In the system of checks and balances, the latter has a mythical ability to weigh equally competing and quantifiable government actions. In reality, balance usually exists to prevent the adoption of a singular strategy. State’s rights versus federalism, security versus liberty, isolationism versus internationalism, liberalism versus conservatism. Each of these exists on a weighted scale that tips up and down as the United States confronts international crises. Even now, the United States is weighing whether France’s unilateral assault on ISIS warrants a multilateral response from United Nations member states.
Over the past seven years, President Obama has readjusted the scales to favor military strategies over diplomatic solutions to world affairs. At a press conference in Antalya, Turkey on Monday, President Obama reiterated a “comprehensive strategy” to fight ISIS; a strategy that includes the “military, intelligence, economic, development, and the strength of our communities” but ignores the possibility of a diplomatic solution in Syria. The president’s preference for military solutions conflicts with earlier promises to end President Bush’s wars, increase government transparency, and favor negotiations. What has caused the Obama administration to pursue such an unbalanced foreign policy?
Filmmaker David Holbrooke’s new documentary about Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, called “The Diplomat,” reminds viewers just how much Obama Administration’s grand strategy is guided by the president’s deliberate historical amnesia.
Holbrooke began his career as a Foreign Service Officer during the start of the Vietnam War as a civilian representative for the Agency for International Development in South Vietnam. Refusing to make decisions from inside the embassy, Holbrooke dove waste deep into the big muddy, there to witness American strategies spiraling into chaos. Military policies made by armchair strategists in Washington, he discovered, resulted in the deaths of countless civilians.
It was in Vietnam that Holbrooke first witnessed a disconnect between distant military decision-makers in Washington and the disastrous campaign on the ground in Vietnam. He understood that diplomatic solutions could prevent the kind of blind standard operating procedures that resulted in staggering civilian casualty rates. He saw firsthand what historian Nick Turse explains as a policy to “kill anything that moves.” This strategy, which led to atrocities like My Lai, taught Holbrooke about the consequences of an unrestrained military. “I think I do know the nature of the problem [in South Vietnam] now,” he wrote during the war, “and I’m constantly amazed that so many military men who have been here for so many months can so miss the facts in front of their eyes.” He left Vietnam with an appreciation for political and economic solutions to international affairs and sought to rebalance the scales in favor of diplomacy.
Holbrooke’s diplomatic outlook shaped his Foreign Service career during the Carter and Clinton administrations, but in particular during the Bosnian War between 1992 and 1995 where he championed the Weinberger Doctrine. U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger delivered a speech in 1984 where he laid out the criteria that should be used when deciding whether to resort to military force. Determined to overcome the Vietnam Syndrome, the Weinberger doctrine insisted that force be used only when it served the vital interest of the U.S. and its allies, that there be a clear strategy and exit plan, and that it be used only as a last alternative. Holbrooke’s understanding of the Weinberger doctrine allowed him to support NATO’s intervention as he simultaneously conducted diplomacy to reach a peace settlement. Some said that he should have won the Nobel Peace Prize as chief architect of the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the Bosnian War in 1995.
Even President Obama seemed to have initially agreed with Holbrooke’s diplomatic-military balancing scale. In December 2009, President Obama spoke about the balance between war and peace in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. The president emphasized the importance of diplomatic, economic, and political solutions to international crises in order to prevent military action. Nonetheless, the prevention of war and the preservation of peace requires a fine balancing act. “So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths,” the President Obama remarked, “that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly.” The speech made clear that diplomacy was paramount and that military solutions were justifiable as a last resort. The Nobel ceremony appeared to open a new era of diplomatic relations as Obama joined the ranks of Weinberger and Holbrooke.
When the president sat down in the Oval Office he discovered the challenges unique to a Commander-In-Chief. Left with two wars in the Middle East, GITMO, a global war on terror, unconstitutional surveillance programs, and other foreign policy issues, Obama struggled to create a grand strategy that both fulfilled his campaign promises and defended national security. He chose the latter. The public, academics, journalists, and politicians alike compared many of Obama’s foreign policy decisions to those made during the Vietnam War.
The President and Ambassador Holbrooke experienced generational differences that prevented an effective foreign policy dialogue about the consequences of the Vietnam War as an instructional guide for how to handle the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “In the early [National Security Council] meetings with the president,” Holbrooke’s voice is heard in the documentary, “I referred to Vietnam and was told by Hillary that the p
resident did not want any references to Vietnam.” Although he admitted a global “ambivalence about military action today,” and a “suspicion of America [as] the world’s sole military superpower,” during his Nobel Prize speech, Obama sought to avoid comparisons between his own foreign policy decision-making and those strategies used during the Vietnam War. By avoiding the Vietnam comparison, President Obama decried the historical lessons that he earlier championed during his Nobel Peace Prize speech.
“The Diplomat” superbly covers Richard Holbrooke’s extraordinary life, but it’s also a poignant commentary on Obama’s contemporary approach to U.S. foreign policy. Despite being a Nobel laureate, President Obama chose and continues to choose military solutions to world crises. Obama once championed diplomatic solutions such as negotiation, but soon thereafter chose to meet with the Secretary of State for only an hour each week. His daily schedule consistently lists meetings with top military commanders.
“In some ways,” comments Ronan Farrow near the end of the documentary, “[Holbrooke’s] was a practical critique of a system that he saw swinging away from the civilian side and towards power being in the hands of the military side.”
The French aerial bombardment seems justified to those who remember the terrorist attacks on American soil. Yet, the Obama administration should approach these types of crises with prudence lest we revert to President George W. Bush’s strategy of shock and awe. “We don’t believe U.S. troops are the answer to the problem,” the president’s national security advisor, Benjamin J. Rhodes, said after the attacks in Paris. The question remains: how can diplomacy flourish if the military has the president’s ear? Diplomacy isn’t the act of doing nothing; diplomacy rejects vengeance to allow for multipolarity, multilateralism, and pluralism. Diplomacy seeks to prevent killing “anything that moves.” President Obama should study diplomatic history under the long shadow of his Nobel Peace Prize until he finds the answer to one question: “When will they ever learn?”
Article originally appeared on History News Network