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The “Obama Doctrine:” A blessing or a curse for the conflict?

The end of the Gaddafi regime in Libya proved that U.S. President Barack Obama’s doctrine of “leading from behind” was a success. But the Obama Doctrine is not only a new approach to war – it extends to foreign policy on the whole, and therefore has already begun to affect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

President Obama (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

When U.S. President Barack Obama decided to let other nations take a leading role during the war in Libya, the criticism was quick to come from every corner. They claimed he was doing too little, that he didn’t consult, that he was scared of using the air power that America had to offer.

What soon became known as Obama’s “leading from behind” doctrine proved to be successful. America supported – but didn’t control – the fighting that was carried out mainly by Libyan rebels and NATO forces from the air.

Even Republicans found it hard not to congratulate the President. Senator John McCain seemed to find his own convoluted manner in doing so when Wolf Blitzer asked him if the administration deserved any credit for Gadaffi’s fall:

Oh, I think they deserve credit. The fact is, if we had declared a no-fly zone early on, we would have never had — Gaddafi would have fallen at the beginning. The second thing is that if we had used our capabilities, the A10 and the AC130, this would have been over a long time ago. But I think the administration deserves credit, but I especially appreciate the leadership of the British and French in this — in carrying out this success.

This is also how the administration functioned during the Egyptian revolution. Minimal involvement. And this is how it’s functioning when it comes to Syria – as controversial as that may be. To that, one can add the steps it’s now taking where America is still engaged in war. Last week Obama announced the pullout of all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of the year. And after the troop surge in Afghanistan he approved at the beginning of his term, now comes what his administration has called the “diplomatic surge” – a massive diplomatic effort to end the war and get troops out by 2014.

The envy of a predecessor

The Obama Doctrine is proving to be so successful, people are starting to say this president might actually understand a thing or two about foreign policy after all. Could it be that Obama has done much more to bring democracy to the Middle East than George W. Bush could have ever dreamed of? If so, he indeed does it in a less violent manner (less violent for Americans, that is).

That’s what it’s all about. Less aggression, less war. Holding back. And although the Obama Doctrine is essentially a new approach to engagement in warfare, it is essentially affecting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well. This, of course, is a different kind of conflict in too many ways to count. As opposed to the Arab Spring, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an ongoing dispute in which one of the sides is a very close American ally. The option of sending American troops here is not on the table.

Therefore, one must understand that the Obama Doctrine goes further than the issue of warfare, but encompasses much of its diplomatic foreign policy. Obama has recognized the recent decline in American power, he has recognized that his problems at home are far more urgent (Occupy Wall Street is ample proof), and he has correctly concluded that America no longer needs to be the world’s policeman, the world’s problem solver.

Taking a step back

And indeed, it seems that in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the President has taken a step back, feeling he no longer has to make immense efforts to solve it, particularly if the locals aren’t even ready for a simple push in the right direction, which he has tried unsuccessfully to execute in the past.

The diplomatic efforts made by the Americans these days are virtually nonexistent. In fact, the only memorable effort of late was the administration’s embarrassing battle in the UN against the Palestinian Authority’s unilateral declaration of independence last month. That was the last time we saw a Mideast envoy come to the region – to persuade PA President Mahmoud Abbas to drop the declaration. Needless to say, this latest effort was not made to promote a process, but to thwart one. And of course, neither Obama nor Hillary Clinton seem to feel the need to visit Jerusalem or Ramallah any time soon.

But can this “holding back” be called “leading from behind?” In contrast with the war in Libya, neither Britain nor France have come forward to fill the vacuum America is leaving. This is obviously because their interests in Israel are much different than those they have in Libya. Most Libyan oil and natural gas is sold in Europe, not in the States. It’s the Europeans who have to worry about stability in Tripoli. And let’s not forget the “special relationship” – Israel, of course, is a different kind of asset to America. Not the natural gas or crude oil kind.

The main advantage – U.S. moving aside

There is a positive side to this doctrine, though, in the Israeli-Palestinian case. America, who has failed in its capacity as a “neutral” negotiator, should leave the room after 20 years of failed talks. If “leading from behind” is the doctrine of choice, not only should America in fact make room for other major European players to take over – but to actually urge them to do so. A fresh lead, with the ability of being truly neutral, could have immense implications for the region.

So far, the only ones to show any kind of willingness to give Israel tough love is Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel wears her dissatisfaction of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on her sleeve. Just yesterday reports surfaced that Germany was reconsidering its sale of a sixth submarine to Israel due to the announcement by Jerusalem that it would be building more homes in the Gilo settlement in the Eastern part of the capital.

