WASHINGTON, April 11, 2015 — Last week, President Obama described his vision of U.S. international relations and our role in the Middle East. In an interview with the New York Times, he remarked, “You asked about an Obama doctrine. The doctrine is: We will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities.”
Engaging with hostile governments while meeting core strategic needs would better serve American interests than unending sanctions and isolation, the president argues. His sentiment comes specifically in reference to Cuba, Burma and Iran. The administration’s policies reflect his confidence in diplomacy and his trust that openly engaging with other nations will be effective.
Obama emphasized that America needs to have self-confidence to take the calculated risks to open significant new possibilities, “like trying to forge a diplomatic deal with Iran that, while permitting it to keep some of its nuclear infrastructure, forestalls its ability to build a nuclear bomb for at least a decade, if not longer.”
American self-confidence in diplomatic engagement
“We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk. And that’s the thing … people don’t seem to understand,” the president said. “You take a country like Cuba. For us to test the possibility that engagement leads to a better outcome for the Cuban people, there aren’t that many risks for us. It’s a tiny little country. It’s not one that threatens our core security interests, and so [there’s no reason not] to test the proposition. And if it turns out that it doesn’t lead to better outcomes, we can adjust our policies.
“The same is true with respect to Iran, a larger country, a dangerous country, one that has engaged in activities that resulted in the death of U.S. citizens, but the truth of the matter is: Iran’s defense budget is $30 billion. Our defense budget is closer to $600 billion. Iran understands that they cannot fight us.”
President Obama is displaying a confidence in American power that may redefine President Theodore Roosevelt’s well-known motto, “speak softly and hold a big stick,” to “let others speak because they already know you hold a big stick.”
A shift with Sunni Arab allies and highlighting internal threats
The president also discussed an important changing dynamic in the United States’ relationship with its Sunni Arab allies in the region. He emphasized that the Arab nations face external threats, such as Iran, but their internal threats are more real and imminent. There are “populations that, in some cases, are alienated, youth that are underemployed, an ideology that is destructive and nihilistic, and in some cases, just a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances.”
On that note the president explained his view that the American role was “to work with these states and say, ‘How can we build your defense capabilities against external threats, but also, how can we strengthen the body politic in these countries, so that Sunni youth feel that they’ve got something other than [the Islamic State, or ISIS] to choose from. … I think the biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries. … That’s a tough conversation to have, but it’s one that we have to have.”
Openly discussing the internal problems of these Arab nations shows a definite shift in the relationship, particularly with the Gulf Cooperation Council. The United States won’t abandon its allies, but it sends a clear message that they need to clean house to be in American favor, or else America will pursue its objectives by working more closely with their rivals—like Iran. Moreover, the comment on “Sunni youth” reaffirms the policy direction in investing in more CVE (countering violent extremism) programs. These programs have and will continue to focus on Sunni communities.
Obama understands the psychology of the Islamic Republic of Iran
“Part of the psychology of Iran is rooted in past experiences, the sense that their country was undermined, that the United States or the West meddled in first their democracy and then in supporting the Shah and then in supporting Iraq and Saddam during that extremely brutal war.”
Understanding these sentiments, the president instructed his negotiating team to distinguish between the “ideologically driven, offensive Iran and the defensive Iran that feels vulnerable and sometimes may be reacting because they perceive that as the only way that they can avoid repeats of the past.”
Though he is not counting on it, he expressed hope in a change in Iran that moves Iran from viewing itself as a war machine to focusing on excelling in science, technology, job creation, and developing its people, also emphasizing that this should not be based on the expectation of a regime change. American leadership has come to terms with the fact that a regime change in the Islamic Republic is not a feasible policy objective.
“Iran doesn’t need nuclear weapons to be a powerhouse in the region. For that matter, what I’d say to the Iranian people is: You don’t need to be anti-Semitic or anti-Israel or anti-Sunni to be a powerhouse in the region. I mean, the truth is, Iran has all these potential assets going for it where, if it was a responsible international player, if it did not engage in aggressive rhetoric against its neighbors, if it didn’t express anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish sentiment, if it maintained a military that was sufficient to protect itself, but was not engaging in a whole bunch of proxy wars around the region, by virtue of its size, its resources and its people it would be an extremely successful regional power.”
Such open praise of Iran is more than political rhetoric; it suggests a new beginning in American-Iranian relations. Unless there is an awful upset in the negotiations in the next couple months, American-Iranian relations will change for the better and the hostility that once was will be buried.
The Obama Doctrine may or may not last
This style of American foreign policy is not sure to last after this administration. However, if the president’s successors learn from his approach, it could usher in a new era of American leadership in world affairs, one characterized by smart diplomacy backed by an unsurpassed military might. President Obama has displayed a creative use of diplomacy that could boost American soft power and improve relations with isolated countries without sacrificing its traditional military capability.
At the same time, his foreign policies have forced allies to depend on themselves in protecting their sovereignty and national interests, as Iraq is with ISIS and Saudi Arabia with Yemen. The Obama Doctrine tells us that the United States can open opportunities for unlikely nations while maintaining its traditional allies and creating a balance of power in the region.