Billy Butterfield on said:

        An armed madhouse, madhouse, madhouse. Footfalls echo in the hallway. Madhouse. The cats are feasting on an angry bluejay. An armed madhouse. Burning bright. Burning bright. What immortal hand or eye dare dare dare Not mad but evil evil evil like the shadow of Monsanto that falls across the world

  11. hammersmith46 on said:

    Just another well crafted, moderately well delivered, speech. Words, signifying little or nothing. The sock puppet has performed once again.

  12. Snake Arbusto on said:

    “Yet, instead of investing in a media apparatus that can begin to counter what the Right has created, many on the Left seem content to berate Obama for his imperfect strategy.”

    A fundamental point has been missed: The “Left” that is not investing in a media apparatus to counter the one the “Right” has put in place does not have the resources to do so, and the “Right” that controls the media has (some would say “is”) those resources and does not intend to give them up. And those resources stem directly from global domination by violent means. The rest is, as you put it, just a matter of strategy.

  13. W McMillan on said:

    This is one time I have to disagree with you Mr. Parry. This president is a wimp! He would rather continue the Bush policies than do his job which is to defend the Constitution! So what is the Right gets on him, if Mr. Obama can’t stand the heat, then get out of the freakin’ kitchen! We gave Mr. Obama 4 years to get this right; he is now into his second term and the promise of “change you can believe” is still unfulfilled.

    What I find most disturbing is everyone is so spun up about Islamic extremists, but I have seen very little written about WHY these folks are so radicalized. People don’t just wake up one day and say, “let’s go wack some Americans”. This is the result of our policies! Until we are seen as a real leader of real freedom for ALL people, we are going to reap what we sow.

    BTW, if I had been held as long as some of those folks in Gitmo and I haven’t been charged with a crime, I’d be pretty radicalized too. I may not resort to violence, but I would be talking trash about the U.S.A.