With every president and administration, journalists and analysts embark on a quest to identify a doctrine or set of principles defining the group’s foreign policy. Are they realists? Internationalists? Neocons? Do they go it alone or lead from behind?
But to understand the Obama administration’s approach to the world, it helps to think in generational terms, not foreign policy slogans. Rice’s remarks highlight the twists and turns that the Democratic Party has taken over the past four decades, and how the interplay of three generations has shaped the Obama administration’s views on the use of force and America’s role in the world, as well as on specific challenges ranging from Afghanistan to China.
The first, eldest cadre of Democrats is the post-Vietnam generation: those foreign policy hands who started their careers in the 1960s, ’70s or ’80s. Next come the post-Cold War Democrats, who began working on foreign policy during Clinton’s administration. The third and youngest group, which I call the Obamians, is made up of post-Iraq war Democrats — the president and some of his closest aides, who did not become involved in the execution of U.S. foreign policy until 2009.
In conversations with members of all three groups, Vietnam is a recurring symbol. “The president’s conception of power is not founded on Vietnam. He’s the first president who’s not trying to justify himself in the context of that very tumultuous period,” asserted deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough, who has worked alongside Barack Obama since his first presidential campaign.
Obama is not the first Democratic leader to define himself as transcending Vietnam. At least since the 1980s, many of the party’s political candidates (think Clinton or Gary Hart) have portrayed themselves in that way. Yet in the somewhat self-serving logic of the Obamians, those earlier Democrats were still influenced by the war: They reacted against it by trying to prove that they were tough and willing to use force — that they were not like the antiwar Democrats of the Vietnam era.
In 2010, I asked a couple of Obama’s close aides about their party’s political vulnerability on national security. I had in mind the defeats of Democrats such as George McGovern and Michael Dukakis, whom Republicans portrayed as weak on defense. But the aides’ answer was surprising: “Oh yes, we call it the 2002 problem,” one of them said.
Why 2002? That was the year Democratic leaders in Congress voted to authorize Bush to use force in Iraq. The senior Democrats’ acquiescence became the Obamians’ formative foreign policy experience. In fact, in 2008 the Obama campaign attacked the more experienced Democrats of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s team by linking her to Bush’s unpopular war.