The dangers of Obama doctrine

by Eric Shierman

I have just finished David Sanger’s Confront and Conceal. With the surprisingly hawkish convergence of both Democrats and Republicans following Obama’s inauguration, we have a unique opportunity in this election cycle to think more deeply about American foreign policy without too much election year distortion. New York Times reporter David Sanger’s detailed work is a good place to start; I have long recognized him as the gold standard for foreign affairs reporting.


It is important to remember that American military leadership of the world is a political goal that comes from the left. It was central to the vision of the progressive Republican president Theodore Roosevelt, and it was core to the political philosophy of the first progressive Democratic president Woodrow Wilson. Indeed that is why Neocons so proudly declare themselves Wilsonian torch bearers of FDR’s foreign policy.

The comfortable political categories we have become used to accepting as the norm: a hawkish GOP and a dovish Democratic Party are more of a temporal trend than most people realize. The rise of the New Left and the anti-Vietnam War movement had few ideological roots in a principled pacifism. The Students for a Democratic Society rejected a Cold War against communism because the communists were seen as the good guys. If the thrust of US foreign policy in the 1960s was instead to overthrow right-wing dictators, installing their popular-front opposition, there would be no progressive tradition of opposing the use of American military power. The remnants of the anti-Vietnam War movement within the Democratic Party have always held a keen respect for FDR’s leadership in the Second World War, noting that he allied himself with Stalin to win.

In the post-Cold War world we are seeing the Democratic Party’s temporary anti-war impulses fade away. In no other person is this trend clearer than Obama’s most trusted voice on foreign policy, Tom Donilon. Thus David Sanger starts his account of Obama’s foreign policy with an introduction to this central player few have heard of.

Starting off as a loyal political insider holding the position of Deputy National Security Advisor under Jim Jones, Donilon quickly isolated his boss, cut the respected Marine general out of the president’s loop, stabbed him in the back at every turn with accusations of laziness, and eventually convinced the president to fire Jones and appoint who? You guessed it, himself. While Jim Jones had a healthy, non partisan understanding of the limits of American military power shared by many veterans who have had to live on the working end of our big stick, Donilon has cultivated a career romanticizing America’s role in the world.

Most of Washington knew Donilon as a canny political strategist, and political combat certainly made him tick. But the political world and the foreign-policy world in Washington often operate in different orbits, and what many missed about Donilon was his determination to live in both simultaneously. He dates that decision to one day when he was in his third year of law school and had lunch with Warren Christopher; the deputy secretary of state, whom he had gotten to know in the Carter administration.

“He came to lunch with this book, and he pushed it across the table to me,” Donilon recalled. “He said, ‘Politics is the easiest and most lucrative path for you. But you might consider another path.’” The book was an old copy of Present at the Creation, an account of the remaking of American national security after World War II, by Harry Truman’s secretary of state, Dean Acheson. Donilon took it home and read it several times. (That copy is still on his bookshelf.)

He was hooked. For years, he could be seen carrying a battered L.L. Bean tote bag home, overflowing with ponderous articles on foreign policy and national security.

Sanger goes on to profile the all too often scenario where an interest in foreign policy snowballs into dreams of personal status achievement to become a new Dean Acheson for a new day:

Now he was present at a different creation – the effort to sustain and extend American power in a world of many more diverse threats, and new competitors, that Acheson ever could have imagined. As national security adviser, Donilon was the first person to brief the president of the United States on national security challenges every morning – he kept a precise count of how many such briefings he had done, a habit endlessly parodied by his staff – and relished special missions to deal with the hardest cases.

When President Dwight Eisenhower delivered his farewell speech warning America of the “military industrial complex” he was a different kind of Republican of a foregone era. Perhaps he should instead have warned about those eager national security “experts” who relish the notion of moving our military around the world like chess pieces, but who have never had to point a loaded weapon against another person themselves.

Of course the greatest of all moves the Obama administration made was the raid that took out Osama Bin Laden, but Sanger explains the many aspects to which this administration’s immediate dancing in the end zone has squandered most of the strategic advantages of that operation beyond the mere quenching of America’s thirst for revenge. Given the compartmentalization of Al Qaeda to protect Bin Laden, the considerable amount of intelligence scooped up by Seal Team 6 could have been exploited to decisively devastating effect had most of Bin Laden’s contacts been left unaware of their vulnerability.