Yet there is a flip side to this, of course. And that is the danger that the shedding of responsibility holds in such a flammable region. The choice to simply let both sides beat each other to a pulp until they figure out themselves that it would be better to reconcile probably won’t work in this case.

There is also the danger, that when you take a step back and forgo your responsibility, you no longer have the right to tell your protégé how to act. For example, Israel may feel even more free to keep building settlements, or feel it does not need to fear any backlash for tightening its grip on the West Bank and Gaza.

Who knows, maybe Israel will no longer feel it needs a green light from the White House to attack Iran.

Obama, rightfully so, no longer feels the need to head the efforts in resolving this conflict. His efforts here have failed so far. But he should be aware that “leading from behind,” especially if the vacuum in the front is not filled, could make for a bumpy ride ahead.

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    1. Shelly

      Ami, a very astute assessment of the situation – Obama’s inaction is understandable in light of all the problems he faces at home and the general malaise about his performance till now. Being an Obama supporter I hope his ‘leading from behind’ as well as bringing the U.S. troops home will work to his advantage in the upcoming elections. As you suggested in your post, as far as pressuring Israel and the Palestinians, it seems you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

      Reply to Comment
    2. aristeides

      It gives Obama way too much credit to call his chronic waffling a “doctrine.”

      Reply to Comment
    3. Danny

      An excellent analysis of the state of affairs and the affairs of state. Well thought out and and presented.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Ben Israel

      I recall the giddiness of “progressive” bloggers like Richard Silverstine, MJ Rosenberg and Prof. Dr. Bernard Avishai when Obama was elected. They assured us the Obama would finally be the one to get a total freeze on the settlements and that, being as popular as he was, he would be in a position to impose a peace agreement on the order of what President Eisenhower did in 1957 where he forced Israel out of the Sinai. I told each one of them that, in the end, every President ends up carrying out the same policy which is trying to get Israel to withdraw, trying to get the Palestinians to agree to real peace with Israel, and then, each President in turn, realizing that there is possibility of a peace agreement, simply trying to manage the conflict. Thus, Obama is now the lastest to have gone through the learning curve. It seems “progressive” political thinking is based largely on wishful thinking. They will now “wait until his second term, THEN he will be strong enough…not having to worry about reelection (just like Reagan and Bush!)”.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Dayag

      A “neutral negotiator” means “tough love” for Israel? I question your definition of the word neutral.

      Reply to Comment
    6. aristeides

      There are times when I gotta agree with Ben Israel.

      Reply to Comment
    7. @dayag – then I most probably question your definition of “neutral” 🙂

      Reply to Comment
    8. Dayag

      It seems to me you want someone to force Israel to bend to Palestinian demands. This is not something Germany, nor any country could do, given continued U.S. diplomatic support for Israel at the U.N..

      I do not think you are going to see “tough love” from the U.S. any soon. Most especially before November 2012 given the U.S. Presidential election.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Dayag

      Ami, sincere apologies for the misspelling of your name. It was non-intentional.

      Reply to Comment
    10. @dayag – i agree with you, and have written about this issue many times. even in this post.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Anthony

      The problem with Israel “leading from behind” is that it doesn’t really step back, it keeps supporting Israel diplomatically and financially.

      If it were to cut off aid to both Israel and Palestine until they make peace and abstain on UN votes then this would really be a new approach and worth assessing. Until then, plus ca change…

      Reply to Comment
    12. AYLA

      thanks for this piece, Ami. Want to see the cynic in me emerge? Talk to me about Obama and Israel. The man shifted gears for one reason and one reason only: Jewish American money / reelection. And I think Israel is beholden regardless if they’re still on the payroll, no? I actually can’t help wondering if the U.S. is in bed with Netanyahu on the possible Iran attack, just because it’s hard for me to believe that Israel would go truly unilateral on something that huge. So much for your optimistic reader :). Enjoyed this piece though. Here’s something true that correlates with my wide-eyed, optimistic image: I still believe in this President’s ethical core, empathy, desire to be everyone’s president (perhaps his downfall), and critical mind. Watching what has happened to him convinces me that our system is deeply broken. And per Ben Israel’s comment, I DO hope he can find more freedom in a second term, being less naive, and no longer needing votes. But he’ll still be working with a congress that would rather see him fail than do anything productive. Maybe all this is happening so the people will take back the night (ie Occupy Wallstreet). Which is ironic, because these are the people Obama asked for upon election.

      Reply to Comment