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December 7, 2011

The Rashomon Doctrine

by Mike M

Well, after three years of waiting, we are finally privy to the big secret of the “Obama Doctrine.”  It took Peter (“I’m all for the Iraq War … no, wait, hold on”) Beinart to break the news.  There has been no actual announcement, but Beinart believes he has sniffed it out, and it is this:  Off-shore balancing.  Although that sounds like a joke, in fact it is not.

His argument is remarkable for the sheer beauty of its nonsensicality.  But my point in this post is otherwise:  I thought I knew, actually, what the Obama Doctrine was.  Because I had been told.  By the Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne, in 2009.  After watching some Navy SEALs pick off a few Somali pirates and rescue Capt. Richard Phillips, Dionne argued that the Doctrine married a sense of American limits and a willingness to recognize others’ interests with an ability to use force.  “The Obama Doctrine,” Dionne concluded, “is a form of realism unafraid to deploy American power but mindful that its use must be tempered by practical limits and a dose of self-awareness.”

Then again, you could take Ryan Lizza’s nuanced catalogue in the New Yorker, which traced every available influence on the administration’s foreign policy—and concluded by infamously quoting an administration official about “leading from behind.”  (Charles Krauthammer, always trolling for a sharp cudgel with which to beat Democrats, greedily endorsed this interpretation.)

In the wake of President Obama’s March 2010 Oslo speech, a number of commentators promptly declared the Obama Doctrine to be:  War is necessary to combat evil.

Asked to define his own doctrine during the campaign, Obama responded that it was “not going to be as doctrinaire as the Bush doctrine, because the world is complicated.”  Also during the campaign, the generally hard-nosed blogger and defense newsman Spencer Ackerman got a little steamy over the Obama foreign policy team and its emerging doctrines in a puckering March 2008 essay.  Ackerman described Obama as an “enlightened international globalist” who wanted to free American foreign policy from the tyranny of fear.

Years later, in the midst of the Libya operation, reporters at a White House press conference asked again for the elements of a doctrine—and reports suggest that spokesman Ben Rhodes spread 800 words around the podium without an answer.

What’s interesting about all of this is not that all of these folks don’t have some point—well, all except Beinart; offshore balancing as truly defined has nothing to do with their global program.  It’s that they all have a point.  The endless parade of interpretations is of a piece with general reaction to Obama:  More than any recent president, he exists in the eye of the beholder.  He is all things (or most of them, anyway) to all (most) people.

In domestic policy this accounts for his extraordinary ability to be socialist to some and capitalist tool to others.  In foreign affairs, he has been admired, and condemned, by realists and liberal internationalists alike.  He is a noninterventionist interventionist, a non-isolationist proponent of global restraint, an anti-militarist advocate of war.

Take the March 2009 Afghan strategy (the first in now a long line).  Diametrically-opposed interpretations allowed everyone to see in it what they wanted:  This is going to be full-scope COIN; no, it’s counterterrorism; no, it’s a political strategy.  And Obama’s China policy is either accelerating toward confrontation or feckless appeasement, depending on the observer.

This is the essential Obama Style:  Avoid fundamental choice.  Draw a wavy line forward between the dangerous shoals of One Side versus The Other.  Toss out enough actions and statements to keep everyone guessing.  Portray yourself as the enemy as the simplistic false choice between … actual alternatives.  It is a doctrine via the absence of doctrine, ideology, or big decisions.

There are two ways to interpret this.  One is that it is a sensible, pragmatic approach to a highly fluid time.  This is no moment to be Picking Winners in global affairs.  Everyone wants a bold decision in the moment; when boldness leads to Iraq or war with Russia, Everyone won’t be so enthused.  (This sounds, in fact, a lot like Ike, and for all the comparisons of Obama with various presidents, the essential likenesses with Eisenhower–calm, pragmatic, tacking carefully between extremes in a fashion that infuriated partisans and opponents alike but looks pretty good in hindsight–have not been adequately explored.)

The counter-argument is about the dangers of an absence of clarity.  Refusing to make choices means no priorities emerge.  Muddling through is … muddling through, with all the persistence of conventional wisdom that comes with it.  Contradictions are bound to emerge between hedging and the demands for hard tacking one way or another.  (We’re all for a more restrained, humble approach that recognizes that others have conflicting interests … but not when it’s those goddamned Pakistanis, who are causing such trouble.  Their perfectly understandable, distinct interests are annoying, and must change.)

Which is ultimately the greater truth about the Obama Style?  We can’t know for sure.  Probably some measure of each holds real truth.  But the nagging question remains:  Would it not be possible to marry the pragmatism and restraint embodied in a nondoctrinaire style with some greater degree of explicit strategy and hard choices?  Because if we don’t get that, the tough choices that events are forcing on us will be made thoughtfully, sensibly, pragmatically—and, to some unsettling degree, randomly.

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