The Obama doctrine under fire [Commentary]

A major ramification of the downing of the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine is how it challenges and imperils the Obama Doctrine as the president spelled it out in his speech at West Point on May 29.

He said then his "bottom lime" on use of American military force was that "it cannot be the only or even primary component of our leadership in every instance." In a rather simplistic analogy, he added: "Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail."


He said at the same time regarding the Russian land-grab in Crimea that there was "no military solution" to the crisis, and that his failure to use U.S. armed force in response should not be seen as a sign of American decline. He insisted that in the new century, "American isolationism is not an option,"

But he noted that "since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without international support and legitimacy for our actions." He did not have to mention what he had in mind -- his predecessor's war of choice in Iraq -- but he added that "the threshold for military action must be higher."


Last Friday, however, while discussing the "outrage of unspeakable proportions" that was the downing of the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine, he said only: "The United States is going to continue to lead efforts within the world community to de-escalate the situation, to stand up for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine."

In response to a question on employing force, Mr. Obama volunteered that "we don't see U.S. military role beyond what we have already been doing in working with our NATO partners and some of the Baltic States, giving them reassurance that we're prepared to do whatever is required to meet our alliance obligations."

Ukraine, however, is not a NATO member as are the Baltic State. On the face of it, his reply was hardly an unvarnished assurance to the embattled former Soviet Union province with an embattled new regime in Kiev. The answer may have come off as a reassurance to Russian President Vladimir Putin that in spite of Mr. Obama's expressed hopes that Mr. Putin would back off in Ukraine, he didn't have to worry about Uncle Sam using his hammer to hit that particular nail.

Then on Monday, the president reported that he told Mr. Putin: "My preference continues to be finding a diplomatic resolution in Ukraine. I believe that it can still happen. ... Now is the time for President Putin and Russia to pivot away from the strategy that they've been taking and get serious about trying to resolve hostilities within Ukraine in a way that respects Ukraine'ssovereignty."

Perhaps Mr. Obama was merely adhering to Theodore Roosevelt's famous admonition to "speak softly and carry a big stick." Yet some critics might well suggest that the president was not merely speaking softly but was tiptoeing at a time he should have been putting some steel in his rhetoric, if not in his actions.

The American president already has been under fire at home as taking caution to an extreme, if such is possible. Republican Sen. John McCain, famous for treading heavy-footed while wielding a verbal bludgeon, last week accused Mr. Obama of "cowardly" inaction in responding to global threats.

Many Democrats as well have been expressing disappointment or impatience about the image of aloofness they profess to see in Mr. Obama's approach to the serious domestic as well as foreign-policy crises facing the country. Still, coolness under fire is recognized as a desirable quality in a national or a world leader. Mr. Obama also seems to have that in spades as he plays the hand of low cards that circumstance has dealt him in his second term, especially in Ukraine and the Middle East, with the outbreak of shooting war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

If only for home-front consumption, maybe Barack Obama needs to put a bit of John Wayne in his words right now, while adhering steadfastly to the Obama Doctrine.


Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is