Like a star basketball player, who delights in taking the last shot in a close game, Barack Obama typically gives his best speeches when he’s under the most pressure. True to form, on September 10th, the President gave one of his most effective TV presentations explaining his position on Syria and elaborating the Obama Doctrine.
It helped that Obama’s address to the nation was short and to the point. He presented logical reasons why the US should care about Syria and its use of chemical weapons. He also answered Americans most pressing concerns: Won’t a US strike on Syria inevitably lead to a new war? Is the strike worth doing if the US doesn’t also take out the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad? Isn’t there a great danger of retaliation against the US? Why should the US be the world’s policeman?
A CNN poll taken immediately after the President’s speech indicated it was well received:
61% said they support the president's position on Syria, with 37% saying they oppose his response to the Syrian government's alleged use of chemical weapons against its own citizens.
The crux of Obama’s argument dealt with this foreign policy conundrum: in a situation that cries out for multilateral action, why would the US act unilaterally? Acknowledging that America “should not be the world’s policeman,” the President observed,
for nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security. This has meant doing more than forging international agreements -- it has meant enforcing them. The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world is a better place because we have borne them.
This maxim is the heart of the Obama Doctrine. The United States is exceptional because we are the “anchor of global security.” In many instances where there is multilateral diplomatic support it often comes down to the United States to initiate military action either because our allies lack the wherewithal or because Russia or China blocks action in the United Nations’ Security Council.
The Obama Doctrine focuses on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The President had previously noted that it would be unacceptable for Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon. Now he has extended this prohibition to the Syrian chemical weapons cache. By implication, Obama is also warning North Korea, a state reported to have nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.
The President made it clear the Obama Doctrine does not extend to civil wars in general or incidents of genocide, no matter how egregious. And it does not imply that it is the role of the US to force other countries to adopt democracy. It’s far less broad than the Bush Doctrine that contended the US had the right to invade countries that harbored terrorist groups.
The Obama doctrine has a narrow focus: keeping other nations from using biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons. It argues that we should always seek the support of the world community to enforce this prohibition. But, if they fail to respond, we should act unilaterally, because we are “the anchor of global security.”
In his September 10th address to the nation, expounding the Obama Doctrine, the President made a strong case for military intervention in Syria. But it’s unlikely that he changed the minds of war-weary Americans or members of Congress.
Fortunately for President Obama, he may not have to obtain Congressional support. During the week prior to his address, Obama learned that Russia is willing to negotiate Syria’s surrender of its chemical-weapons stockpile:
Over the last few days, we’ve seen some encouraging signs. In part because of the credible threat of U.S. military action, as well as constructive talks that I had with President Putin, the Russian government has indicated a willingness to join with the international community in pushing Assad to give up his chemical weapons. The Assad regime has now admitted that it has these weapons, and even said they’d join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits their use… It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments. But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad’s strongest allies.
If the diplomatic effort succeeds and Russia negotiates Syria’s surrender of its chemical-weapons stockpile, this action will be seen as a triumph for the Obama Doctrine. It will be said that by threatening US military action, the President goaded Russia, and the UN Security Council, into taking action.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org