The Obama Doctrine: we will attack and destroy all non-nuclear rivals

Summary:  Obama announced a new grand strategy for America, and we didn’t notice (being in a deep stupor).  It’s a logical evolution of our increasingly aggressive strategy since 9-11.  It’s almost certain to end badly for us.  Today Tom Engelhardt explains the path our leaders have put us on.  Listen and you can hear the rapids in the distance.


Today’s guest post:  “War as the President’s Private Preserve – Obama Breaks New Ground When It Comes to War With Iran
By Tom Engelhardt, originally published at TomDispatch, March 2012 — Reposted with the author’s generous permission.


  1. The Obama Doctrine
  2. The Power of Precedents
  3. War and the Presidential “I”
  4. About the author
  5. For more information

(1)  The Obama Doctrine

When I was young, the Philadelphia Bulletin ran cartoon ads that usually featured a man in trouble — dangling by  his fingers, say, from an outdoor clock.  There would always be people  all around him, but far too engrossed in the daily paper to notice.  The  tagline was: “In Philadelphia, nearly everybody reads the Bulletin.”

Those ads came to mind recently when President Obama commented  forcefully on war, American-style, in ways that were remarkably  radical.  Although he was trying to ward off a threatened Israeli  preemptive air strike against Iran, his comments should have shocked  Americans — but just about nobody noticed.

I don’t mean, of course, that nobody noticed the president’s  statements.  Quite the contrary: they were headlined, chewed over in the  press and by pundits.  Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich attacked them.  Fox News highlighted their restraint.  (“Obama calls for containing Iran, says ‘too much loose talk of war.’”)  The Huffington Post highlighted the support for Israel they represented. (“Obama Defends Policies  Toward Israel, Fends Off Partisan Critiques.”)  Israeli Prime Minister  Netanyahu pushed back against them in a potentially deadly U.S.-Israeli  dance that might bring new chaos to the Middle East.  But somehow, amid  all the headlines, commentary, and analysis, few seemed to notice just  what had really changed in our world.

The president had offered a new definition of “aggression” against  this country and a new war doctrine to go with it.  He would, he  insisted, take the U.S. to war not to stop another nation from attacking  us or even threatening to do so, but simply to stop it from building a  nuclear weapon — and he would act even if that country were incapable  of targeting the United States.  That should have been news.

Consider the most startling of his statements: just before the  arrival of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington, the  president gave a 45-minute Oval Office interview to the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg.  A prominent pro-Israeli writer, Goldberg had  produced an article in the September issue of that magazine headlined “The Point of No Return.”  In it, based on interviews with “roughly 40 current and past Israeli  decision makers about a military strike,” he had given an Israeli air  attack on Iran a 50% chance of happening by this July.  From the recent  interview, here are Obama’s key lines:

“I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of  the United States, I don’t bluff. I also don’t, as a matter of sound  policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I  think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when  the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear  weapon, we mean what we say.”

Later, he added this chilling note: “I think it’s fair to say that  the last three years, I’ve shown myself pretty clearly willing, when I  believe it is in the core national interest of the United States, to  direct military actions, even when they entail enormous risks.”

The next day, in a speech meant   to stop “loose talk about war” in front of a powerful pro-Israeli   lobbying outfit, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC),   the president offered an even stronger formula, worth quoting at   length.  Speaking of seeing the consequences of his decisions to use   force “in the eyes of those I meet who’ve come back gravely wounded,” he   said:

“And for this reason, as part of my solemn obligation to the American   people, I will only use force when the time and circumstances demand   it… We all prefer to resolve this issue diplomatically. Having said   that, Iran’s leaders should have no doubt about the resolve of the   United States — just as they should not doubt Israel’s sovereign right   to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security   needs. I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a   nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I   say. That includes all elements of American power… and, yes, a   military effort to be prepared for any contingency.

“Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of   containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear   weapon. And as I have made clear time and again during the course of my   presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to   defend the United States and its interests.”

An American president couldn’t come closer to saying that, should   American intelligence conclude the Iranians were building a nuclear   weapon, we would attack. The next day, again addressing an AIPAC   audience, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta set the president’s   commitment in stone: “No greater threat exists to Israel, to the entire   region, and indeed to the United States, than a nuclear-armed Iran…   Military action is the last alternative if all else fails, but make no   mistake: When all else fails, we will act.”

