In a series of interviews with Jefferey Goldberg in the April 2016 Atlantic, President Barack Obama provided a much-needed and sober reappraisal of the limits of American power and a realistic view of U.S. foreign policy based on a careful assessment of priorities, or what Goldberg calls the "Obama Doctrine." The heart of the president's approach is the rejection of the "Washington Playbook." Obama told Goldberg, "there's a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It's a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses." (1) According to the Playbook, military power and the "creditability" it provides is the principle instrument of American foreign policy; it has been accepted wisdom at think tanks and among foreign policy experts since the end of World War II; Obama has challenged this dictum.
The president's refusal to bomb Syria after the Bashar al-Assad regime used chemical weapons on civilians was a clear violation of the "Washington Playbook." Initially, the president seemed to be playing by the rules. Using a very familiar vocabulary, he had warned Syria that the use of chemical weapons would be crossing a "red line," a move that would almost certainly invite U.S. retaliation. When Assad crossed the line by firing sarin-filled rockets on the rebel-controlled town of Ghouta in August, 2013, the president's secretary of state, John Kerry, made a dramatic speech calling for military action. Within days of Kerry's speech, the president geared up for airstrikes. But, at the last second, he pulled back and decided to look for other options. Before authorizing the use of military force in response to Assad's chemical attacks, the president first asked Congress to weigh in (congressional leaders overwhelmingly rejected military action as did most of the American public). (2) As the debate raged on Capitol Hill, the Obama administration entered into a round of negotiations with the Russian and Syrian governments to allow the U.N.'s Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to inspect, remove and dismantle Syria's vast chemical weapons program. The "Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons" was ratified by the U.N. Security Council on September 14, 2013, and, over the course of the next year, U.N. weapons experts destroyed 600 metric tons of chemicals used to make sarin, mustard gas, and other blister agents. The Syrian chemical weapons program was removed without firing a shot (the timing was very fortunate; much of Syrian territory that was later overrun by ISIS contained chemical weapons stockpiles and facilities prior to the U.N.'s work to eliminate them). (3)
Before the ink could dry on the U.N. resolution, however, critics attacked the President. The day the U.N. ratified the framework, Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker, ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said "absent the threat of force, it's unclear to me how Syrian compliance will be possible under the terms of any agreement." Three days later, Senators John McCain (R-AZ) made a similar statement: "I wish I could see the recent agreement between Russia and the United States to rid the Assad regime of its chemical weapons as a major breakthrough." During remarks at the quintessential foreign-policy think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., he went further: "Let's recall that this Russian initiative first arose as both houses of Congress appeared ready to reject the President's proposed military strikes in Syria, which called into question how credible that threat of force really was. So it is hard to maintain that the Administration entered into this agreement from a position of strength. No one trusts Assad's sincerity. And there is little reason to have more faith in Russia, especially when President Putin himself still insists that the Syrian opposition was responsible for the August 21 attack. This is why enforcement is so critical. Unfortunately, the Administration's claim that the threat of force remains on the table rings somewhat hollow in light of the events of the past few weeks." Others characterized Obama's handling of the Syrian situation as a "debacle," the president's "worst blunder." Gideon Rose, the editor of Foreign Affairs said "first casually announcing a major commitment, then...