A U.S. global strategy in search of an author

For almost seven decades, deterrence was the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy

Hisham Melhem
Hisham Melhem
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Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Empire, U.S. presidents, National Security Advisors, and the strategists who roam the hallways of Think Tanks and Academe have been searching for an overarching strategy to explain and tackle a rapidly changing world, with new shifting centers of power; what to do with the rising economic and political influence of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), how to combat International Terrorism in the era of Globalization and the proliferation of the new media as well as the rogue states that sponsor them. Old questions such as when the U.S. should intervene militarily, unilaterally or with its allies, in conflicts that do not pose direct threats to its core interests gained new urgency, given the mass killings in the Balkans, the Rwandan Genocide, the horrors of Darfur, the slaughter in Syria and the recent Russian takeover of Crimea.

Watching “Putin the Conqueror” strutting mightily in Sevastopol, being saluted by his navy on his first visit to Crimea since its annexation, oblivious and dismissive of U.S. and European protests, and observing Syrian President Assad’s total disregards of U.S. demands not to stage sham elections on the bodies of more than 160,000 thousand Syrians, and looking at Iran spreading its corrosive influence in the Eastern Mediterranean, one cannot but conclude that President Obama is stoically, but wilfully presiding over the decline of American deterrence. For almost seven decades, deterrence was the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy.

For almost seven decades, deterrence was the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy.

Hisham Melhem

In recent years, I found myself while engaging friends and colleagues, liberals and conservative, about foreign policy challenges and demonstrations of either the abuse of the use of military power, or the limits of American power asking the question: Who was the last National Security Advisor with strategic heft? A large number would say Brent Scowcroft, who served in President George H.W Bush’s Administration. Others would mention Zbigniew Brzezinski who served in President Jimmy Carter’s Administration. Some would even go back to President Richard Nixon’s Administration by naming Henry Kissinger. NO one ever mentioned any National Security Advisor since Scowcroft. My unscientific survey, says something about the dearth of strategic thinking among U.S. “strategists” in almost a quarter of a century.

American presidents are prone to articulating ‘Doctrines’ to explain and conduct foreign policy, particularly following major crises or wars. Some of these doctrines were well defined and pursued by more than one president, from the Monroe doctrine aimed at preventing European colonization and/or intervention in the Western Hemisphere, to the Truman Doctrine which committed the U.S. to helping states threatened by Soviet power or communists insurgencies, and later George Kennan’s doctrine of Containment, of the Soviet Union which guided American presidents from Truman until the end of the Cold War. After WWII, almost every U.S. president articulated a doctrine or a grand strategy in various degrees of coherence, and some of them were followed through by succeeding presidents. One could say that the decision by President George Herbert Walker Bush to ‘stand up’ against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was in the spirit of implementing the ‘Carter Doctrine’ which stated that the U.S. will use military force if necessary to defend its national interests in the Gulf.

The ‘Reagan Doctrine’ which dominated the last decade of the Cold War aimed at ‘rolling back’ regimes supported by the Soviet Union in Latin America, Africa and Asia. The way that doctrine was applied in Afghanistan, had devastating impact on the Soviet Union and contributed to its ultimate demise.

President George H.W Bush, who had one of the best foreign policy teams in recent decades, benefitted greatly from the strategic heft and political dexterity of his two close advisors and friends, James Baker his Secretary of State, and Brent Scowcroft, as well as Colin Powell his Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. During that phase of his life, then Secretary of Defense Dick Chaney was a team player, and in fact Cheney supported Bush’s decision in 1991 not occupy Baghdad and topple Saddam Hussein following the liberation of Kuwait. Cheney, as the chief executive of the oil company Halliburton opposed sanctioning Iran and pushed for U.S. oil interests in the Islamic Republic.

The president has become very sensitive to criticism of his policies towards Syria or the Ukraine.

Hisham Melhem

President Bush and his team used limited military force judiciously in Panama in 1989, and built the best and most effective international military coalition since WWII to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991. Watching and covering Secretary Baker building the international coalition, negotiating with the Iraqis, convincing and cajoling Arab leaders including “ Saddam’s buddy (Ali Abdullah) Saleh in Yemen to vote against him at the Security council” as he once told me, was like watching a slow moving tsunami that is not going to be stopped by any obstacle. President Bush’s handling of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany was a milestone in the history of American Diplomacy.

