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:
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.“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.”
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.