Obama doctrine yields to Salman doctrine in Yemen
In February the US White House presented Congress with its National Security Strategy for the final two years of President Barack Obama’s presidency, revealing the doctrine of “Strategic Patience”.
This doctrine is based on the premise outlined in the document’s introduction that, while the United States leads from a “position of strength… this does not mean we can or should attempt to dictate the trajectory of all unfolding events around the world”. The doctrine also tells of limited US resources and influence.
This modest approach to world leadership was met with a storm of criticism by commentators, including US News and World Report which said the strategy provided proof that Obama “is unwilling or unable to take decisive action”.
The Obama doctrine has been put to the test in Yemen, a nation that the US president had touted as a successful counter-terrorism model only a few months earlier.
The Houthis and the forces of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, after seizing control of Sana’a last September, are threatening Aden and what is left of the legitimacy of Yemen’s government, as well as threatening the counter-terrorism infrastructure in the southern part of Yemen against al-Qaeda where US and British forces were working with Yemeni security forces. The United States and United Kingdom withdrew their personnel and the US embassy in Sana’a was closed and “Strategic Patience” was stretched to the limit in the southern Arab state.
The Saudis might have been hoping for something like the 1950s-era Eisenhower doctrine, under which “a Middle Eastern country could request American economic assistance or aid from US military forces if it was being threatened by armed aggression from another state”.
The Saudis and the Gulf countries, however, knew well that this is not 1957. The region and the world learnt from the lesson of Syria that waiting for the Americans to lead an effort to change the military balance on the ground is like waiting for Godot.
Enter the Salman doctrine, named after the new Saudi king and coined by respected Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Salman doctrine is based on “deterring aggression and restoring security through a political process”, hence Operation Decisive Storm. Khashoggi noted that King Salman has introduced a new principle in international relations and a new reality by implementing a doctrine without the United States.
The Salman doctrine indicated that Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Arab world have run out of patience with Iran and its meddling in Arab affairs and the expansion of its influence. But most importantly it indicates that they have no patience anymore for American inaction in the face of what they see as an existential threat.
There is also a perception that the United States does not share their assessment of what constitutes a mortal threat to their countries because they see the American administration more concerned with “appeasing” Iran in their negotiations over the nuclear issue than confronting Iran’s threat to its neighbours or restraining Tehran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region.
US Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) questioned the US Central Command chief, US Army General Lloyd Austin, on whether the Saudis gave the United States advance notice of their campaign against the Houthis. The general said he was notified shortly before the operation. McCain saw this as an indication that “our closest allies in the region no longer trust us. That is because they believe we are siding with Iran”.
The fact that Obama called the Saudi king directly after the announcement of a framework agreement with Iran and invited the Gulf leaders to a summit with him at Camp David in Maryland shows the level of attention he is paying to allay the fears of the Arabs.
The Obama doctrine, though, has accomplished something new and positive in the Arab world: It forced the Arabs to rely on themselves.
The unanimous agreement in the Arab summit just concluded in Sharm el-Sheikh to form a joint military force is a case in point. It also emphasised Obama’s approach to intervention: the United States will provide support but it is up to the local powers to do the job; the United States will not do it for them anymore. The United States will “have your back” but it will not be in front of you.
The American president with his doctrine has helped the Arabs come together, develop their own doctrine and rally around their own leadership. This is unheard of in the region. If this succeeds the Arab world would have turned a corner and made history. Yemen is the test.