Does America Need an 'Organizing Principle'?

Sometimes an ad-hoc foreign policy gets the best results.
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The biggest news from Hillary Clinton’s interview with my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg was Clinton breaking with President Obama’s cautious foreign policy, specifically in the Middle East. Clinton had harsh words for the White House’s foreign-policy mantra, saying, “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”

This No-Organizing-Principle critique has been made before. During the coup against former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the UN under George W. Bush, attacked the administration’s “incoherent” and “ad hoc” decisions in the region. Fellow hawk John McCain has criticized the “incoherence” of Obama’s policy in Syria. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd describes that policy as “ambivalent” and “flip-flopping.” The best image for one of the administration’s policy paradoxes—that the U.S. is supporting Sunni rebels against a Shiite government in Syria and a Shiite government against Sunni rebels in Iraq—comes from the University of Michigan’s Juan Cole, who likened the policy to a Möbius strip.

So yes, the Obama administration’s approach to the Middle East is tangled and complicated, and appears to lack a lofty organizing principle. The question is: Does U.S. foreign policy actually need an organizing principle?

As John Cassidy notes in The New Yorker, Obama has been wary of employing broad Good vs. Evil rhetoric in his comments on the Middle East:

Obama has conspicuously tried to avoid making generalizations about Islamic extremism, or lapsing into loose talk about a clash of civilizations. In his interview with [New York Times columnist Thomas] Friedman, he described the turmoil in the Middle East in terms of history and economics rather than religion. 'I do believe that what we’re seeing in the Middle East and parts of North Africa is an order that dates back to World War I starting to buckle,' the President said.

Clinton, on the other hand, has spoken wistfully of Cold War-era containment in discussing how to defeat the jihadist threat. “[W]e did have a kind of overarching framework about what we were trying to do that did lead to the defeat of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communism,” she told Goldberg, while making only a passing reference to the misdeeds done from Guatemala to Vietnam in containment’s name. In an interview with Jon Stewart last month, Clinton recommended placing patriotic storytelling about America’s advancement of “human freedom” at the center of a revamped foreign policy.

Faced with the complex and varied forces fueling violence in the Middle East these days, would a (theoretically) coherent organizing principle serve the U.S. any better than an ad-hoc foreign policy?

There’s reason to believe it wouldn’t. After all, it was, in part, the organizing principle of the War on Terror—a framework itself rooted in Cold War thinking about a freedom-hating foe that is America’s opposite—that foolishly led George W. Bush’s administration into Iraq. The 2011 Libya intervention, which seemingly checked all the right boxes for an intervention that advances human freedom—a looming humanitarian catastrophe, a repressive dictator who could be supplanted without boots on the ground, support from the UN Security Council and the Arab League—left Libya racked by factional fighting and hemorrhaging weapons caches that have destabilized the wider region. In this light, those calling for more aggressive action in Syria don’t seem sufficiently concerned with the day after Bashar al-Assad’s potential defeat. In her interview with Goldberg, Clinton lamented the “vacuum” left by American inaction in the early stages of Syria’s uprising. Unfortunately, America is as adept at creating vacuums as it is at filling them. Today’s Libya is a vacuum we helped create, as is the disorder in Iraq that boosted the rise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS’s self-appointed caliph.

The lack of an organizing principle encourages the consideration of each action on its own merits. Arming America’s Kurdish allies in Iraq, for instance, isn’t the same as arming painstakingly vetted rebels in Syria. As Douglas Ollivant, a senior national security fellow with the New America Foundation, told Politico this week, “No one is concerned about the Kurds losing control of these arms on a large scale. That was a big concern with the Free Syrian Army.” Likewise, there is a clearer case for air-dropping aid to Yazidis besieged by ISIS on Mount Sinjar than for sending American planes to help civilians struggling to survive Syria’s brutal civil war. In the words of New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, “Alongside a stronger moral obligation to act than we had in Syria or Libya, we have a clear enough military objective, a more tested ally in the Kurds and a plausible long-term strategy that could follow from intervening now.” What’s more, the American public has consistently opposed escalated military action in Syria, even after the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government (Americans are more evenly split on the wisdom of conducting airstrikes against Sunni militants in Iraq).

There are certainly tough questions to ask about Obama’s policies. If intervening militarily in Syria is too risky, could the U.S. increase humanitarian support to refugees in neighboring countries? If the president believes the idea that arming Syrian rebels could have altered the civil war is “a fantasy,” why is he asking Congress for $500 million to do just that? And his “we’re-protecting-Americans-and-Yazidis” rationale for striking ISIS in Iraq won’t last forever. (As things stand, can America only bomb ISIS artillery if it's pointing north?) If the administration wants to step up attacks on the militant group in support of Iraq’s new leadership, it should probably go to Congress for authorization.

On the whole, though, Obama has been a relatively effective manager of the world’s most dangerous region—without an organizing principle beyond “Don’t do stupid stuff.” He is often careful to consider whether more muscular American intervention would actually make things better, and he tends to work toward his ends with prudent means. Obama’s Middle East strategy may be incoherent, but it makes pretty good sense. 

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Noah Gordon writes for and produces The Atlantic's Politics Channel. 

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