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.
This is, moreover, a framework that has long been espoused by American military leaders. In particular, Obama’s “Don’t do stupid stuff” harks back to the “Powell doctrine” of 1992, which in turn relied on the “Weinberger doctrine” of 1984.
In a 1984 speech at the National Press Club, then–Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger—like Obama—distinguished between direct threats to US security, which might justify a unilateral response, and more ambiguous challenges, which should be subjected to tough critical scrutiny. Speaking in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Beirut disaster of October 1983 (in which 241 American servicemen were killed in a terrorist bombing prompted by the ill-advised US intervention in a sectarian war), Weinberger enunciated six tough conditions that should be met before US forces are sent into combat abroad: (1) Only use force when the vital interests of the United States or its allies are at stake; (2) once a decision to use force has been made, do so wholeheartedly and with every intention of winning; (3) any forces committed to battle must be given clear political objectives within their capacity to achieve; (4) the forces committed to such action should be proportional to the objectives in mind; (5) deployment of US forces abroad must have the support of the American people and Congress; (6) commitment of US forces abroad should be a last resort.
To a considerable degree, President George H.W. Bush attempted to satisfy these criteria when planning for the first Gulf War, in 1990–91. Although debate still rages as to whether he gave enough time for diplomacy and sanctions to play themselves out, he did articulate a clear political objective for the conflict—the ouster of Iraqi forces from Kuwait—and authorized a military plan intended to achieve that objective.
Gen. Colin Powell, who served under Bush as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War, warned against any deviation from this approach in a 1992 article in Foreign Affairs. Unambiguous threats like the one posed by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait are likely to be rare, he suggested; far more likely will be ambiguous threats with little direct bearing on vital US interests. In these circumstances, any decision to employ US forces should be subjected to extreme scrutiny, in line with Weinberger’s criteria. “Is the political objective we seek to achieve important, clearly defined and understood? Have all the nonviolent policy means failed? Will military force achieve the objective? At what cost? Have the gains and risks been analyzed? How might the situation that we seek to alter, once it is altered by force, develop further and what might be the consequences?” In other words, don’t do stupid stuff.
Interestingly, in light of what was to come, Powell’s example of a successful application of this approach in preventing a foolhardy military move was Bush’s decision to end the Gulf War without invading Iraq. “Even if we had been able to capture [Saddam Hussein], what purpose would it have served?” he wrote. “And would serving that purpose have been worth the many more casualties that would have occurred? Would it have been worth the inevitable follow-up: major occupation forces in Iraq for years to come and a very expensive and complex American proconsulship in Baghdad? Fortunately for America, reasonable people at the time thought not.” Too bad the second President Bush (and Powell himself, as his secretary of state), didn’t follow this line of reasoning in 2003.
Many people on the right, and even some on the left, have become frustrated with President Obama, saying he should do more to combat violence and injustice abroad. Such criticism is fully legitimate if it is coupled with policy prescriptions that thoroughly delineate the likely costs, risks and benefits of more muscular action—and shows that such action has a high likelihood of success and of attracting domestic and international support. But to say that Obama lacks an organizing principle or to deride his approach without offering a more credible alternative does us a disservice. We have seen the disastrous results of doing stupid stuff; establishing sensible barriers to its repetition makes eminent sense.