(2)  The Power of Precedents

To understand what’s truly new here, it’s necessary to back up a few years.  After all, precedent is a powerful thing and these statements do have a single precedent in the atomic age (though not one the president would profess to admire): the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.  After all, one clearly stated reason for the invasion was Saddam Hussein’s supposed nuclear program as well as one to produce biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

In a series of speeches starting in August 2002, President George W. Bush publicly accused the Iraqi dictator of having an active nuclear program.  His vice president hit the news and public affairs talk show circuit with a set of similar accusations, and his secretary of state spoke of the danger of mushroom clouds rising over American cities. (“We do know that [Saddam] is actively pursuing a nuclear weapon… [W]e don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”)

At the same time, the Bush administration made an effort — now long forgotten — to convince Congress that the United States was in actual danger of an Iraqi WMD attack, possibly from anthrax, in the immediate future.  President Bush suggested publicly that, with unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), Saddam might have the ability to spray East Coast cities with chemical or biological weapons.  And Congress was given fear-inducing classified private briefings on this.

Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, for example, claimed that he voted for the administration’s resolution authorizing force in Iraq because “I was told not only that [Saddam had weapons of mass destruction] and that he had the means to deliver them through unmanned aerial vehicles, but that he had the capability of transporting those UAVs outside of Iraq and threatening the homeland here in America, specifically by putting them on ships off the eastern seaboard.”

Driving the need to produce evidence, however fantastic or fabricated, of a possible threat to the U.S. was a radical new twist on war-making 101.  In the days after 9/11, Vice President Dick Cheney proposed that even a 1% chance of an attack on the United States, especially involving weapons of mass destruction, must be dealt with as if it were a certainty.  Journalist Ron Suskind dubbed it “the one percent doctrine.”  It may have been the rashest formula for “preventive” or “aggressive” war offered in the modern era.

Of course, the fact that Saddam’s Iraq had no nuclear program, no biological or chemical weapons, no functioning drones, and no way of reaching the East Coast of the United States proved strike three for critics of the Bush administration.  Missed was what was truly new in the invasion: not just the 1% doctrine itself, but the idea — a first on planet Earth — of going to war over the possibility that another country might be in possession of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction.

Until then, such a concept hadn’t been in the strategic vocabulary.  Quite the opposite: in the Cold War years, nuclear weapons were thought of as “deterrence” or, in the case of the two massively nuclear-armed superpowers of that era, “mutually assured destruction” (with its fabulously grim acronym MAD).  Those weapons, that is, were considered guarantors, however counterintuitively, against an outbreak of war.  Their possession was a kind of grisly assurance that your opponent wouldn’t attack you, lest you both be destroyed.

In that spirit, between the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 and the Iraqi invasion of March 2003, seven countries — the Soviet Union, England, France, China, Israel (though its large nuclear arsenal remains unacknowledged), India, and Pakistan — all went nuclear without anybody suggesting that they be attacked simply for possessing such weapons.  An eighth country — white-ruled South Africa — actually assembled six nuclear weapons, and later became the only country to de-nuclearize itself.  South Korea, Taiwan, Argentina, and Brazil all had incipient nuclear programs, though none produced weapons.  Japan is today considered to be at a point the Iranians have not yet reached: “breakout capacity,” or the ability to build a nuclear weapon relatively quickly if a decision to do so were made.  In 2006, North Korea set off its first nuclear test and, within years, had become the ninth active nuclear power.

In other words, in 2003, the idea that the possession of nuclear weapons or simply of an “active” nuclear program that might one day produce such weapons was a casus belli represented something new.  And when it became clear that Saddam had no nuclear program, no weapons of mass destruction at all, that explanation for American war-making, for what Jonathan Schell once dubbed “disarmament wars” — so visibly fraudulent — seemed to disappear into the dustbin of history.

(3)  War and the Presidential “I”

Until now, that is.

