Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Is There an Obama Doctrine?

Remember when Sarah Palin, having just been named the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee, was asked on national TV by Charlie Gibson what she thought about the “Bush doctrine”? In fairness to her, that wasn’t a very well-formed question inasmuch as “the Bush doctrine” means somewhat different things to different people. But Gibson and a large segment of his television audience were in no mood for equivocation. They took Palin’s deer-in-the-headlights expression as prima facie evidence that she’s an airhead.

Forget about what this episode said about Palin and consider what it said about Bush. Attentive citizens seldom doubted that there was a “Bush doctrine” even if they disagreed with each other about its fine points. That’s because Bush was more interested in projecting moral clarity than showcasing his appreciation of nuance. So he was never shy about enunciating the straightforward principles behind his foreign policy (even if he didn’t always apply them consistently in practice). Bush never tired of telling us, for instance, that both our values and our national interests dictated that we promote democratic regime change abroad, even if that occasionally means expending the blood and treasure it takes to execute ambitious military campaigns. A lot of us disagreed, but we had a pretty clear idea of what we were disagreeing with.

Nobody would blame even Sarah Palin for having a blank expression on her face if she were asked what she thought about the “Obama Doctrine.” Even heavyweight journalists like Glenn Thrush are writing pieces with titles like “In Search of the ‘Obama Doctrine.'” “Over the past several years,” Thrush observes, “observers have strained to weave a consistent worldview from the filaments of Obama’s high-impact speeches and articles . . . .” It’s a strain because Obama has said a lot of seemingly inconsistent things. You can’t miss the undercurrent of mild annoyance in Thrush’s piece that it’s still necessary to search for the unifying principles of Obama’s foreign policy at a time when he’s prosecuting yet a third war without clearly enunciating his military and strategic objectives.

As far as I can see, there are two, and only two, possibilities: either we lack the acuity to comprehend the principles underlying Obama’s foreign policy or there aren’t well-formulated underlying principles and he’s just making things up as he goes along. Put differently, our not knowing what to make of the “Obama Doctrine” is either our fault for not appreciating the nuances of his worldview or his fault for not bothering to develop a coherent worldview.

Thrush quotes Steve Clemons making the case that the comparative inscrutability of Obama’s foreign policy isn’t a bug, but one of its still unappreciated features. We understood Bush’s foreign policy better than Obama’s, on this view, because Bush’s was simple-minded while Obama's takes account of the world's complexity:
“There’s just no quick way to define [Obama’s foreign policy],” said Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation, who is generally supportive of the president’s foreign policy. “He’s genuinely committed to human rights but in actualizing those principles he’s fundamentally a pragmatist. He runs against cookie-cutter approaches. So he knows what you do in Egypt isn’t the same as what you do in Libya and that isn’t the same as what you do in Bahrain.”
I hope Clemons is right. But ask yourself this: what evidence would it take to convince you that he’s wrong? There’s no simple answer to that question because sympathetic views about Obama like Clemons’s don’t turn on testable empirical propositions. In large part, they’re expressions of faith in substantially the same sense that monotheistic religion is an expression of faith.  That's not a criticism of Clemons inasmuch as faith plays an ineliminable role in our political allegiances.

When a devout Christian confronts a horrific event like the tsunami in Japan he confronts the challenge of reconciling its occurrence with his belief in God’s omnipotence and benevolence. He tells himself that “the ways of God are strange.” That’s his way of saying that he can’t help believing that there must be a benevolent divine purpose behind the tsunami although his finite intelligence doesn't enable him to comprehend it. It's part of his religious vocation to keep trying.  It's natural to say that he has lost his faith when he stops stops trying to figure out what the divine plan is because he's no longer sure there is one.

Granted, the analogy between religious and political commitment is inexact.  Appearances to the contrary, Obama's most besotted admirers stopped short of attributing omniscience and omnipotence to him.  But those of us who voted for him still like to think that Obama's a lot smarter and more thoughtful than Bush.  That being the case, we naturally presume that Obama's foreign policy must be animated by a more intelligent worldview.  He's starting to test our faith, however, because his ways are getting stranger all the time.


Anonymous said...

I'm starting to think of Obama as the "Being There" president. Many try to interpret his statements and speeches as deep wisdom and a superintelligent worldview. But, as you state, no one can articulate what it is.

I think the emperor has no clothes.

Dave said...

I feel you're being altogether too lenient on those who practice the Obama Faith. The religious comparison doesn't hold water. (And am I the only one who felt a little creeped out to read that analogy between Obama and God?)

With religion, you could argue that it makes rational sense to practice blind faith (or at least doesn't cost you much), because whatever God does, it's not like you have any influence over it anyway, so you may as well just cross your fingers and hope for the best. (Call it "having the serenity to accept the things we cannot change.")

But when making sense of the actions of an elected leader in a participatory democracy, it's not okay to suspend our critical faculties and have blind faith that Obama knows what He's doing. It's our job as citizens to hold our elected leaders accountable. It's their job (if they want to be re-elected) to explain what their principles are.

Ron, in a recent post you wrote about a class of people who are personally invested in Obama's success. I think that's the main factor driving this sort of Obama apologism. But it's not doing liberal thinking any favors to have its advocates play dumb for the next two years. (Nor is it helping those advocates' intellectual credibility.) This idea that Obama is so brilliant that we can't possibly understand his divine plan is patently absurd. (And creepy.)

To Anon at 5:03: Fantastic reference. That so succinctly sums up how the chattering class reacts to Obama.

Anonymous said...

Dave - I was creeped out by the Obama and God reference too. Perhaps that's what brought to mind Anon at 5:03's Being There reference. The scene where Chauncey Gardner walks on water ...