Almost thirty years ago, in October of 1983, suicide bombers drove trucks packed with explosives into the barracks of US Marines and French Army paratroopers in Beirut, killing almost 300 of them, and 6 Lebanese bystanders.
American forces were swiftly withdrawn. A year later, President Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, gave a speech in which he outlined six key points that he believed should govern the use of American forces abroad. Among them were the stipulations that the troops’ mission should be supported by Congress and the American public, that the forces should have a clearly defined, realistic objective, and that the deployment should come as a last resort, in a situation where American interests were clearly at stake.
Colin Powell, whose career included service as a US Army general, National Security Adviser, and Secretary of State, would later come up with a list that overlapped with Weinberger’s in many ways. Journalists would later dub these the “Weinberger Doctrine” and the “Powell Doctrine.”
Today, President Obama, in his refusal to (so far) intervene in Syria, seems to be putting the ideas of both men into practice. In an interview with The New Republic at the end of January, Obama said that he was wrestling with his own list of questions in regards to the ongoing crisis in Syria and its ever-increasing death toll.
Among these questions were: “where and when can the United States intervene or act in ways that advance our national interest, advance our security, and speak to our highest ideals and sense of common humanity [?]”, and “In a situation like Syria, I have to ask, can we make a difference in that situation? Would a military intervention have an impact?”
Granted, these were public responses in a magazine interview, not an official policy planning document. Nonetheless, Obama’s subsequent reticence to get more deeply involved in Syria suggest that the answers he came up with to these questions were “not in Syria,” “no,” and “probably not, at least at an acceptable cost.” As a politician skilled and dedicated enough to reach the pinnacle of the American political system, he is also no doubt acutely aware that opinion polls suggest the American public is not enthusiastic about getting involved in Syria, either.
With the stated reluctance of the Obama administration to intervene in a direct way in Syria, the downfall of longstanding allies like Mubarak in recent years, and the much-heralded American “pivot” to Asia, some in the Middle East and the US have expressed worries that the US is “abandoning” the region. This talk has been bolstered by the American withdrawal from Iraq, and the impending draw-down of forces from the Middle East.
In terms of actual US diplomatic activity in the Middle East, one only needs to look at John Kerry’s recent bout of shuttle diplomacy between Ramallah, Amman, and Tel Aviv to see that this is not the case, to say nothing of ongoing American efforts to isolate Iran. In terms of American grand strategy, stung by its experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama seems determined to be far more scrupulous than some of his predecessors about following the advice of Weinberger and Powell.
What does this mean for America’s approach to the Middle East? It would be foolish to pretend that we can answer this question at this stage, but there is one possibility that should be considered. Followed to its logical conclusion, if Obama is truly determined to adhere to his own version of the Powell or Weinberger Doctrine (or perhaps a “Powberger Doctrine”?), then the US may shift to a posture of “offshore balancing.”
This term was coined by some international relations theorists from the realist” school to describe a state that mainly stays aloof from purely local disputes, but occasionally puts its thumb on the scale of regional power balances to favor its own interests and allies. An “offshore balancer” only intervenes directly when it perceives its core interests in a region are being directly threatened, as George Bush senior did in Iraq and Kuwait in 1991. Rather than direct intervention, an “offshore balancer” usually acts to maintain or restore a favorable balance of power, rather than trying to transform the political systems of foreign states.
The consequence of this is the criteria to be met to trigger American intervention will be much more closely bound-up in narrow US interests, which means much more chaos will have to be unleashed in any given trouble spot before the US feels it is incumbent on it to act. In the words of the self-avowed “realist” Stephen Walt, a Harvard professor and blogger, this means “a foreign policy establishment that pursues US interests ruthlessly and doesn’t get sidetracked by ideological crusades or the pleadings of special interests.” It remains to be seen if the American tendency to moralism will allow Obama to pursue this course, but his behavior on Syria suggests he is going to make a serious attempt at it.