Washington Journalist Explains “Obama Doctrine”

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Last Thursday, David Sanger, Chief Washington Correspondent for The New York Times, came to Swarthmore to deliver a lecture that threw his hat into the ring of foreign policy pundits trying to answer the question, “is there an Obama doctrine?”

Two and a half years into the Obama administration, many are looking for a grand narrative about a series of unpredictable foreign policy decisions: increasing troops in Afghanistan, intensifying drone strikes, intervening in Libya, assassinating Osama Bin Laden and the full withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Sanger’s talk, titled “Obama in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan: How a Decade of War and New Technology Have Changed American Strategy,” is based on his research for a successor book to The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power, his 2009 best-seller.

When it was published in the weeks after Obama’s inauguration, The Inheritance reminded its readers that Obama’s foreign policy would be limited by the challenges – namely the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – created by the Bush administration. Regardless of candidates’ campaign promises, he argued, things “look little bit different when they’re sitting in the Oval Office.”

That observation is the crux of his newest argument as well. While Obama made good on his campaign promises by announcing an end to the war in Iraq by 2012 and in Afghanistan by 2014, improved military technologies have empowered the Obama administration to make policy decisions that were impossible during the Bush era – and whose use was impossible to predict during the presidential campaign.

“A raid like the Bin Laden raid,” he explained, “we were not capable of ten years ago for absence of practice. But now – in Afghanistan largely – there are probably ten to fifteen night raids done every single night by American special forces … It looks less like war and more like an episode of CSI – they grab everyone’s hard drives and their cell phones.”

That technology and practice, Sanger says, has led to the unprecedentedly covert use of force by the United States – even in violation of foreign sovereignty.

“There is the sense that you could go in at a low level, sneak into a country, in [the Bin Laden] case go in and spend three and a half hours inside the country without being detected,” Sanger said.

Drones, which have been used in Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan and Somalia, contribute to the United States’ use of covert force.

“Could that change American foreign policy?” Sanger asked. “You bet.”

Sanger argued that the ability to deploy force without putting boots on the ground may lead to a “a consistent level of confrontation that was never seen before.” But just because the United States was the first to the punch in developing drone technology does not mean it will always remain in a club of one. As use of drones expands, he argues, other states will develop or steal the technology and combat their use. He also argued that the use of military action that never touches the ground weakens the imperative for nation building. “No one is talking about the need for the United States to go rebuild Libya the way we talked for years about the United States rebuilding Iraq or Afghanistan,” he said Thursday.

Sanger spoke at 5:30 pm last Thursday in Science Center 183. He also spent an hour with students from War News Radio. The talk was sponsored by the President’s Office and Peace and Conflict Studies and The New York Times‘ Speakers Bureau.


  1. If David Sanger has correctly described and defined the “Obama Doctrine,” it is hideous, inhumane and indefensible; one would like to think that it is a (rather predictable) “doctrine of the generals,” rather than one emanating from the mind of a civilian political leader. Regarding Obama making “good on his campaign promises by announcing an end to the war in Iraq by 2012 and in Afghanistan by 2014”, the Iraq withdrawal was obviously occasioned by 2008 bilateral agreement. And “announcing” a 2014 future event that has not yet occurred is a very weak way of fulfilling a promise — sort of like “pivoting back to jobs” two years late and an incalculable number of dollars short. Curtis Roberts ’75

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