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Obama Doctrine

The term echoes through the chattering classes as if it has meaning.  “What is the Obama Doctrine?”  It’s a question being asked by any analyst who wants (desperately) to be taken seriously as we wait for the Presidential address on our latest not-war in Libya.  The question seems reasonable on the surface if you are left wondering why we intervene in some places and not others, like this excellent Daily Show routine with John Oliver.  But the framework of an “Obama Doctrine” reveals that the asker doesn’t care as much about the situation as their own ability to talk about it – by putting it back into terms a US audience might have a chance of paying attention to.

An “Obama Doctrine” is popular largely because the idea helps people who want to keep their cushy jobs.

The best comment I’ve heard yet on the Obama Doctrine came from a CNN contributor whose name I’ve sadly forgotten.  “I hope there isn’t one, because the moment you have a doctrine you turn off your brain and end critical thought.”  That’s undeniably true.  But shouldn’t there be some greater concept that we are working towards as we evaluate situations marching across the Arab World?

It’s not as though all pressure to frame our involvement as an Obama Doctrine is wrong.  If Syria is distracted we know that the situation in Israel/Palestine will change – a revolution in Syria would be a completely new game all around.  If Saudi Arabia manages to drop the Saudi prefix nearly everything around the world will be affected by the ripples through weak economies.  There is a reasonable anxiety as we find ourselves getting involved in another conflict and thoughtful people would like to have some idea where this is going.

We should think of our involvement as inevitable, Obama Doctrine or not.  No nation could possibly spend nearly half of the world’s tab for military and not expect helpless people being shot at to beg for relief from them.  We get sucked into these things not just because we can, but because everyone knows that we can.  More to the point, our foreign policy has often been based on making it clear to people that we can get them all blow’d up (blow’d up real good!) if they don’t watch it.  No matter how you look at it, our responsibility for the world is almost entirely our own fault – and something we enjoy when things are going well.

Globalism today means everyone relies on everyone else but has limited influence on how everything goes down.  A few disturbances here and there and the trouble rolls across the planet like a tsunami wave.

The problem with an Obama Doctrine, however, is that discussing it in those terms attempts to bring this turmoil home as if we somehow own it.  It may seem natural with all of our military might, but do we really want to own the trouble?  The answer is a strong “Yes!” only to those who make their living by chatting up world events.  The best situation for them is a distant one that is a bit murky so that you can say nearly anything but still has a hook back at home so that people care.  Sudan?  No hook.  Our own faultering economy?  Too close.  A not-war in Libya offers the best of both worlds if, and only if, you can frame the whole thing in terms of domestic politics and the pointless left-right debate that everyone has been hyped about for years.  Plus, it has great video.

Think locally, act globally.  It’s a wonderfully trite definition of casual fascism.

Is there an Obama Doctrine at all?  I doubt it.  The President has always been one to deal with the situation in front of him like a Mechanic in Chief, tinkering with the machinery and trying to get it to run better.  It might be nice to know just where all this unrest is going, but anyone who has really thought of it should be very aware that there is no way to tell.  The demands for clarity, though reasonable, center on our internal politics.   That’s not going to be useful for anyone, anywhere.

10 thoughts on “Obama Doctrine

  1. I agree. This joins the Muslim Brotherhood as one of the things they talk about that don’t appear to mean a thing. If they do mean something these guys will have to give us a lot more detail to make sense of it. The way they use terms like this you know its all about how people will react to it.

  2. Dale, I think “Moslem Brotherhood” is one of those things that was talked about too much with respect to Egypt but not nearly enough when it comes to Libya. Funny how everything changed once it was Ghaddafi that was on the line. I think the general idea is that it can’t be any worse than a loon dictator running a kleptocracy, but … it could be …

  3. The only conclusion I can come to about Obama is that, beneath the elegant rhetoric and nice suits, there is no “doctrine” because there really is nobody home. Obama is pragmatic, opportunistic, but lacking an in any real internal compass or emotional connection to the “people.” Sad, and scary. But not really surprising, given his instant rise from essentially nowhere.

  4. I for one DO want to know what we think we are doing when we get involved in all this and would love to know that there is an ‘Obama Dcotrine’. We can’t get as involved as we have in Libya and claim that we can’t get into the next one that comes along. Maybe we should have been more involved in Sudan or Egypt but the past is the past. Now that we are committed it will be very bad if we don’t do the same the next time. I don’t care if that is Syria or some other place we have to stand up to dictators who kill their own people with tanks and airplanes.
    If that is the “Obama Doctrine” then I’m OK with it.

  5. Alan: So is he a wise man who keeps his options open or an empty opportunist with no internal compass? I guess I accept that you could be right, but if you are it would make sense for him to outline some kind of “Obama Doctrine” tonight just to deflect criticism. I hope it doesn’t come to something that fake, however.

    Anna: I just don’t know how anyone can say when it will make sense to intervene until events unfold. I’m pretty sure we can see unrest coming so it might be good to make some kind of plans – but I don’t think we can possibly be rigid about it. Should we intervene in, say, Syria just because they are doing the same horrible things that happened in Libya? Offhand I do think we should – but only if the Arab League has our back and we don’t look like we’re colonizing the place. As bad as many of these dictators are it can get worse if we aren’t careful.

  6. Disregarding for the moment the question of whether making war on Libya is a good idea, lets think about the fact that Obama did this without the (official) consent of Congress. I suppose he can easily get away with it because the Republicans running the House and Senate are warmongers and unlikely to object. Their concerns about abuse of power by government don’t extend to massive violence against people living far away. But by doing this Obama has put another nail into the coffin lid of constitutional government. I am more appalled by the man every day.

  7. Alan, I’ve decided you’re right about this. As hard (and slow) as it is to follow procedures we have to have a proper check and balance in place to avoid abuses in the future. Obama himself noted that in 2003 when he opposed the Iraq War – a time when Congress actually did authorize everything, at least. Why didn’t he even try to go through proper channels, especially when it’s clear that he knew it was the right thing to do? I wish I knew.

    Once again, Obama has acted in a way that establishes a standard of maximum flexibility – so we can see what he values here. Some of that is prudent, but taking Congress out of the loop is indeed dangerous.

    Maybe we do have an “Obama Doctrine” after all – the anti-Doctrine. “Whatever works, just do it.” That is indeed tough on democracy.

  8. Before we set our hair on fire, congress did not approve the Iraq war until five MONTHS after Bush put American boots on the ground there.

  9. jason, excellent point. However, we’ve been doing things badly since … well, we haven’t actually declared War since WWII. This much power in the hands of one person is a dangerous thing, no matter who has it. I do think we’re doing the right thing this time … but the next?

  10. Pingback: Back to Reality | Barataria – The work of Erik Hare

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