The Obama doctrine
12:05 am | Saturday, May 10th, 2014
“All politics is local.” This is a common saying among US politicians. Former Philippine president Jose P. Laurel said something like this when he wrote in his book, “Thinking for Ourselves,” that foreign policy should project national policy.
Filipinos glimpsed a demonstration of this aphorism during the press conference in Malacañang of President Aquino and his guest, US President Barack Obama, last April 28.
Obama began his remarks by expressing his condolences to the victims of the tornadoes that had just hit his homeland and caused scores of casualties and damaged many homes. It was obvious that he was talking to the American people back home.
On the other hand, Mr. Aquino thanked the US president for the “immediate outpourings of assistance from the government of the United States and the American people in the aftermath of Typhoon ‘Haiyan’ or ‘Yolanda’ and your nation’s clear expression of solidarity with the typhoon survivors.”
As the press conference progressed, it became clear that the American reporters were more concerned about politics back home, while Filipino reporters were more concerned about how the United States would respond to a flare-up of a war between the Philippines and China over conflicting territorial claims in the South China/West Philippine Sea.
Obama was asked by a Fox TV reporter about “unflattering criticisms” in the United States regarding the “weakness” of what he called the “Obama doctrine” in foreign affairs. Obama appeared to be taken aback by the question and responded rather testily. The local press largely ignored this exchange.
“Typically,” Obama replied, choosing his words carefully, “criticism of our foreign policy has been directed at the failure to use military force. And the question I think I would have is, why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget? And what is it exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?
“My job as commander in chief is to deploy military force as a last resort, and to deploy it wisely. And, frankly, most of the foreign policy commentators that have questioned our policies would go headlong into a bunch of military adventures that the American people have no interest in participating in and would not advance our core security interests.”
In effect, Obama is not about to make the same mistakes as his predecessor, who rushed America into war in Iraq and Afghanistan “at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget.” He defended his decision not to go to war in Syria, pointing out that diplomacy had caused it to get rid of its chemical weapons. In Ukraine, the sanctions had isolated Russia, without war being declared.
He continued: “And if you look at the results of what we’ve done over the last five years, it is fair to say that our alliances are stronger, our partnerships are stronger, and in the Asia Pacific region, just to take one example, we are much better positioned to work with the peoples here on a whole range of issues of mutual interest… And that may not always be sexy.” And he attributed this to his diplomacy, which he implied was not as “sexy” as fighting.
Obama disappointed local and US war hawks when he did not commit the US armed forces to the immediate aid of the Philippines in case of war over its territorial and maritime disputes with China. Instead, he urged caution, diplomacy and cooperation.
He noted that the United States has had territorial disagreements with Canada dating back to the 1800s but these did not deter them from having friendly and flourishing trade and economic relations. What is important, he stressed, is for all nations to strictly adhere to international law.
Obama came to US national attention when, as a junior senator from Illinois, he openly criticized Republican President George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. He was elected to the presidency mainly because of the failure of Bush’s foreign interventionism, as well as by the economic recession near the end of Bush’s term. In 2009, Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”
With his popularity rating at 44 percent in April 21-27, according to the Gallup Poll, and facing a congressional election in November, Obama is understandably sensitive to criticism at home of both his foreign and domestic policies. His liberal supporters decry his role in the Nato bombing of Libya, leading to its regime change, and his continued use of drones to strike at “terrorists,” which kill innocent civilians in the process. His Republican critics fault him for being “weak” in responding to political crises abroad.
A smart politician, Obama is probably aware of the growing disapproval by the US public of more foreign adventurism. A poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and the National Broadcasting Corp. last month, in which Americans were asked for their opinion on “America’s role in the world,” showed that 47 percent wanted their country to be “less active,” and only 19 percent wanted it to be “more active.”
Similarly, the Pew Research Center last year found a record 53 percent saying that the United States “should mind its own business internationally” and let other countries get along as best they can, compared with 41 percent who said so in 1995 and 20 percent in 1964, the WSJ reported.
So it is not surprising that Obama was not as combative as local and US war hawks wanted him to be when he faced the Philippine public. He was apparently listening to the “folks back home,” and feeling that the tide of American public opinion was turning toward less “entanglement” (as George Washington termed it) in foreign affairs, and giving more attention to domestic problems of homelessness, joblessness and burgeoning national debt.
Just before boarding Air Force One on his way back to the United States, Obama assured a gathering of Philippine and US troops that the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the two countries was “ironclad.” But he did not say that it did not guarantee America’s automatic military support of the Philippines in case of outside attack, unlike in the case of the US security treaty with Japan. Besides, the RP-US treaty does not cover the territories in the South China/West Philippine Sea.
Even as a survey by the US Pew Research Center shows that Filipinos (85 percent) view Americans more favorably than do the Americans themselves (84 percent), the harsh reality is that Americans now are becoming less concerned with other nations’ affairs, including its former colony, the Philippines. Their politics is becoming more local.
This should push Filipinos to think more domestically as well, as suggested by Jose P. Laurel, a Filipino statesman, patriot and nationalist.
Manuel F. Almario (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a veteran journalist, retired editor and spokesman of the Movement for Truth in History, Rizal’s MOTH.