May 29 3:10 PM

The Obama doctrine: Anti-war or forever war?

President Barack Obama arrives at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York to deliver the commencement address to the 2014 graduating class May 28, 2014
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty

At West Point on Wednesday, President Obama made a strong case for the limited ability of military might to solve problems — or enforce American will — around the globe.

“To say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution,” he told a class of graduating cadets. “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”

Billed as a major foreign policy address, Obama’s remarks tried to plot a centrist path his administration has trod before: neither interventionist nor realist. It was Obama the follower of Niebuhr, rejecting moral absolutism (and, it seems, the doctrine of humanitarian military intervention), but stiffening his view of a complex world with a tall shot of American exceptionalism.

Writing for Vox, Max Fisher described the moment as perhaps “one of the most dovish foreign policy speeches” by a president since Dwight Eisenhower or Jimmy Carter. The headline went further, declaring Obama’s speech “the most anti-war foreign policy doctrine in decades.”

But whether you saw the speech as the clearest articulation of Obama’s foreign policy in his six years in office or an ex post facto attempt to square the squiggly circle of ad hoc reactions to crises abroad, it did not stake out an administration policy that was anti-war so much as it embraced the new conflict America has been fighting since 2001.

The Bush administration’s “Global War on Terror” may have ended in name, but America’s shadow war has a full head of steam.

“For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America, at home and abroad, remains terrorism,” Obama said.

Included in Obama’s remarks was an announcement of a $5 billion “Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund” that — according to a White House factsheet — would broadly finance Defense Department intelligence and special operations activities, foreign allies’ counterterrorism efforts and State Department diplomatic programs.

The fund, if appropriated by a skeptical Congress, would become the fifth counterterrorism account in the Defense Department’s budget, according to Gordon Adams, an American University professor and analyst with the Stimson Center.

The fund would fall under the White House’s Overseas Contingency Operations budget — the de facto funding mechanism for the Obama-era war on terror — which is not capped like the Defense Department’s own budget.

It is tempting to view the current era as a retraction of American force from around the world. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are ending, Obama has firmly rejected any chance of new land conflicts, and even the campaign of drone strikes in the Pakistan borderlands appears to be winding down. But it seems likelier that an old mode of war is simply being replaced.

Though wings of the American military, such as the U.S. Special Operations Command, are making reduced budget requests [PDF] in response to a period of relative austerity, funds like the one announced at West Point reflect the ongoing support for a new kind of conflict.

American covert forces are actually operating in more nations — 134 according to a recent count by The Nation — than ever before. And they are often running into trouble — just ask Raymond Davis or the commando and Central Intelligence Agency officer who killed two would–be kidnappers in a Yemen barber shop. They are training Syrian rebels in Qatar and Jordan and abducting (or trying to abduct) suspects in Libya and Somalia. Though drones may stop circling over Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, their buzz could be growing louder above Yemen or, perhaps sometime soon, Syria.

This seems to be the Obama model of war, and though it may not cost as much in American lives or dollars, we will likely know far less about why and how the government is carrying it out, and how much it costs others.


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