President Bush however, could not use his successes in foreign policy to articulate a coherent Grand Strategy that can explain and guide the U.S. in a changed world. He saw the liberation of Kuwait as a prelude to a “New World Order” for future generations, a “world where the rule of law, not the law of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations”. President Bush did not fully articulate the goals of this concept or how they could be accomplished, and allowed others, particularly critics and foes abroad to paint it as the new form of American hegemony. Most likely, in hindsight the “New World Order” was more of a wishful thinking on the part of Bush or an attractive catchphrase he could not resist.

Madeleine's War

President Bill Clinton’s attempts at articulating a doctrine or a grand strategy were rudimentary and tentative. He could not even come up with an attractive name for his doctrine, known as the “doctrine of enlargement”, which he based on the concept of enlarging the community of market democracies around the world, including the new emerging states following the breakup of the Soviet Union, and embracing free trade, and a greater reliance on multilateral cooperation in handling crisis through peacekeeping missions, and a vague commitment to intervening in international crises if the price is not high. The doctrine of enlargement included also a sub-doctrine to contain and to confront a number of “outlaw states” that not only refuse to join the new family of states “but also assault its basic values.” This doctrine was articulated by Anthony Lake, Clinton’s National Security Advisor in an article he penned in 1994, titled “Confronting Backlash States”, published in Foreign Affairs, the same Journal George Kennan used to publish his famous X article about containing the Soviet Union. The "backlash" states were: Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Iraq and Libya.

President Clinton, resisted intervention in Rwanda, much to his chagrin later, and he was pushed to intervene to stop the mass killings in Bosnia and Kosovo by an outraged world and the strong urging of some of his senior aides particularly his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Secretary Albright’s identification with the war option was so strong to the point that when things went wrong during the fighting, critics within the Clinton’s Administration would called it “Madeleine's War."

George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda

In his Second Inaugural Address, President George W. Bush pledged America to the extremely unrealistic goal of “ending tyranny in the world”. Spreading the “Freedom Agenda” was the antidote to “terrorists' ideology of hatred”. While it was commendable that Bush admitted that the U.S. in the past was in bed with the nasty dictators of the Arab and Muslim world during the Cold War, and did so in the name of stability, the free flow of oil and confronting the Soviet Union, and that he will put an end to this misguided approach, his actual policies undermined his outlandish vision. The whole Freedom and Democracy promotion was irretrievably tarnished because of its identification with the Iraq invasion and subsequent blunders. The dream of building a democracy in Iraq was to be buried later in the harsh Iraqi desert, just as the dream of promoting representative governments throughout the Arab World through multi-party elections, was to be highjacked by the Islamists (including armed factions in Lebanon and Iraq) who kept winning the elections that the Bush Administration were pushing in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq. After these electoral gains by the Islamists, the rhetoric of the Freedom Agenda in Washington began to disappear.

Obama’s inheritance

President Obama won the nomination of his party because of his opposition of the Iraq war, and the election because of the worst economic crisis since the great depression. Obama’s leadership style in managing international crisis and challenges to U.S. interests is colored by his visceral opposition to the use of force except in extreme cases, (and when it is relatively safe and not costly, as we see in his reliance of the use of drones) and most importantly by the lessons that it seems he has overlearned from the two wars he inherited from his predecessor, particularly the Iraq war.

The president, a cautious, contemplative man by nature, would become during tough crisis immobilized by his reluctance to be decisive, and by his tendency to overanalyze risks and options. His disastrous handling of the horrific war in Syria is a case in point. Last summer Obama broke a cardinal rule most American presidents lived by; the President always deliver on his threats. When the Syrian dictator Assad crossed Obama’s infamous “red line “and gassed his own people, the failure of Obama to deliver on his public threat that he will use force to punish the Assad regime, was tantamount to an act of capitulation. This monumental blunder, more than anything else is the reason why Obama’s standing in the Middle East has suffered an irrevocable setback. An American President unsheathes his sword, but would not dare use it against a small time despot engaging in the wholesale murder of his people and turning the Eastern Mediterranean region into a killing zone.