Sanger points out, not only how easy it would have been to keep the raid a secret given the Pakistani government’s desire to avoid losing face domestically, but he reveals something that Seal Team 6 member Matt Bissonette’s recent memoir No Easy Day has also confirmed in even greater detail, that the operation was conducted in a way to convince the local neighborhood this was a Pakistani operation, even going so far as to post a fake Pakistani police officer with perfectly accented local language skills to tell spectators “Go back to your houses. There is a security operation under way.” But the problem with having a partisan political hack for a national security advisor is that the advantages of political gain for the president naturally outweigh the broader benefits to US national security in moments like these. The American triumphalism on display just hours after the Seals landed on the USS Carl Vinson did unnecessary damage to our ability to get the already unhelpful Pakistanis to cooperate more in the future:

Never had the military, the strongest institution in the country, been so humiliated since it lost three wars to India. Many turned on Kayani, saying this is what he got for casting his lot with the Americans. “The officer corps was pissed,” one of Obama’s top aides said to me.

And they got even more pissed as the Americans, who had been so disciplined in the months leading up to the raid, made the situation worse with a series of triumphalist-sounding comments. There was a huge and understandable hunger among the media for a play-by-play of the hunt for, and demise of, the world’s most wanted man. As day broke in a stunned Washington, John Brennan was rolled out in the White House press room to describe events that he only understood in fragmentary detail – much of it, as it turned out, suffered from the inevitable wild inaccuracy of first reports. And so a White House that had conducted the raid itself with enormous discipline began to offer contradictory, uncoordinated descriptions of how it went down.

Brennan gave the impression that bin Laden was armed and died in a firefight; almost as soon as the seventy-nine SEALs involved were debriefed, the world learned that only Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, the courier, got off a shot. Brennan said bin Laden used a woman as a human shield; it turned out she actually rushed the SEALs. Brennan described the al-Qaeda leader as living a luxurious lifestyle in his Abbottabad villa. While he lived better than many in Pakistan, the pictures of his apartment actually revealed something closer to squalor. At the Pentagon, top officers fumed at Brennan’s blow-by-blow description of how the SEALs operated; they believed that the former CIA officer had given away operational secrets never shared outside the tribe.

This is of course all ironic given the way the Obama administration has threatened to censor Bissonnette’s book which discloses no trade craft, only the facts about what happened on the ground. Sanger points out that the real damage, that was completely unnecessary, was to US-Pakistani relations:

The reaction in Pakistan grew uglier and uglier with every revelation of how long the operation had been planned and how the country’s leadership was deliberately kept in the dark. The White House pushed back, arguing that the real violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty was committed by bin Laden, who ran his terror syndicated from inside the country for nearly a decade. But it was to no avail. By Wednesday of that week, Gates went to see Donilon, offering up a barbed assessment of how the White House had handled the aftermath of the raid.

“I have a new strategic communications approach to recommend,” Gates said in his trademark droll tones, according to an account later provided by his colleagues.

What was that, Donilon asked?

“Shut the f*ck up,” the defense secretary said.

Sanger reveals a dangerous pattern emerging as an Obama doctrine. Like the old African proverb popularized by Teddy Roosevelt, “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” Sanger’s title for his book, Confront and Conceal, reflects a tendency for Obama to be less outwardly aggressive in his public dialogue on foreign affairs than his predecessor while at the same time making Bush seem risk averse by comparison by Obama’s eager approval of what is perhaps the most daring escalation of covert operation tempo in American history.

The most serious example of this is Obama’s unflinching use of perhaps one of the most dangerous nonconventional weapons whose unintended consequences will eventually harm us more than any of our enemies: cyber warfare. When we think of cyber security, we primarily think of intelligence gathering, not destruction, not killing, but Sanger reveals in remarkable detail how Obama authorized the use of a powerful computer virus, created during the Bush administration, to be employed in devastating new ways never before seen. Once Sanger broke this story for the New York Times, the implications became so serious, even one of Bush’s most aggressive intelligence officers, General Michael Hayden, was willing to go on record telling Sanger:

“This is the first attack of a major nature in which a cyberattack was used to effect physical destruction. And no matter what you think of the effects – and I think destroying a cascade of Iranian centrifuges is an unalloyed good – you can’t help but describe it as an attack on critical infrastructure.”

“Somebody has crossed the Rubicon,” Hayden observed. “We’ve got a legion on the other side of the river now. I don’t want to pretend it’s the same effect, but in one sense at least, it’s August 1945,” the month that the world first saw capabilities of a new weapon, dropped over Hiroshima. That was a deliberate overstatement – this was a weapon of precise destruction, not mass destruction – but Hayden’s point was an important one. In the hands of others, it could become a weapon of mass destruction.

