The Root: Defining the Obama Doctrine

David Swerdlick
Contributor to The Root
Wednesday, April 8, 2009 12:00 PM

In the wake of President Obama's trip to Europe, David Swerdlick, contributor to The Root, has assembled the 'Obama Doctrine,' taking cues from the president's diplomacy skills. Swerdlick discussed it, and his story, Swagger a Little, Reassure a Lot, on Wednesday, April 8 at noon ET.


David Swerdlick: Welcome. I'm David Swerdlick. I write about politics and pop culture for The Root. For those of you who aren't regular The Root readers, we're part of WaPo's family of online magazines. Last week I did "Nothin' But a G-20 Thang" and this morning, "Swagger a Little, Reassure a Lot" -- taking a lighter look at some of the optics surrounding the president's trip to Europe and the Middle East. Try to imagine Barack and Michelle Obama as Tony and Stephanie from Saturday Night Fever...


David Swerdlick: There was a question that I deleted, so let me try to recreate it...

"Washington, D.C.: I swear, there's just something warm, friendly, reassuring and solid about his SMILE. It speaks volumes about his foreign policy and America's impression on the world stage."

Yes -- I think that's the idea and I'd call it Obama's secret weapon, except that it's not really a secret. Obama so far is taking the "catch more flies with honey" approach in his dealings with the G-20 and NATO, as well as Middle East countries that we might call enemies.


Rockville, Md.: What do you think Obama's legacy will be? Although he's already made history as the first African American president, I honestly do not think that people who look at him even see his race anymore. Or maybe that's just me. I am more impressed by his credentials and charisma than anything else.

David Swerdlick: Terence Samuel, The Root's Deputy Editor, was on a panel discussion about this very topic last December before Obama took office and one of his comments was that the further away we get from the historic nature of the Obama moment, the inauguration, etc. and deeper into the Obama presidency, Obama will start to be seen less as the "black" president, and will start to look more and more like all the other presidents.

So, it probably behooves him to put in some work while he's got the history-making tailwind going for him.


Alexandria, Va.: How did you come up with your take on the Obama Doctrine? What do you think differentiates Obama from Bush ("everything" is too easy of an answer!)

David Swerdlick: Well, we're fond of naming doctrines. The Monroe Doctrine, etc. Right now at least, Bush is not seen as a particularly skillful leader, but even he has "The Bush Doctrine" so I suppose we can start thinking about what The Obama Doctrine is.

In the piece I referred to the "Pax Obama" only because the general historical view of the Pax Romana is that it characterizes a time of relative peace in the Roman empire under Augustus (I think...) because he balanced the military supremacy of Rome with the understanding that to keep a broad empire content, divergent people needed peace, subsistence, and a sense of order.

I don't mean to imply that Obama is seeking to revive empire, but it reflects the superpower role that the U.S. still has. We're counterbalanced by China and India and the E.U. economically, but militarily we are still superior. So the question becomes, how do we convey our strength without having other parts of the world -- the Middle East in particular -- hold on to the idea that we want to rule them.


Herndon, Va.: Is there a feeling in Europe that the United States' star is fading or has Obama rekindled their belief that the United States is still the top dog (excuse mixed metaphors)?

David Swerdlick: I'm going to answer two questions in one. There's this one, and another from Fairfax, Va. about whether or not any G-20 countries were disappointed with Obama.

While we're still recognized as a superpower, what it means to be a superpower is probably a little different now. If I can interpret Obama's message over the last week it's that we will remain the "top dog" as you say, but that we recognize the roles that other countries play.

The "Coalition of the Willing" was kind of a hodge-podge of countries that the Bush administration was able to get to go along with the Iraq invasion for a variety of reasons. But NATO and the E.U. didn't want to go down that road with us. Now Obama is going back and trying to reaffirm that we are still the driving force of NATO, but that we respect the necessity for working with the other members.

I think that before this week, a lot of Americans might have forgotten that Turkey, a secularly governed but predominantly Muslim country, is in NATO. You'll recall that they didn't allow us to use Incirlik air base for the Iraq invasion, but now we're trying to bolster the relationship so that they can be a proxy for us with countries like Iraq, Syria, and Iran.


Fairfax, Va.: So is it fair to assume that Obama scored big points in Europe? Were any of the G-20 countries disappointed with him?

David Swerdlick: Obama took nice pictures with France's Sarkozy and Germany's Merkel, but economically there were some differences with them. They have broader social spending already, like universal health care, so the idea of spending a trillion dollars for stimulus isn't appealing to them. They also don't really want to get into combat in Afghanistan, even though that is a NATO mission.

My view is that this trip was about level-setting for Obama. He got them to add 5K non-combat troops in the Af-Pak zone. Later, he might ask for more. He might not get it, but at least later on, he'll be able to turn around to France/Germany and say that the U.S. is carrying all the weight (in terms of lives lost, especially) in the "war on terror"/Overseas Contingency Operation, and that they aren't doing their fare share. Hopefully he can translate that into leverage on other issues. Maybe we ask them to take a broader role in peacekeeping in the Sudan down the road.