Syria and Iraq

In few days the president will hear the pleas from Mr. Ahmad al-Jarba the leader of the Syrian opposition coalition for more robust support and lethal weapons including shoulder held anti-aircraft missiles. But it is very unlikely that the President will provide such supplies, and will limit the support to logistics, communication gear, food and medicine. There were reports that the US did provide the opposition with American TOW anti-tank missiles, but informed sources said the number was very limited, and the U.S. does not intend to provide any support that could shift the balance of power to the opposition. A cynical view that cannot totally be discredited says that the U.S. would like to see the “moderate” rebels use their guns against the Extremists killers of groups such as ISIS and al-Nusra Front.

Obama was so eager to get out of Iraq that he did not try very hard personally to reach an agreement with the Nuri al-Maliki’s government to keep a U.S. residual force to help check Iraq’s descent towards autocracy or civil strife and to help combat terrorism. That goal was worthy, even for someone who opposed the war. Today, the U.S. is arming an autocrat, who is beholding to Iranian and not American influence, and who is brazenly allowing Iran to arm the Assad regime, and sending Iraqi militiamen to fight along his side against the rebels that the U.S. is helping. Nowhere is the perception, that the President of the United States is timid, tentative, and unfocused as strong as in the Middle East. And yes it is painful but true that some Arab and Israeli leaders treat the American president with contempt, something that I have never heard regarding any previous president.

Words, words, words

Some of president Obama’s speeches on national security and the foreign policy goals he would like to accomplish are memorable and certainly moving. His speeches in 2009 in Oslo when he received the Nobel peace prize, and in Cairo when he called for “a new beginning” with the Arab and Muslim worlds were well received internationally. But the president, when faced with the tough demands of dealing with a whole Arab world in tumult following the beginning of the season of popular uprisings, he flinched and limited his role in that crucial region. Initially the president wanted to engage former enemies like Iran and Syria, pursue peace between the Palestinians and Israel and a “reset” of the policy with Russia. Later, he wanted to “pivot” towards East Asia from the nightmares of the Middle East. Most of these hopes have been dashed, although it is too early to say whether the nuclear talks with Iran will succeed. Some of Obama’s critics would say that he will either accept a deal that may not be accepted by Congress, or he will kick the can down the road, just to avoid a military confrontation.

Will that tight circle be unbroken?

President Obama, notwithstanding his lofty speeches, where he set unrealistic expectations, never managed to articulate a coherent strategic vision for America’s role in a more complex world. One get the impression that the president feels that he has to deal with foreign policy issues, and that his inclination is to ignore the hot crisis or deny their urgency as we see in his lackadaisical approach to Syria. For example the lack of a coherent strategy in Syria that links a resolution of that conflict to the situation in Iraq, that has a component to stem Iranian influence and meddling in Lebanon and Iraq, and the lack of a forceful U.S. leadership in Europe to punish Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, is the reason why the Obama Administration is pursuing a reactive muddling through policies from the Middle East to Ukraine.

Unlike President George H.W Bush, Obama never surrounded himself with strategists from outside his tight circle of advisors who worked with him before he was elected. He values loyalty more than strong unvarnished advice from his aides. Last year when Susan Rice, Obama’s National Security Advisor supervised a policy review to determine America’s future in the Middle East, which ended up with setting a lower profile for the United States, she did so with only about half a dozen of aides from the National Security Council and the White House. She would brief separately both secretaries of State and Defense. This would have been unthinkable for President George H. W Bush, or other president for that matter. President Obama or his staff at the White House kept officials with strategic stature like the late Richard Holbrook and George Mitchell outside the tight little circle of former congressional staffers with little experience in foreign affairs.


The president has become very sensitive to criticism of his policies towards Syria or the Ukraine. He always frame the issues in Manichaean terms; either the use of American military forces, or doing nothing. When he was asked during his recent Asia trip a question about America’s “weakness” he snapped “why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force”, while in fact no serious expert on Syria or Ukraine advocating dispatching American troops.

Recently the President was thinking out loud during a visit to California about his frustration because of the plight of the ”young girls in Nigeria or the children caught up in the conflict in Syria” and how he would like to save them, and what levers and powers to use to do so. Then he added that the use of American power is not enough and it is not the only option. Then, remarkably, Mr. Obama said “by keeping memories alive, by telling stories, by hearing those stories, we can do our part” to save lives.

Mr. President, this is catharsis, not a solution, and definitely not leadership.


Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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