Back to previous page


Post Most

In search of the Obama Doctrine

By ,

The search for an Obama Doctrine that unites and motivates the president’s foreign policy hasn’t turned up much. The administration itself is dismissive of the idea of grand strategy, stating a preference for flexibility over coherence. Supporters praise Barack Obama’s subtlety and nuance, invariably contrasting them to the simplistic certainties of George W. Bush. Obama’s fogginess, in this view, conceals an admirable realism.

But Occam’s razor — the superiority of the simplest explanation — applies even in foreign affairs. As a candidate, Obama defined his approach as the opposite of everything Bush. Whatever the issue, Obama would be the photographic negative. But as president, Obama’s foreign policy has been slowly evolving toward the views of his predecessor. Obama’s pride will not allow him to admit it. His rhetorical imprecision obscures it. But behind the fog is the Bush Doctrine.

Having had a hand in shaping that doctrine, I know it when I see it. It begins with the idea of preemption — confronting dangers to America before they fully emerge. Obama’s 2010 National Security Strategy played down the idea of preventive force and banished the language of a “war” on terrorism. But Obama was adding about 30,000 American troops to the Afghan war, on the theory that “it is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak.” He dramatically increased the pace of drone strikes in Pakistan and continued to detain terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, employing the same legal theories used by the Bush administration. Obama’s opposition to preemption consists mainly of criticisms of the Iraq war made years ago.

Another element of the Bush Doctrine is the promotion of democracy and human rights as alternatives to Islamist ideology. Initially, the Obama administration sneered at the whole idea, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claiming, “Let’s put ideology aside; that is so yesterday.” During Obama’s first year in office, funding for democracy programs in Egypt was cut in half. The initial stirrings of discontent in the Middle East were treated as unfortunate complications in the administration’s strategy of engaging dictators.

But the spreading heroism of Middle Eastern protesters has been enough to melt the indifference of even the most frosty realists. History has pushed Obama toward a binary choice: Betray freedom or embrace it. With reluctance, he has embraced it. So in his speech to the nation on Libya, Obama said, “Wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States.” Here is Bush’s second inaugural: “When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.” It is not that Obama sounds like Bush; it is that both sound like Americans.

The final element of the Bush Doctrine is an emphasis on fighting global poverty and disease — based on the theory that hopeless and lawless parts of the world export problems such as terrorism, human trafficking and the drug trade. Here Obama has acknowledged continuity — even praising Bush on AIDS relief — but without adding much boldness of his own.

There are, of course, large differences in approach and emphasis between Obama and Bush. Obama talks with more enthusiasm about multilateralism. This commitment, however, is yet to be seriously tested. Would Obama have stayed out of Libya if the U.N. Security Council had balked? Would he have accepted the reduction of Benghazi to ruins to demonstrate his multilateral convictions? Based on Obama’s own reasoning — that he could not “wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action” — he would have acted anyway.

It is tempting — oh so tempting — to observe that Obama is growing in office. That he is learning on the job. That he is a good note-taker, cribbing a bit here and there but finally getting his lessons down.

But this wouldn’t be fair. Obama is not copying. He is responding to a set of objective circumstances that have not changed. In the post-9/11 world, every president will seek to preempt terrorist attacks, influence the milieu that generates them and encourage the advance of hope against hatred. Perhaps it is needlessly confusing to call this the Bush Doctrine. It is, instead, a set of rather obvious strategic reactions to a continuing, undeniable threat. It is not a mystery that Obama should share these commitments — or that he should be so uncomfortable in admitting it.

michaelgerson@washpost.com

© The Washington Post Company