Woonsocket, R.I.: I'm still trying to figure out what his doctrine(s) are. Denouncing genocide, except when it's more convenient to deny it. Decrying warrantless wiretapping, data mining, and excessive governmental secrecy until it's his turn in the White House, and suddenly those things are okay.

Would "bare-faced hypocrisy" be a fair way to sum up the Obama doctrine?

David Swerdlick: I'm not 100% sure which political perspective you're coming from, but let's see:

My understanding is that Obama is okay with wiretapping in instances where the security court does issue a warrant. By the way, I've never been clear on why the Bush administration fought this so hard. You can get a warrant at any time day or night and if the circumstances are exigent, then the standard isn't that high. The key is that there has to be accountability to some authority, right? No president, including Obama, is going to want to foreclose the option of using all of his intelligence assets, but hopefully what the Obama administration does is legal as opposed to extra-legal.

Vis a vis genocide, if you're referring to the 1915 mass killings of Armenians by the Turkish army, I can't claim to know what the president believes in his heart of hearts, but here's what we think we know. Massacres took place, and Turkey has been slow to acknowledge it. I confess I don't know the whole history. The reporting I've read suggests that Obama did pledge last year to recognize the events as "genocide." He didn't do that at the Turkish parliament on Monday.


David Swerdlick: The Turkey/Armenian thing comes down to pragmatic politics, I think.

Obama's foreign policy agenda hinges on Turkey. They are an interesting country. They border Iraq and Iran, and they're part of Europe. They want to be in the E.U., but the ruling party is a moderate Islamic party. That's the nexus.

If this is a sticking point for Turkey, Obama may not be able to come out hard on the genocide question. For those who find this problematic, I can see where you are coming from, but my guess is that because this is a past genocide and not a current one, that this is the calculation being made.


Clifton, Va.: Why do Dems and the left want the rest of the world to love us? Clinton's diplomatic efforts did little good and, coupled with his defense policies, resulted in 9/11. This country, like Israel, needs to act in its own self interest and not worry about what the rest of the world thinks. The EU is like a bunch of teenage children; you can't make them happy, so why try? The EU, like Europe in the 30's, doesn't have what it takes to stand up North Korea, the Taliban, AQ, the Russians and Palestinians. Shame because Hillary would be one heck of an attack dog.

And sorry the president of the U.S. doesn't not bow to royalty, to include the King of Saudi Arabia.

Time for us to reinstate the Monroe Doctrine and Imminent Domain and take the oil from Mexico, Venezuela and Canada.

David Swerdlick: The funny thing is, picture if in 2002, if Bush, instead of giving the SOTU and the West Point commencement speech articulating the "axis of evil" and "preemption," he had just said, "we need the oil really bad, let's go get it."

Would the public have agreed that it was worth 5K troops killed, 25K troops wounded, and $1-2 Trillion? Not so sure.

Take a look at Bush's second inaugural address. It's only four years ago, but already the goal posts have really moved. We're really not talking about spreading democracy around anymore, are we? I think that's where some Republicans lost credibility.

But to your point, Obama's conciliatory moves have to be made primarily in American self interest. I think he's betting that better relations will lead to stability. If 3 or 4 years from now that turns out not to be the case, then that will be an issue for him.

I agree that the E.U. has not stood up. Bosnia should have been all them. They should not have needed Clinton to act. I think you have to take these things case by case. My view is that Israel had no choice but to enter Gaza in January because their territorial integrity was compromised. We had no choice but to go into Afghanistan. I think it's Iraq where we got off track.


Arlington, Va.: There wasn't really a "Bush Doctrine," so why should we believe there's an "Obama Doctrine?" Sounds like something the media is pushing.

David Swerdlick: Not "the media" -- me.


Alexandria, Va.: So give me a reason why I shouldn't gag every time I see an article analyzing Michelle Obama's wardrobe.

David Swerdlick: Switching gears for a second here. In the "Nothin' But a G-20 Thang" piece from last week, I touched on this.

My take is that this all goes back to Optics. I'm sure just like you, I had never heard of "Commes des Garcons" before last week. But the thing is that a lot of how people judge and react is based on style. And apparently, a lot of people care about couture, because you're right -- Michelle Obama's wardrobe moves were all over the news.

The fact that J. Crew keeps selling out outfits every time the FLOTUS puts one on means that people -- women -- admire and want to be like her. That's probably a good thing.

And I would just as soon see us competing with the French on whose first lady is more spectacular, rather than the whole "Freedom Fries" routine. BTW, I think that Carla Bruni has that sleek look that we associate with continental society, but Michelle Obama, although often compared to Jackie Kennedy, is more like Lady Di to me.


Woonsocket, R.I.: Politically, I'm a liberal Democrat, but I value my country and the Constitution more than my party.

