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.