08/11/2014 08:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Obama Tactic

American aircraft are once again waging war over the skies of Iraq. President Obama, as many have pointed out, is now the fourth United States president in a row to order some form of military offensive in Iraq. As always, plenty of critics immediately popped up to loudly explain what the president was doing wrong. The usual characters on the right demanded a much more intensive military action, the ones on the left warned darkly about slippery slopes and possible blowback, and the American people seemed to heave a sigh of resignation, in a "here we go again" moment.

One big complaint about Obama's action (or lack thereof) was that it failed to fit into some unifying overall Middle East strategy. This can be summed up in the form of a question: "What is the Obama Doctrine?" Where is the logical, rational explanation of what American stands for in this volatile region of the world? Why can't Obama just go on television and soothe the nerves of the country by putting it all into some sort of comforting narrative?

What this largely ignores is that the United States has never had much of an overall cohesive strategy when it comes to the region. Or, to be more accurate, we've never had an all-encompassing realpolitik plan that ever goes much beyond the crassest and most self-serving of goals. But the American people don't really want to hear that our country only stands foursquare behind an ideal that (to put it mildly) is not very idealistic at all. America's Middle East policy is actually quite simple, and can be expressed in a very short statement: "Whatever it takes to keep the oil smoothly flowing." And that "whatever" encompasses a whole lot of things we don't exactly proudly teach schoolchildren in history class.

As I said, this is not the sort of thing Americans want to hear in presidential addresses, but that doesn't make it any less true. America stands for democracy in the Middle East... when it is convenient to keeping the oil reliably flowing. America stands for Sunnis... unless the Shi'ites control the oil. America stands for freedom of religion... except when those who control the oil are ruthless theocrats. America stands against dictators, strongmen, and monarchies... except when they're our friends, who control the oil. America stands for human rights... except where it isn't convenient, and would embarrass our friends. America stands against genocide... except where we have to look the other way in order to keep the crude flowing. We stand strongly against funding terrorism... unless it is our so-called friends who are doing so, in which case we completely ignore it.

This can be seen as a very cynical way to put things -- I realize that. But, again, it doesn't make any of it any less true. Consider just two examples, if you will. The first is Iraq under Saddam Hussein. In the 1980s, we were quite friendly towards Hussein, and sold him weapons to use against the Iranians. In the 1990s, we fought against Hussein after he attempted a land grab in Kuwait. In the 2000s, we fought Hussein again, for no good reason other than the president didn't like Hussein very much. Throughout it all, it was the same Saddam Hussein, with the same basic governing policies and the same basic government structure. He didn't change -- we did. Or, for those who are still skeptical, consider the fact that we like to pat ourselves on the back for standing up "for democracy" and "against Islamist regimes," but our oldest and strongest friend in the region is actually one of the most theocratic governments ever seen. Is Saudi Arabia, after all, any sort of poster child for democracy and human rights? Ask any modern Saudi woman, if you need more proof.

Those are just two easy examples. Our policy in the Middle East has never been one of logic or high-minded idealism. For a good chunk of the twentieth century, our policy towards the Middle East was the same as our policy everywhere else in the world: you were either with us, or you were with the dirty communists. Countries were either seen as "pro-America" or "pro-Russia," and the entire planet's chessboard of countries were assigned one color or the other. But again, this had little to do with supporting anything in the Middle East other than our own self-interest. Our self-interest back then expanded from "keep the oil flowing to our markets" to also include "don't become communists," but that was all. Since the fall of communism, our policy has returned to its original pure state: as long as the oil flows, we are happy. Everything else is a minor consideration, really.

That's not something that any American president is ever going to publicly admit, however. It sounds far too cynical and far too selfish to be called any sort of proud American foreign policy, after all. To put this another way: those now calling for an explicit "Obama Doctrine" are going to be disappointed. Obama doesn't really have a doctrine for the Middle East, but then no previous president has ever really had one either (at least not with any sort of internal logical consistency, other than keeping the oil flowing), so it's not quite as bad as some are now making it sound.

Many have criticized Obama's handling of the "Arab Spring," mostly because it was so inconsistent. But what previous president could have reacted to events on the ground with any sort of moral clarity? All the other options America had at the time would have either put us squarely in the corner of protecting some very unpopular dictatorships, or supporting the people of a country who then turned around and elected people we didn't approve of. The situation was so messy (like many are in the region) that there was no clear path that didn't make it obvious that what America really stood for wasn't human rights or democracy or any other high-flown ideal, but instead stability. Valuing stability over all else leads us to prop up dictatorships, in other words. Which we've never really had a problem doing, but then we've never really had to face the wrath of the people in countries who value a few things more than just "cheap gas for American drivers."

The inside-the-Beltway chattering classes love to speak about presidential "doctrines." This hearkens back to the granddaddy of all foreign policy pronouncements, the Monroe Doctrine. Boy, those were the days, eh? "The Western Hemisphere is our playground, and Europe can just back the heck off!" Now that was a doctrine for the ages! All the way from the early 1800s to the Cuban Missile Crisis, this was a cornerstone of American foreign policy. Nobody asked the peoples of Central America what they thought about it, of course, but it did set a singleminded direction for the United States and the European powers for a long time to come.

