The “Obama Doctrine”: The Wisdom and Lawfulness of the President’s Take-No-Prisoners Approach

Posted in: Military Law

The United States military has scored successes in a number of recent high-profile missions: the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden; the drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki; and the air support for Libyan rebels that led to the overthrow and death of longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi.  Taken together, these and other operations form the outline of President Obama’s overall approach to the use of American military force, what we might call the “Obama Doctrine.”

In a nutshell, the Obama Doctrine emphasizes air power and surgical strikes, rather than boots on the ground.  In this column, I shall sketch the Obama Doctrine’s emerging contours and raise both strategic and legal questions about its long-term prospects.

What the Obama Doctrine Is Not: Weakness and Insistent Multilateralism

No catch-phrase can adequately describe the overall foreign or military policy of any President or Administration, but certain key features sometimes stand out.  As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush, General Colin Powell came to be associated with the “Powell Doctrine,” which held that American military force should only be used as a last resort, where victory is clearly defined, and an exit strategy identified in advance.  The “Bush Doctrine,” associated with President George W. Bush held, among other things, that the United States would use military force against gathering threats, rather than only against imminent ones.  The Powell Doctrine and the Bush Doctrine were respectively executed in the first and second Iraq wars, with respectively more and less success.

Is there an “Obama Doctrine,” and if so, what is it?  Commentators on the right seem determined to paint President Obama as fundamentally multilateralist and reluctant to use force to defend American interests.  Thus, in a July 2011 article offering their own definition of the Obama Doctrine, Douglas Feith and Seth Cropsey criticized the President’s reluctance to provide military support for the Libyan rebels without prior United Nations authorization as reflecting Obama’s true commitments.  In so doing, however, they dismissed examples of Obama’s unilateralism—such as the operation against bin Laden—as pragmatic, politically motivated, exceptions.

Likewise, in the wake of the rebel victory in Libya, conservatives who insist on seeing Obama as weak have praised Britain and France for their leadership, while downplaying Obama’s role, even as the United States provided the lion’s share of NATO air power in Libya.

Obama’s conservative critics are not entirely wrong in their description of him.  He is less unilateralist than the second President Bush and, chastened by a decade of blood and treasure sacrificed in Afghanistan and Iraq, he is also less inclined than his immediate predecessor to use military force in ways that hold substantial potential for entangling the United States in long-term conflicts.  But if one removes the partisan blinders, these actually appear to be virtues of President Obama’s foreign policy, not vices.

Indeed, looking back over the last quarter-century of American foreign policy, it is tempting to categorize Obama with the first President Bush and President Clinton, while treating the second President Bush as the outlier.  Bush I, Clinton, and Obama all were more multilateralist and more cautious in their use of force than Bush II.

Defining the Obama Doctrine

If Obama’s foreign policy represents the modern norm, rather than the exception, in what way is it distinctive?  The emerging answer is that more than his predecessors, Obama has emphasized the use of “surgical” force in the form of special operations and drone strikes, rather than ground troops.  True, Obama increased troop strength in Afghanistan, but he inherited that war, and the move was intended to be, and will likely end up being, temporary.  And just last week, the President announced his intention to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of the year.

The Libyan operation reflects Obama’s approach to new conflicts.  Obama waited for international buy-in, including, crucially, from the Arab League. However, once the U.N. permitted the use of force, Obama moved aggressively, even to the point of adopting a dubious interpretation of the War Powers Resolution that permitted him to avoid going to Congress for authorization for continued air support for the rebels.  But even as U.S. planes provided tactical air support, no American forces took part in ground fighting.

As limited as it was, the Libyan mission involved more U.S. force than the typical new military engagement we are likely to see under the Obama Doctrine.  Gaddafi was almost uniquely despised in the Arab world, hated by secularists and Islamists alike; by democrats and even by other dictators.  Yet even given that context, it was only through skillful diplomacy that Britain, France, and the United States were able to persuade Russia and China not to exercise their Security Council vetoes against the Libya no-fly zone resolution.  The perfect storm that led to the Libyan mission will not recur often.  (The American troops recently sent to Uganda to assist in battling the Lord’s Resistance Army constitute too small a force to call this conclusion into question.)

The Libyan mission does highlight a central feature of the Obama doctrine: Reliance on air power.  Although President Bush initiated the policy of using unmanned drones to fire on suspected Taliban and al Qaeda forces, the Obama Administration has dramatically increased its scope.  Likewise, although Navy Seals touched ground in Abbottabad to kill bin Laden, they swiftly came and went by helicopter.

The Benefits and Costs of the Obama Doctrine

The benefits of the Obama doctrine should be obvious.  Relative to the alternative of ground operations involving large numbers of American troops, the surgical use of air power puts many fewer American lives at risk.  That is first and foremost a direct benefit, but there are indirect benefits of this approach as well.  With a small “footprint,” the U.S. need not play the role of occupier of foreign lands—a role that inspires insurgencies and general hostility.  And smaller missions cost less, thus freeing up resources for other foreign and domestic priorities.

Yet the Obama doctrine is not without its costs.  Even with smart-bomb technology, raining death from the skies causes what we euphemistically call “collateral damage,” that is, civilian deaths and injuries.  Sometimes the actual targets are accompanied by civilians, including children.  Other times, faulty information leads to drone strikes against the wrong targets, killing innocent civilians or our own allies.  The U.S. military makes efforts to minimize collateral damage and the occurrence of mistakes, but these efforts are not foolproof.  American drone strikes in Pakistan are extremely unpopular, and not just among people who were already predisposed to hostility to the United States.

Moreover, some of the efforts to minimize errors and collateral damage expand the U.S. military’s footprint: American “spotters” on the ground assist piloted or remote-controlled aircraft in identifying targets.  Presumably having more spotters on the ground increases the accuracy of American targeting, but it also correspondingly increases the American ground presence.

There are also risks associated with a small footprint.  Osama bin Laden may have escaped capture in Tora Bora during the early days of the Afghanistan war because the U.S. military commanders outsourced too much of the fighting to unreliable local warlords.  Likewise, the Iraqi insurgency took hold in the months after the toppling of Saddam Hussein in large part because the U.S. had too few troops in country.

Furthermore, even when air power or special operations achieve their immediate objective, boots on the ground may be needed to achieve larger strategic goals.  Libya will be a test case.  In the wake of the rebel victory, will the Transitional National Council swiftly establish a democratic government, or will the country descend into civil war?  If the latter occurs, will NATO, including the United States, feel some obligation to try to intervene further?  If so, then the distinction between Bush-style nation building and Obama-style push-button warfare may prove illusory.

The Obama Doctrine also raises a host of domestic and international legal questions.   These include questions about what sorts of military actions constitute “hostilities” under the War Powers Resolution, as well as questions about targeted killings (like the ones raised by my fellow Justia columnist Joanne Mariner).  The recent leak of the gist of the Office of Legal Counsel memorandum finding legal authority for the al-Awlaki killing only intensifies these questions.  As I noted in a blog post, the Obama Justice Department tried, in the memorandum, to walk a tightrope between the war paradigm and the crime paradigm for fighting terrorism on a global battlefield.

More than a decade after 9/11, our government still has not figured out how best to fight terrorism, promote the national interest, and safeguard human rights while, at the same time, respecting the law.  Perhaps those goals cannot all be achieved without compromise.  This much, at least is certain: Even if the Obama Doctrine proves superior to what came before it, it remains a work in progress.

Posted in: Military Law