Conclusion: Last night President Obama began to define his foreign policy in more detail following the U.S. military’s involvement in the Libyan no-fly zone. Ironically, the Obama doctrine sounds a bit like the Bush doctrine, albeit a little less granular. The fiscal risk is that we could be entering a phase whereby military spending ramps up with ambiguous goals, which is negative for the deficit and U.S. dollar.
“Well, this is a new Obama doctrine that you act on threats, remember that’s what George Bush did.”
- Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio)
President Bush’s foreign policy wasn’t fully defined until certain events helped him define it. Specifically, the events were the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil on September 11th, 2001. Shortly thereafter, President Bush began to outline the Bush doctrine in a speech to a joint session of Congress on September 20th, 2001 with this statement:
“We will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.”
The Bush Doctrine was eventually codified in a document, the National Security Strategy of the United States, which was published on September 17, 2002 and stated:
“To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively in exercising our inherent right of self-defense. The United States will not resort to force in all cases to preempt emerging threats. Our preference is that nonmilitary actions succeed. And no country should ever use preemption as a pretext for aggression.”
While Bush’s speech to the joint session more broadly defined enemies and threats to the United States, the National Security Strategy of the United States took the Bush Doctrine to the next level and emphasized the concept of preemptive action against threats.
Based on his speech yesterday, President Obama appears to be maintaining the concept of preemptive activity, though he frames the preemptive actions in Libya with a humanitarian justification, rather than a specific threat to the United States. Specifically, the “refusing to wait” language in his speech from last night, which is quoted below, is a preemptive doctrine by another name. As President Obama said last night:
"To brush aside America's responsibility as a leader and — more profoundly — our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action."
This is an about-face from the views of Senator Obama, while a candidate for the Presidency, when he stated on the campaign trail in 2007:
“The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”
Of course it is somewhat trite to “YouTube” candidate Obama. Obviously, being President has different rules and responsibilities versus being a candidate. In a campaign, the objective is to get elected, while as a President, in theory, the objective is to make the best decision for your nation.
While no doubt President Obama and his cabinet will further clarify the Obama Doctrine and their collective foreign policy actions in the coming weeks and months, a key risk, both with our allies and for that matter with our enemies, is that the Obama Doctrine remains ambiguous. In aggregate, the key questions of: when, where, and why the United States will intervene in foreign conflicts still need to be clarified.
(In fact, the name of the operation in Libya is itself ambiguous: Operation Odyssey Dawn. Whether you disagreed or agreed with President Bush’s foreign policy, the objectives of Operation Iraqi Freedom were, at least, obvious.)
While the speech last night was certainly a step towards clarity on the Obama administration’s foreign policy objectives, Romesh Ratnesar probably summed up the last couple of months of Obama’s foreign policy best when he wrote on March 21st in Time Magazine:
“He supported pro-democracy forces in Egypt and nudged out a regime the U.S. had backed for decades, but has been unwilling to do the same in Bahrain or Yemen. In Libya, his Administration was against armed intervention to stop Muammar Gaddafi before Obama was for it. American warplanes carried out the initial wave of strikes on Tripoli, but Obama's aides insist that Washington is merely following the Europeans' lead. U.S. officials were reticent for days as the nuclear crisis in Japan worsened, then declared the situation to be even direr than the Japanese government had let on.”
To be fair to President Obama, the popular unrest and regime change in the Middle East, as we’ve written, has accelerated at a pace no one could have anticipated. Over the coming weeks and months, President Obama and his cabinet will have the opportunity to refine and clarify their foreign policies, but if the Obama administration is indeed adopting the preemptive philosophy of the Bush doctrine, it will come at a cost.
In the chart below, we’ve outlined defense spending as percentage of GDP and as a percentage of the federal budget going back to the early 1970s. The Clinton presidency was relatively peaceful with limited overseas conflict and therefore defense spending dropped dramatically during that era. Coincident with this drop in spending, although obviously not the only factor, the federal deficit dropped from -$290BN in 1992 to a surplus of +$125BN in 1999. In that same period, defense spending dropped in real dollars from $319BN to $276BN.
With the advent of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, defense spending accelerated dramatically under President Bush and by his last year in office was $612BN. In Obama’s first year in office, 2009, defense spending accelerated again to $655BN.
The risk of an ambiguous and increasingly proactive foreign policy, as evidenced by adding troops to Afghanistan, leading the no-fly zone in Libya, and announcing a foreign policy that is predicated on “refusing to wait”, is that President Obama will continue to grow defense spending during his Presidency. Increasing defense spending, will only lead to an accelerating deficit and with a growing deficit come associated implications.
Daryl G. Jones