The Obama Doctrine and the Limits of Violent Rebellion


I say and say again that the Obama doctrine of foreign policy is just peace pragmatism.
I know that President Obama eschews the notion that there is a theory or a doctrine that provides a structure for his foreign policy and lends it coherence. He sees a messy and unpredictable world in more detail than most ordinary people. He knows that each situation is unique, that as commander-in-chief of the largest, most powerful military of the most powerful nation on earth, he cannot be constrained by the contours of abstract theory. The most he is willing to say regarding a defined doctrine is: Don’t do stupid stuff.
However, President Obama pronounced a doctrine consistent with just peace theory in his 2009 Nobel Lecture. I wrote about that then, so I will not repeat that analysis except to say that the fundamental elements of just peace theory remain evident in his thinking. (
In remarks on his administration’s approach to counter-terrorism delivered at MacDill Air Force Base, President Obama explained seven key points in a counter-terrorism strategy: perspective; no over reach; values and the rule of law; fight terrorists in a way that does not create more terrorists; transparency and accountability; diplomacy; and upholding civil liberties.
In my interpretation of just peace theory there are three main pillars – truth, respect, and security. When we keep terrorism and terrorists in perspective, when we realize that terrorism is an asymmetrical tactic of warfare used by the weaker force, we are looking at the situation with true eyes. When we are transparent about our own actions and hold ourselves accountable for our actions, the power of truth becomes a benefit.
Further, in a post-truth, post-fact, political climate, it is more important than ever that we are honest with ourselves and with the world. Facts do not stop being facts because they may or may not cohere with our ideology or the political spin we want to put on an issue. Wisdom teaches us that the truth will out. Thus, policy ought to be driven no only by the right perspective on the capabilities of terrorists, but it is important to recognize facts and the limitations that constrain even great powers.
Respect, the second pillar of just peace theory, means a respect for the dignity of human beings, nature and creation. Such a respect requires us to maintain the best of our values of equal justice and the rule of law. We know what justice is because we know what injustice is. Little children know this when they say: “it’s not fair.” I believe that we could solve most of the problems of the world in the morning if we would only treat every person the way we ourselves would want to be treated, if we allowed everyone a full measure of fairness.
This also means that we remember that the fight against terrorism is a means to an end and not an end in itself. President Obama told us that in using drone strikes against terrorists that there is a possibility of civilian casualties and that precautions are taken to prevent this. Yet, the hard truth is that drones are no different than any other weapon. The missiles they fire do not have a particular individual’s name on them. They are indiscriminate. Sadly, they are sometimes necessary for security’s sake.
While we correctly think about the nation’s security in terms of armed police and military force, security also comes through diplomacy and civil liberties. It is imperative for a nation and its leaders to be secure in themselves in order to stand with confidence before the world and seek peace, not through a power-over logic, but through a power-with logic. Diplomacy, therefore, is not weakness, and the call for universal human rights and civil liberties across the globe is another way to insist upon justice.
I still describe President Obama’s doctrine as just peace pragmatism because he is more interested in practical problem solving than he is in ideology. He plays a long game. He is interested in actions that are sustainable which means that sometimes he will not act in ways that people expect, in ways that give short-term gratification but lack long term efficacy. His Syria policy is a perfect example of this.
As the world watches the bloody, awful fall of Aleppo in Syria, as we hear the cries for help from children, as we see a city under siege and hospitals bombed, and non-combatants stranded in hunger and violence and the rubble of what was once their homes, and worse, as we hear children with a will to revenge promising to continue the fight when they grow up, we look for someone, some power, some nation or group of nations to make it stop.
Since the leaders of the United States never stop talking about our exceptionalism and how the US is the world’s indispensable nation, many people in the world look to the United States to solve the problem. Our own pundits and commentators have bought into the notion that the President of the United States has the power to make it all better. If things are bad, it is because he did something wrong or failed to do something. Yes, the president of the United States in powerful, but not all powerful.
President Obama recognizes this and has – in my opinion correctly – remained restrained in his response to the events in Syria.
Russia and Iran are propping up the Assad regime. The United States has given some military aid to what it considers “moderate” rebels. We spent millions of dollars training around 10 rebel fighters. We have Special Forces on the ground in Syria and we have flown thousands of airstrikes helping to fight Daesh, an entity we consider a threat to the United States. The United States has sent millions of dollars to Jordan and Turkey to help with refugees. President Obama has not put US forces into the fight against Assad.
His critics say that he showed weakness when he did not bomb Assad after Assad used chemical weapons against his own people. I say: President Obama was right not to bomb Assad, especially since Secretary of State John Kerry was able to broker a deal with Russia where Assad gave up most of his chemical weapons. For all intents and purposes Assad’s chemical weapons of mass destruction no longer exist and cannot fall into the hands of terrorists.
For President Obama’s critics, this is not enough. They seem to think that a shot across the proverbial bow would have deterred Russia, Iran and Assad from the kind of brutality we see today. Dream on. The interests that Russia and Iran see in propping up Assad are stronger than a few pin-prick airstrikes.
Besides this fantastical thinking, consider what President Obama’s critics are suggesting. They are saying that one man alone ought to have authorized an attack upon a sovereign nation that had done no harm to the United States without UN authorization, without Congressional approval, with only one ally – France– willing to join us in the operation. The Parliament of the United Kingdom refused its consent. The European Union and The Arab League were split and therefore silent.. Germany was not going to join the fight. I am happy that President Obama walked back from setting such a precedent. This refusal helped to clarify the limits of presidential prerogatives when it comes to unprovoked attacks against a sovereign nation.
The situation in Syria also helps us to see the limits of armed rebellion. If the crisis in Syria teaches us anything it is that the United States and Europe are not coming to fight alongside rebel groups in the Middle East unless there is a clear threat to their own nations. One hundred years ago, T.E. Lawrence was in the desert with a coalition of Arab tribes fighting the Turks during World War I. The British promised them independence and a chance to establish their own nation. The politics of oil intervened and rather than independence, the Arabs traded their Ottoman masters for British and French colonial masters.
Later, when Syrians rebelled against France, it was France that rained down death and destruction onto Syria cities. Then, European colonial powers wanted control in the Middle East because of the oil. Today, with more economies turning to renewable fuels – electric or hybrid cars, solar and wind energy – the need for oil is less. As the old saying goes: the Stone Age did not end because the world ran out of rocks. Similarly, the age of oil and fossil fuels is coming to an end. The powers that be in the Middle East forget this at their own peril.
The people of Syria are faced with choices. The rebels can surrender at the risk of mass killings as Assad seeks to annihilate his enemies. They can continue a low grade resistance with weapons supplied by other Sunni Arab countries for years into the future. They can lay down their weapons and choose non-violent resistance. Assad can agree to some kind of power sharing that allows him a face-saving exit strategy from power, or he can fight until every inch of Syria is under his iron-fisted control. The question is: how long will Russia and Iran stick with him and at what cost? He can choose to continue a repressive regime where people are working day and night for his overthrow by any means necessary. In this postcolonial moment, the choice and the responsibility rests with Syrians – not President Obama, not the United States of America, not the United Nations or the rest of the people of the world.
I hope and pray that the fighting will end, and that the Syrians will find a way to peace and reconciliation.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of and author of “Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.”

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