Does Obama Have a Foreign Policy Doctrine? (Let's Hope Not)

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

President Barack Obama delivers a major foreign policy address at the United States Military Academy at West Point commencement ceremony at Michie Stadium in West Point, N.Y., May 28, 2014.

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama outlined his foreign policy principles in a speech at West Point, giving rise to a round of commentary on the "Obama Doctrine." Opinions fell into three camps: those who thought the Obama Doctrine sounded quite sensible (for example, Fareed Zakaria), those who were underwhelmed by its lack of clarity and vision (for example, the New York Times), and those who were horrified by its insufficient testosterone (pretty much any conservative you could name).

But the truth is that foreign policy doctrines are overrated. It's no coincidence that the only presidents in the last half-century who had clear doctrines, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, were the most simplistic of thinkers (there have been doctrines attributed to other recent presidents, but they were barely worthy of the name). A doctrine is what you need when you'd rather not be bothered to understand too much about any country we have to deal with or any situation we confront.

And all the conservatives who in the last couple of days have been so disgusted with Obama's articulation of his perspective on foreign policy and military action? Let's not forget that they were the ones who praised the glory of Bush's "moral clarity" and thought invading Iraq—perhaps the worst foreign policy disaster in American history—was a splendid idea.

Since Obama's speech, they've been beside themselves with outrage that he would caricature their ideas so viciously, as when he said that "there are a lot of folks, a lot of skeptics, who often downplay the effectiveness of multilateral action. For them, working through international institutions like the U.N. or respecting international law is a sign of weakness," or when he averred that "to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution."

Perhaps he did exaggerate—but not by much. Even if conservatives don't believe that every problem has a military solution, what they do believe is that whatever foreign crisis the administration faces, spectacular success would come our way in short order if only we could be "tougher."

Much of the time they can't quite say what being "tougher" would consist of, but they know it would work. And they know what Barack Obama's problem comes down to: "He is a very, very weak president," former Vice President Dick Cheney recently said of President Obama. "Maybe the weakest—certainly in my lifetime." That's sort of like the first mate of the Titanic expressing his contempt at other ships for giving icebergs a wide berth. If only Obama could be as strong as Bush and Cheney were, then who knows what wonders of peace and security could be ours.

But it's true that Obama's basic statement of principles was, if stated broadly enough, something almost no one would disagree with. He said we'll use our military, even unilaterally, if our core interests are at stake. But if those interests aren't at stake "when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us—then the threshold for military action must be higher."

Even the neocon war chorus wouldn't disagree, it's just that they see core American interests at stake everywhere where they'd like to start bombing, or short of that, supplying weapons to somebody, even if we have only the barest clue whom we're arming.

They see those core interests at play in Iran and Syria and Ukraine today, just as they did in Iraq a decade ago. Bush and Cheney believed—or at least they told the nation—that Saddam Hussein was a direct threat to the United States, and would in a very short time begin killing huge numbers of Americans with his fearsome arsenal if we didn't invade. As Cheney said in August of 2002: "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us." Had Cheney's insane fantasy actually been true, an invasion would have been justified even under the Obama Doctrine, such as it is. The difference is who's applying it.

Perhaps what conservatives found most galling about Obama's speech was its acknowledgement that there are some problems in the world that not even American military power can solve, and his poor manners in reminding the audience of their folly:

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 thinking through the consequences—without building international support and legitimacy for our action; without leveling with the American people about the sacrifices required. Tough talk often draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans.

No wonder they were insulted. But for Obama's opponents, it's always January 1981, or October 2001. The enemies are always testing our resolve, we always stand at a crossroads with one path marked "strength" and the other marked "weakness," and a glorious victory is always one firm-jawed decision away.

Every president should be judged in foreign policy by the decisions he made, not whether you can sum it all up on a catchy bumper sticker. Barack Obama has made his share of mistakes, and the results of some of his decisions have yet to be fully realized. But at least he won't come before the American people, as his predecessor did, and promise to "rid the world of evil."

If George W. Bush was fool enough to believe that might be in his power, he was even dumber than we thought. And the people attacking Obama now are the ones who stood up to cheer when they heard Bush say that. He certainly had a doctrine, though. Maybe it's time we did without one.

 

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