"Massacres took place, and Turkey has been slow to acknowledge it." Actually, they've been spending millions and making all sorts of diplomatic threats over the past ninety years to deny it -- in the face of overwhelming evidence. As for Obama's heart of hearts, here's what candidate Obama said:

"The Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence," Obama said in a January 2008 statement on his campaign Web site. "America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides. I intend to be that president."

Realpolitik always seems to trump inconvenient truths in the end, but some of us hoped that Obama might be better than that.

David Swerdlick: Thank you for adding that quote. I don't want to sweep the Armenian issue under the rug, and I'm not an expert on it. We agree that this is a case of, as you say, "realpolitik."


Stamford, Conn.: How long do you think the "Swagger a Little, Reassure a Lot" approach will work?

David Swerdlick: This is a starting point. He's level-setting. While he's got the popularity, Obama is making the most of reframing the U.S./Europe relationship. But coming back around in subsequent summit meetings, he will have to press harder with allies and with regimes like Syria and Iran.

We should probably think of this as an opening. A successful opening. But down the road, I think that Obama will have to produce.

The real clock that he's up against is a situation where he's rolling out his charm offensive and some unpredictable event occurs. I don't think the N. Korean missile launch is it. But let's say the Pakistani government becomes destabilized. Decisions will have to be made quickly. No more Mr. Nice Guy.


Anonymous: Actually, there IS a Bush Doctrine. It's that preemptive war is acceptable in order to prevent a perceived danger.

David Swerdlick: I don't think I said that there wasn't a Bush Doctrine. Yes, there is. I think it has lost credibility. Let me refer you to Sen. Robert Byrd's floor speech the night before we invaded Iraq. It's on YouTube. That sums it up.


Harrisburg, Pa.: How does the Obama Administration view the Defense Department budget? I believe the neocons felt that American needs to show its supremacy in military force, which led to the new challenge that our threats are less military and more terrorist. What differences have Obama's policies made at the Pentagon and through our military?

David Swerdlick: Excellent question. The Wall Street Journal recently ran an editorial pressing the president to commit to replacing outdated W76 nuclear warheads with W89 warheads. The general idea was that for us to remain a deterring force, our warheads have to be reliable.

There's probably an alternate universe where an Obama administration, or the stillborn Gore administration pre-9/11 would have tried to ratchet down some defense spending, but with two wars, an escalating situation between the recognized Pakistani government and the Taliban factions within the unpoliced federal areas, and the potential standoff between Israel and Iran over nukes, I don't see how Obama can do more than trim a few billion in waste out of the defense budget. I wish I had better numbers in front of me, but I don't.


Dallas, Texas: So what do you think Obama's next move is, as far as foreign policy?

David Swerdlick: He has several next moves.

He seems to favor getting Turkish assistance to bring a dialogue between Israel and Syria over Golan. If the new Israeli PM is willing, then I think that continues.

Iraq is interesting. Most reports say that things are stabilizing. But it's not clear what happens down the road when we leave. We've kind of turned Iraq into a Shia-majority version of Egypt. If they come to a Jordan/Egypt type of stance on Israel, then maybe we'll have nominally good relations with them in the long term.

By the way, we've all but forgotten about the Kurds these days. One-third of "Kurdistan" is in Turkey, 1/3 in Iraq, and 1/3 in Iran. These countries are big players and they're not. In the Turkish parliament, Obama called out PKK by name as a terror group, so I think the Kurds are on their own for a while.


David Swerdlick: The tough one now is Af-Pak. Whenever I see Afghanistan on the news, my first reaction is -- there's no shade anywhere in that country. We should have built a few gazebos.

Seriously, the problem is that outside of Kabul, there's no there there. We had a choice back in 2002 to either swiftly get in and out with Bin Laden in handcuffs and leave them to their own devices. But now we have to have a more comprehensive strategy, and that's pretty much what Obama laid out two weeks ago. More tooth and more tail. We're upping the troop levels to 68K, I believe, eventually, and we're looking for NATO countries to pour in medical, educational, engineering resources, etc.

Will it work? It would have worked better if we had been working on it all this time. Now it's a steeper curve.

The name of the game in Pakistan is nukes. I think that's the reason that we are only using unmanned flights to attack Taliban locations, and I think that's the reason that India is being publicly cautious about responding to the Mumbai terror attacks.


Bethesda, Md.: How do you think his foreign policy ideologies affect his domestic policy ideologies? Will the swagger/reassure formula work on us everyday Americans?

David Swerdlick: The swagger/reassure formula did work on everyday Americans. Obama won the '08 race with something like 360+ electoral votes?

Bottom line, in the first 100 days, Obama is going all out to set a tone. By summer, the honeymoon is over, and he has to start producing results. He has a built in advantage with foreign affairs because Republicans are loathe to criticize him. Once he retained Gates as SecDef, I think that sent a message that Obama was not going to tip the apple cart in terms of national security. He isn't taking away the stick in the Middle East, he's just adding carrots.

That's all the time I have for today, so thank you for your questions. I enjoyed it.


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