Barack Obama may end his presidency with no clear doctrine attached to his name. Many have attempted to define what the "Obama Doctrine" actually is (myself included), but Obama's ultimate doctrine may be that he is not actually all that doctrinaire about American intervention, especially military intervention. He's much more situational than doctrinal, in other words. This is actually what the American voters wanted, and is one of the big reasons why Obama was twice elected to lead us. By the time George W. Bush departed office, America was war-weary and disillusioned about the ease of warmaking in the Middle East. We wanted to get out of Iraq, and we didn't support starting or participating in any other war in the region, either.

We still don't. Polls show it. The American public isn't exactly strongly supportive of Obama's foreign policy right now, but one thing the public really doesn't support is getting involved with any of the various conflicts raging over there. We are still -- again, according to the polls -- a pretty war-weary nation.

President Obama knew this when he first took office, and he knew it when the Arab Spring erupted. When, all of a sudden, multiple countries saw uprisings of their own people against their own governments, the United States was presented with numerous conflicts we could have entered. We didn't, though (except for one, which I'll get to in a moment). We allowed some governments to brutally crack down on their own popular uprisings, while we allowed some dictatorships to be overthrown -- all of whom were nominally our "friends" in the region (compare the difference between what happened in Bahrain with what happened in Egypt, for instance). As long as the oil tankers kept reliably and safely sailing, we were generally permissive of the outcome, whatever it turned out to be.

There is one big exception: Libya. In Libya, we did actively participate in an armed revolution. The hawks complained that we "led from behind," and the doves complained we shouldn't have done anything, but President Obama did send American warplanes to back one side of an armed conflict. This is when I wondered if the Libyan intervention would become the "Obama Doctrine," personally (although in my own defense, after the war was over, I did back off from this definition).

Libya was a pretty spectacular success for the American military. If that sounds strange, I'll even take it a step further -- George W. Bush's initial invasion of Iraq was also a pretty spectacular success for the American military. When given a clear mission, the military in both cases responded well and delivered the desired result. Within a very few weeks, Baghdad had been pacified and Saddam was on the run, in hiding. The Iraqi military had collapsed. Americans were in complete control of the country.

In Libya, the American military succeeded in doing something which had long been held to be impossible: they won a war solely by using air power. Now, that is a gross overstatement for a couple of reasons, but it will still likely go down in military history books as an example of one particular way America can wage war. It took months instead of weeks, but ultimately it was successful. But it's overstating the case to call it the "Obama Doctrine."

In Iraq, things immediately fell apart after our stunning military success. Most of this can be laid at the feet of L. Paul Bremer, and his two disastrous decisions in post-war Iraq: disbanding the Iraqi army, and completely "de-Ba'athifying" the government. If different policies had been announced immediately after the conquest of Baghdad, a very different outcome might have happened, and a lot of American soldiers might not have died in the years to follow. But then hindsight is always 20-20, isn't it?

In Libya, we never really tried to set up an occupation government, since our military strategy had been so hands-off in the first place. The rebels on the ground were the ones who did the actual fighting -- there were zero American "boots on the ground" in the conflict, and as a direct result there were also zero American deaths during the war. This also left it to the rebels on the ground to create a new government -- a project which has, so far, failed spectacularly.

In both countries, things fell apart. One doctrine which might have prevented this was articulated by Dennis Kucinich when he ran for president. Instead of (Kucinich proposed) America always doing "nation-building" as an ad hoc exercise, why not create a cabinet-level "Department of Peace"? Get some experts together who have studied what has worked before, put them together with people knowledgeable about countries we go to war with, and plan ahead for what happens after the war is won. The State Department is not really up to the task, so create a separate department devoted to the creation of new governments in other countries, so that we can offer any advice necessary should we be called upon to help set up new governments around the world. But the Kucinich Doctrine has never really been seriously considered by anyone in power, so this also falls into the Monday-morning quarterbacking category.

Getting back to the current problem and the current American military situation, though, few have so far realized that Obama is trying to do in Iraq exactly what he successfully accomplished in Libya -- turning the tide of a low-grade war through the introduction of American air power to the battlefield. Let those who have the biggest vested interest fight the war on the ground -- and not American troops -- but help out those we deem worthy by dropping precision bombs on those we deem unworthy. It's putting our thumb on the scale, in the hopes that it will be enough to tip the balance.

In some ways, this military philosophy is the antithesis of the "Powell Doctrine," which was usually stated as: "If America enters a war, we should do so with overwhelming strength -- something on the order of 10-to-1 in America's favor." Obama waging limited air war in concert with troops on the ground (be they Libyan rebels or Kurds) is diametrically opposed to the "overwhelming strength" ideology. Limited strength can achieve limited military results -- which is about all the American public has an appetite for, these days.

But again, it is overstating the case to call this a "doctrine." Even in military terms, it would be a stretch to call this the "Obama Strategy," since the word "strategy" connotes a wider view than just limited airstrikes. It is not a doctrine -- because Obama is awfully leery of applying it in every situation. It is not even really a strategy -- because any realistic strategy for combating the I.S.I.S. (or I.S.I.L., or I.S.) forces would also have to include airstrikes within Syria. The only thing to call what the president has now announced in Iraq (and what he successfully achieved in Libya) might just be the "Obama Tactic."

As with any tactic, it might achieve limited gains (especially in the military sphere). But it also is only tactical -- it's not going to solve all of Iraq's problems, just like it didn't solve Libya's problems. Even if Obama is persistent and manages to push the jihadists back into Syria, the Iraqis are still going to have a whole lot of intractable political problems to figure out on their own. Whether they manage to do so or not is not one of the goals the Obama Tactic can solve -- nor, really, should it be. Unless we're ready to occupy the country again, which the American people most definitely would not support.


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