I was talking to some friends earlier about developments in Iraq and one questioned how the new mission, announced by President Obama last night, fits into the Obama Doctrine. Another noted the ambiguity as to what the Obama Doctrine actually is.
I’d argue that’s probably a good thing.
To be sure, the phrase pops up fairly regularly. Dick and Liz Cheney recently argued that the Obama Doctrine is defined by “empty threats, meaningless red lines, leading from behind, appeasing our enemies, abandoning our allies, or apologizing for our great nation.” In other words, the doctrine is apparently a series of lazy right-wing cliches.
Around the same time, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was complaining bitterly about the policy that led to the release of an American POW in Afghanistan. The Republican defined the Obama Doctrine as a willingness “to make deal with terrorists.” (On a substantive level, it was obviously an exceedingly foolish thing to say.)
On a less ridiculous note, Fareed Zakaria argued the Obama Doctrine can aptly be summarized by a quote from Dwight Eisenhower: “I’ll tell you what leadership is,” Ike told his speechwriter. “It’s persuasion – and conciliation – and education – and patience. It’s long, slow, tough work. That’s the only kind of leadership I know – or believe in – or will practice.”
But let’s consider another school of thought: there is no Obama Doctrine, per se, and as a practical matter, there probably shouldn’t be. I’m reminded of something Paul Waldman wrote in June:
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.
This notion that every president is confronted with global challenges and shapes a doctrine that defines his approach has never really made sense to me.
Quick, can you summarize the Clinton Doctrine? I can’t. How about the Roosevelt Doctrine? Other than the Monroe Doctrine, I’d have a hard time describe any president’s doctrine.
In September 2008, ABC’s Charlie Gibson asked then-vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin if she agreed with the “Bush Doctrine.” She clearly had no idea what to say – it appeared she wasn’t sure what the word “doctrine” meant – but the truth is, no one could ever fully define exactly what the Bush Doctrine was. (One of the former president’s NSC aides once said there were seven distinct Bush Doctrines.)
We can very easily identify some key principles that President Obama considers before using military force and/or intervening in foreign affairs. How does the action advance American interests and values? Does the mission have legitimacy in the eyes of the world? Are we acting in concert with coalition partners? How great are the security risks? And to whom? Is the mission open-ended?
The thing is, these are the kind of questions most modern presidents are going to ask. It does not a doctrine make.
And that’s not a criticism. Obama has to make tough calls, and he clearly made one last night. The results in Iraq may or may not go as planned; we’ll see soon enough. But whether or not the situation comports to a doctrine arguably doesn’t matter.
Different circumstances require different responses. A responsible leader evaluates these crises on the merits. The question a president should ask is, “What does the evidence say is the best decision?” not “What does my doctrine say to do?”
Update: Consider this summary of the Obama administration’s approach to foreign affairs: “We’ll do what we can, when we can do something useful on the cheap’ doesn’t quite have the glorious ring of JFK’s vow to ‘pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship.’ But it does have the advantage of being a sustainable, sensible approach to 21st century world affairs And it’s working.” I wouldn’t call that a doctrine, but I would call it sensible policymaking.