If you think this is just messing with peoples’ computers, think again. The US was able to override Iranian controls causing their centrifuges to blow up, killing people. For those of you who want us to strike Iran; we already have. But by using a computer virus, we face similar collateral damage as had we released a biological virus. The Stuxnet virus, then spread out into the global economy:

In the spring of 2010, the White House, the NSA, and the Israelis had decided to swing for the fences. They had a specific, large array of centrifuges at Natanz in their sights – a critical array of nearly a thousand machines whose failure would be a huge setback for the Iranian project. A special variety of worm was developed that would go into Natanz. The program was supposed to detect the presence of the centrifuge controllers and deploy itself. The Israelis had put the finishing touches on the ingenious program.

As American officials later reconstructed events, an Iranian scientist had plugged his laptop into the controllers at Natanz, and the worm hopped aboard. The bug had identified the network it was on – the centrifuge system – and began to do its work. But when the laptop was later unplugged from the secret network and reconnected to the Internet, the worm apparently did not recognize that its environment had changed. That’s when things began to go haywire.

“The program began to think of the internet as its little, private network,” said one official who was briefed on what went wrong. It started propagating its code. Suddenly, the secret worm that the Americans and Israelis had invested millions of dollars and countless hours perfecting was showing up everywhere, where it could be picked apart.

If you recall, the problem with biological warfare is twofold. First the weapon can spread uncontrollably. Second, and perhaps more dangerous, anyone can then collect a sample and easily replicate more of them. Similarly a computer virus is not like a bomb that goes off without leaving a trace as to how to build a copy of it. With the Unites States now having engaged in offensive cyber warfare beyond the pale of anything that has ever been done before, having developed a computer weapon more advanced than anything ever seen before, anyone in the world with an interest in having this capability now does. The cyber security arms race now involves terrorists or other potential enemies of the United States developing their own modifications of our own Stuxnet virus; it’s as if the act of dropping the bomb on Hiroshima had itself automatically spread the knowledge how to make another one. As a cyber security expert told Sanger: “Now that Stuxnet’s in the wild, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist. You’ve got a blue print of how to do it.”

In this new found love of our vast covert tools employed on the tactical level, the Obama administration seems to be cavalierly ignoring the strategic costs they involve. In the case of offensive cyber warfare, our economy’s vulnerable dependence on networked computers gives us far more to lose by normalizing this covert use of viruses against a country we are not formally at war with, particularly if its use inherently involves its proliferation.

In the case of drone strikes, the same strategic thinking is lacking. There is a tactical rational for the use of drones that tries to operate under a new norm that assumes that in any country you would not want to bomb with airstrikes on a regular basis because that would be an act of war, it is perfectly reasonable to routinely fire guided missiles into that same country from pilotless aircraft. Obama has dramatically increased the use of drone strikes far beyond where even the Bush administration feared to tread. Bush authorized 40 covert drone strikes over the course of two terms. By the time Sanger’s book went to print, Obama had authorized 265. He’s come a long way baby – from the Church Committee as Sanger asks:

What is the difference – legally and morally – between a sticky bomb the Israelis place on the side of an Iranian scientist’s car and a Hellfire missile the United States launches at a car in Yemen from thirty thousand feet in the air? How is one an “assassination” – condemned by the United States – and the other an “insurgent strike”? What is the difference between attacking a country’s weapons-making machinery through a laptop computer or through bunker-busters? What happens when other states catch up with American technology – some already have – and turn these weapons on targets inside the United States or American troops abroad, arguing that it was Washington that set the precedent for their use?

While there are great dangers the US now faces from Obama’s covert operations, our constitutionally limited government faces its own danger in his overt disregard for getting a congressional authorization to engage in hostilities in Libya. Obama became the first President to violate the War Powers Resolution (WPR), and surprisingly few care.

Where are the peace protestors of 2003? There were many combat deployments during the Bush years beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, and Bush sought and received authorization under the WPR for all of them –  even when congress was controlled by Democrats. Imagine if Bush had intentionally blown Congress off on just one of them, for say the deployment of forces to Djibouti on the horn of Africa for example; there would have been an uproar, even among Republicans who still value the Constitution. Under the WPR the President has a deadline of 60 days upon the commencement of hostilities to get a congressional authorization. Prudence has always dictated that presidents get authorization before committing troops into harm’s way lest he have to withdraw them 60 days later if the vote fails in Congress. Obama did not bother seeking authorization before we began bombing, or before the 60 day deadline came and went.

