With only three years in the U.S. Senate on the federal portion of his resume, Barack Obama’s legislative record would be short work for any origami class in the country. He has never won a national election, and competes for favor in his own party with an aggrieved woman whose lifelong ambition gives her Terminator-like stamina.
In spite of those obstacles, Obama and his advisors have been feeling audaciously hopeful lately. In fact, they’ve unveiled that most presidential of accessories, the eponymous doctrine.
Spencer Ackerman introduced the “Obama Doctrine” in the pages of The American Prospect, writing breathlessly that Obama and his foreign policy brain trust “envision a doctrine that first ends the politics of fear” and then “moves beyond a hollow, sloganeering ‘democracy promotion’ agenda” in favor of a hollow, sloganeering “dignity promotion” agenda.
The scribe to whom Team Obama retailed the new doctrine played along by conflating the political and the spiritual. In Ackerman’s words, “Obama’s admonition to Democrats is much like Pope John Paul II’s to the Gdansk shipyard strikers — first, be not afraid.”
Precisely what constitutes what Ackerman calls “the most sweeping liberal foreign policy critique we’ve heard from a serious presidential contender in decades” is hard to say. But anyone reading his essay learns that Obama has no qualms about torching a straw man if that kind of arson might motivate potential underlings at the State Department.
“It’s time to reject the counsel that says the American people would rather have someone who is strong and wrong than someone who is weak and right,” Obama asserted in a January speech, using rhyme, parallelism, and a hint of rebelliousness to pin a “clap for me” sign on an otherwise pedestrian thought.
THE SENATOR’S BRAIN TRUST takes that to mean that we should abandon the “conventional thinking” that got us into Iraq, and (this is the Transformative Insight) thoroughly destroy al-Qaeda while “fixing the conditions of misery that breed anti-Americanism and prevent liberty, justice, and prosperity from taking root.”
Does that sound familiar? It should.
As the blogging team over at “Protein Wisdom” noticed, “Samantha Power, booted from Team Obama after calling Hillary Clinton a ‘monster’ (and just coincidentally after suggesting that Obama might not be able to get US troops out of Iraq as fast as he says), is apparently unaware that much of what she is advocating is Bush administration policy.”
You see, dignity promotion is actually a prerequisite for the kind of democracy building that President Bush has been accused of doing. Presidential rhetoric about human longing for freedom assumes a common dignity from which that desire must proceed.
Many commentators have responded to the Obama Doctrine by focusing on the personalities that helped to formulate it, but the more interesting question is how it rates when measured against other statements of its type.
James Monroe was admirably specific in 1823 when warning European powers that the United States would no longer tolerate their meddling in New World politics. Jimmy Carter was uncharacteristically blunt when claiming in 1980 that the U.S. would use military force to defend its interests in the Persian Gulf. Five years later, the Reagan Doctrine minced no words in justifying both overt and covert support for freedom fighters as “self-defense.” By 1999, Bill Clinton had proclaimed, in effect, that we are the world, and we stand foursquare against ethnic cleansing and the slaughter of innocents.
George W. Bush did not formulate his own doctrine until charred landscapes in three states suggested that it might be a good idea, but what he and his team then came up with was positively crystalline in promising to treat countries that harbor or aid terrorists the same as terrorists themselves.
Note the emphasis on realpolitik in every presidential doctrine but the one proposed by Barack Obama. Doubtless Obama wants favorable consideration from voters, especially Democratic superdelegates, for trying to transcend conventional thinking. But foreign policy is unforgiving of attempts to ignore human nature.
CINEMATIC AND MUSICAL analogies spring to mind. On the one hand, Obama wants to invert the ethos of school in the 1989 movie, Dead Poets Society.
Remember the reaction of the teacher played by Robin Williams to a bloodlessly mathematical introduction to poetry? He roared at the unseen author of the offending textbook: “Excrement! That’s what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard! We’re not laying pipe! We’re talking about poetry. How can you describe poetry like American Bandstand? “I like Byron, I give him a 42 but I can’t dance to it!” Obama and his team seem to have forgotten that setting foreign policy is more like laying pipe than like reading poetry.
Here we turn from movies to music to bring the point home, because the Obama Doctrine is jarring in the same cringe-making way that John Denver singing “Mustang Sally” would have been jarring. Similarly, there are very good reasons why talented singer and drummer Karen Carpenter never opened a concert singing George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone.”
There are a few musicians who can play in any genre (banjoist Bela Fleck and cellist Yo-Yo Ma come to mind), but Barack Obama’s political career is not even remotely analogous to the professional arcs on which they have traveled. Maybe doo wop can shed light on why Team Obama team needs a do over: Who put the dip in the dip-dee-dip-dee-dip is a forensic question in the way that who wrote the book of love is not, because some things are better left undone.
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