Ever since The Atlantic published an interview with former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton suggesting that President Obama’s reluctance to employ strong measures in foreign affairs (say, by providing arms to moderate Syrian rebels) has placed the United States in greater danger than it might be otherwise (as shown by the rise of ISIS), pundits and politicos of all varieties have been debating the validity of her claims. That debate has gained further intensity with the recent atrocities perpetrated by ISIS. Supporters of the president say he has wisely avoided US entanglement in yet another Middle Eastern quagmire; critics say his restraint has emboldened America’s enemies. In most of these conversations, Obama’s guiding principle—“Don’t do stupid stuff”—has been ascribed to his personality rather than to a calculated assessment of America’s best interests in a dangerous and unforgiving world. As Clinton notably put it in her interview, “‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” But Clinton is wrong: “Don’t do stupid stuff” is shorthand for a totally sound organizing principle—one with deep roots in US strategic thinking.
Obama first used this expression to describe his approach to overseas military entanglements (though his exact words were “Don’t do stupid shit”) while speaking with reporters aboard Air Force One during a trip to Asia in April. The United States, he explained, faces few genuine threats to its national security but many lesser challenges that risk becoming major nightmares once US troops are sent into the fray. “Why is it,” he observed in Manila, “that everybody is so eager to use military force after we’ve gone through a decade of war at enormous cost to our troops and our budget?”
Obama elaborated on this approach in his May 28 commencement address at West Point. While there are many threats to peace and freedom around the world, he indicated, this does not mean “that every problem has a military solution.” In fact, “some of our most costly mistakes came…from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences—without building international support and legitimacy for our action; without leveling with the American people about the sacrifices required.” While there may be some exceptional circumstances that justify military action, this should be a last resort, after all nonviolent means have been exhausted, and should only be undertaken with the full support of the American people and the international community.
This is the outlook, Obama said, that has guided his thinking on possible US involvement in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. While concerned about the rise of ISIS, and fully prepared to authorize some limited measures—such as providing light weapons to moderate Syrian rebels and conducting limited air strikes against ISIS positions—he is unwilling to approve any steps that could lead to protracted US military involvement with little public or international support.
One might argue that Obama should authorize stronger military measures—as some, including Senator John McCain, have been urging—but what cannot be said is that “Don’t do stupid stuff” fails the test of a coherent organizing principle. On the contrary, the Obama strategy provides a coherent framework for deciding on the use of military force, distinguishing between clear-cut threats to vital US interests, which may require full-strength military action, and secondary threats, which are best addressed through diplomacy, economic sanctions and, in extreme cases, collective military action of a limited, carefully calibrated nature.