Sanger notes what a strange reversal of roles this all was where “a Democratic president who had castigated Bush for exceeding his authority now took the position that the president could authorize this kind of action on his own authority.” Given the many Republicans in Congress like John McCain eager to push this Libyan authorization through, it’s hard to fathom why Obama so needlessly set a very dangerous precedent that surly none of my progressive readers wants to see exercised by future Republican presidents. Obama’s only effort to justify his actions is very revealing:

To justify the mission in Libya to the public, Obama chose one of Bush’s favorite locales: the National Defense University. It was here that Bush would regularly go to announce a new strategy for what he termed “victory” in Afghanistan and Iraq, to reliably enthusiastic military crowds. Obama had a trickier task. He had to effectively counter both those who wanted him to stay out of Libya altogether and those who demanded that he go in all the way by taking the lead in NATO and declaring outright that the real goal was regime change. He had to explain a strategy that looked to much of the world to be summed up by the phrase “halfway in.”

Obama charged Ben Rhodes, his talented young adviser and speechwriter on national security, with finding the words. Rhodes returned to the principles about the use of force that Obama had described when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize.

At the National Defense University, Obama scanned his audience. They were mostly military – burdened by two long wars, multiple tours, extended deployments, and no clear victories. It was time to convince them that US involvement in Libya was necessary, but that it could also be sharply limited.

“Mindful of the risks and costs of military action, we are naturally reluctant to use force to solve the world’s many challenges. But when our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act,” the president told them solemnly.

For the next half hour, Obama waxed on about the strength of the NATO alliance, the unusual nature of the Arab League’s call for action, and the legitimacy of the UN mandate. He never used the exact phrase “responsibility to protect,” but he justified US action based on that doctrine. He suggested that, under the circumstances, inaction would have been a betrayal of “our fellow human beings.” Although Libya did not threaten Americans’ safety, Obama made the case it threatened our values. “Ultimately, it is that faith – those ideals – that are the true measure of American leadership.”

This doctrine of the responsibility to protect has been consuming the brain power of left-wing think tanks’ foreign policy shops since the Clinton administration chose not to intervene in Rwanda, a doctrine that has taken firm root at the Brookings Institute and the Center for American Progress. The most influential advocate for it has been Samantha Power, now Obama’s Special Assistant to the President running the National Security Council’s Office of Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights. The problem with this doctrine is the bottomless pit of obligation it hoists upon the US taxpayer and American troops to go far beyond the protection of our own homeland security and intervene in every endless ancient blood feud around the world. As Sanger points out, the application of this doctrine very quickly puts America’s credibility on the line when we are unable to articulate a believable answer to the question. If we intervened in Libya why not Syria?

It was the next part of Obama’s speech, though, that would cause his staff to do backflips as the scope of the horror in Syria unfolded later that year and into 2012. “To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader – and more profoundly – our responsibility to our fellow human beings under such circumstance would have been a betrayal of who we are,” Obama continued. “Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”

Many places in this world are downright nasty, and we are all going to have to dig deep into our paychecks to finance a doctrine that holds the United States responsible for providing the negative rights of life, liberty, and property to everyone on this globe. Yet after blowing so much of our national wealth on these interventions, our ability to actually socially engineer these societies towards Lockean liberalism remains futile.

In his third debate with Obama, which will be entirely devoted to foreign policy, Romney needs a win not a draw. It’s hard to see how he can get one arguing whether or not the word “terror” was used the day after our ambassador was killed in Libya. If Romney can defend the US Constitution in front of a national audience by holding the President to account for violating the WPR when we made common cause with Al Qaeda in overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi in the first place, Romney has a chance to turn the policy area where Obama is polling highest, into a weakness, creating the kind of deer in the headlights moments we saw in the first debate.

There is an element of Dr. Strangelove in Obama’s doctrine of the carefree use of covert operations followed by the carefree leaking of that fact to the press to make the President seem strong on foreign affairs. Romney has been at his best when he shows how the Obama administration’s intervention into our domestic economy has recklessly made it worse. If he can do the same to show how releasing the Stuxnet virus and trigger happy drones have made our national security worse as well, an even less expected second debate victory could amount to an October surprise.

Eric Shierman lives in southwest Portland and is the author of A Brief History of Political Cultural Change. He also writes for the Oregonian’s My Oregon blog.