Whether he meant to or not, in his latest version of Iran war policy President Obama has built on the Bush precedent.  His represents, however, an even more extreme version, which should perhaps be labeled the 0% Doctrine.  In holding off an Israeli strike that may itself be nothing but a bluff, he has defined a future Iranian decision to build a nuclear weapon as a new form of aggression against the United States.  We would, as the president explained to Jeffrey Goldberg, be committing our military power against Iran not to prevent an attack on the U.S. itself, but a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

And by the way, note that he didn’t say, “We don’t bluff.”  His formulation was: “I don’t bluff.”  And that “I” should not be ignored.  The Bush administration promoted a cult of presidential power, of (as they called it at the time) a “unitary executive.” No one in the White House uses such a term these days, any more than they use the term “Global War on Terror,” but if both terms have disappeared, the phenomena they named have only intensified.

The Global War on Terror, with its burgeoning secret military, the elite special operations forces, and its growing drone air force, controlled in part by the CIA, should be thought of as the president’s private war.  In addition, as legal scholar Jonathan Turley wrote recently, when it comes to drone assassinations (or “targeted killings” as they are now more politely known), Attorney General Eric Holder has just claimed for the president the “authority to kill any American if he unilaterally determines them to be a threat to the nation.”  In doing so, added Turley, “Obama has replaced the constitutional protections afforded to citizens with a ‘trust me’ pledge.”  With terror in its crosshairs, war, in other words, is increasingly becoming the president’s private preserve and strikes on the enemy, however defined, a matter of his own private judgment.

It is no longer a matter of “we,” but of a presidential “I” when it comes to unleashing attacks in what has become a global free fire zone for those drones and special ops forces.  War, in other words, is increasingly lodged in the Oval Office and a commander-in-chief executive.  As the Libyan intervention suggested, like the American people, Congress is, at best, an afterthought — even though this Congress would rubber-stamp a presidential act of war against Iran without a second thought.

The irony is that the president has propounded a war-making policy of unprecedented extremity at a moment when there is no evidence that the Iranians are pursuing a bomb — not yet at least.  The “supreme leader” of their theocratic state has termed the possession of nuclear weapons “a grave sin” and U.S. national intelligence estimates have repeatedly concluded that the Iranians are not, in fact, moving to build nuclear weapons.  If, however — and it’s a giant if — Iran actually got the bomb, if a 10th country joined the nuclear club (with others to follow), it would be bad news, and the world would be a worse place for it, but not necessarily that greatly changed.

What could change the world in a radical way, however, is the 0% doctrine — and the trend more generally to make war the personal prerogative of an American president, while ceding to the U.S. military what was once the province and power of diplomacy.

Copyright 2012 Tom Engelhardt

(4)  About the author

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), has just been published.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.

(5)  For more information

About Iran’s nukes:

  1. Iran’s getting the bomb, or so we’re told. Can they fool us twice?, 16 January 2009
  2. Iran will have the bomb in 5 years (again), 2 January 2010 — Forecasts of an Iranian bomb really soon, going back to 1984
  3. Have Iran’s leaders vowed to destroy Israel?, 5 January 2012 — No, but it’s established as fact by repetition
  4. What do we know about Iran’s nuclear ambitions?, 6 January 2012 — US intelligence officials are clear:  not as much as the news media implies
  5. What does the IAEA know about Iran’s nuclear program?, 9 January 2012 — Their reports bear little resemblance to reports in the news media
  6. What happens when a nation gets nukes?  Sixty years of history suggests an answer., 10 January 2012
  7. What happens if Iran gets nukes? Not what we’ve been told., 11 January 2012

About nukes:

  1. Stratfor debunks myths about nuclear weapons and terrorism, 8 October 2009
  2. What will the world’s tyrants learn from the Libyan War? Get nukes., 25 March 2011
  3. What happens when a nation gets nukes?  Sixty years of history suggests an answer., 10 January 2012

About Obama:

  1. Calling the 2008 election resulta, 26 February 2008 — As our problems reach critical dimensions and our economy sinks into what is (at best) a severe recession, our national leadership will likely move into the hands of someone with astonishingly little capacity to govern.
  2. Is Obama running for the office of Chief Shaman?, 6 June 2008 — Weirdness from our next President.
  3. Does America need a charismatic President?, 15 July 2008
  4. More about charisma, by Don Vandergriff…(#2 in the “getting ready for Obama” series), 16 July 2008 — About charisma:  know it before you buy it!
  5. Obama might be the shaman that America needs, 17 July 2008 — At what point does criticism of Obama’s charisma and rhetoric become criticism of leadership itself — and blind faith in technocratic solutions so loved by policy nerds?
  6. Obama describes the first step to America’s renewal, 8 August 2008 — Obama’s statement about America may be the simple truth; this may be why so many find it disturbing.
  7. America gets ready for new leadership (or is it back to the future?), 14 November 2008
  8. About Obama’s coronation – wisdom from Fred, 23 January 2009
  9. What past President does Obama most closely resemble?, 31 May 2009
  10. Obama knows how to lead America by exploiting our fears, 5 June 2009
  11. Obama is just like Jack Kennedy!, 13 October 2009
  12. Thoughts about President Obama, 17 December 2009
  13. More about President Obama, a decoration to the White House for the next 4 years, 18 December 2009
  14. How Obama failed in the Gulf of Mexico. Many of the most common indictments of him are wrong, and overlook his biggest errors., 22 June 2010
  15. President Obama celebrates 9-11 by renewing his Emergency War Powers, 11 September 2010
  16. Obama’s greatest accomplishment so far, 26 September 2010
  17. Obama scores again against the Constitution. The Tea Party is right about the battle, but AWOL., 28 September 2010
  18. Can Obama, or anyone else, outmaneuver the war advocates?, 2 October 2010
  19. Obama can point liberals towards a new future, 10 October 2010

For links to all posts see the FM Reference Page Obama, his administration and policies.

11 thoughts on “The Obama Doctrine: we will attack and destroy all non-nuclear rivals”

  1. Assume for a second Iran secretly does have the bomb and the reveal the news tomorrow.

    What do people think Iran would do with a bomb? Does the MAD logic exist? Do people think Iran would sacrifice itself to bomb Israel or the USA? Is that the new logic? Is it because they’re muslim?

    1. Strictly guessing, but I think the Iranians would breath a sigh of relief if they get the bomb and then proceed to negotiate with the US from a position of much greater strength, very similar to North Korea. The US has a history of bluster towards nations it thinks might get the bomb and then backing off when they achieve their goal.

      On the other hand, the Israelis are so unhinged by fear that they might try to turn Iran into a radioactive slagheap.

      1. We can only guess at such things. But I wonder if Israel’s government are bullies> Little fearful people wearing the large shoes of their predecessors, pushing who they perceive as weak — and backing off from strength. Israel is fortunate in that Iran, US, and their Arab neighbors are all weak — in spirit. Internally divided, economically stressed.

  2. This would seem to be proof positive of what I’ve suspected for over a year now…that there wasn’t nearly as much difference between the presidential candidates in 2008 as we thought there was (or had been manipulated into believing there was). We thought we had a choice between a neoconservative (McCain) and a moderate (Obama)…but it turns out that we were really choosing between two neoconservatives, one of whom was dressed up as something he wasn’t. It would appear the Powers That Be decided we should get a third Bush term whether we wanted it or not. and made sure we got it by tricking us into thinking we were getting something else. Is there really any point in pretending that We The People still have a say in what happens in this country??

  3. It should come as no surprise to anyone that once Americanos exit their current Evil Enemies (Iraq, Afghanistan) in humiliation, having accomplished nothing of substance, another Evil Enemy must be found to justify America’s absurdly huge annual military spending.

    Read the Pentagon’s latest Quadrennial Defense Review. We’re now in a “long war,” which appears to be a code phrase for “the forever way,” as in Joe Haldeman’s science fiction novel. The moment we appear to be exiting one war, America’s military must find another war to become embroiled in.

    It’s Quagmire of the Year here in Burkina Faso With Rockets. America dare not stop invading other countries, else our passive gullible population would start to ask inconvenient questions about why we’re wasting such ludicrously vast sums on our military.

    As with the War on Drugs, where the police unions now spend enormous sums on anti-marijuana-legalization lobbying. All the little uniformed piggies need to protect their troughs.

    The 1984 version…and here’s the 2008 version, Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

  4. Now I am really confused. Did someone call Obama the “supreme leader” of a theocratic state?

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