The Obama Doctrine: from ‘democratic messianism’ to ‘passive progressivism’?



Experience has taught President Barack Obama to temper his idealism with a pragmatic, realist approach to foreign policy, leading him to reject liberal Democratic interventionism. Yet he remains a democratic internationalist, he told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in a discussion of The Obama Doctrine.

But Bernard Henri-Levy (right) is not convinced by “the passive progressivism of this believer in democracy who also appears to believe that it is by a purely natural process (one requiring no pushing, no forcing, and certainly no war), that the wheat will separate from the chaff, that good money will chase out bad, and that liberty ultimately will triumph over tyranny.”

He argues that Obama’s recoil from “democratic messianism” has only led to “a passive messianism, a do-nothing messianism in which one allows oneself to be borne along.”

The president has been criticized for treating “don’t do stupid shit” as a useful statement of American foreign-policy strategy, notes Stephen Sestanovich, a professor at Columbia University and the author of Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama:

Hillary Clinton mocked the phrase—to none other than Jeffrey Goldberg—as “not an organizing principle.” Yet the formula has real meaning. “Don’t do stupid shit” is a kind of strategy—if you have a clear enough idea of what’s stupid and real determination not to do it. Obama has both of these, and he has made them the organizing framework of a downsized, less expensive, more risk-averse foreign policy. For better or worse, this is his “doctrine.” It is helping him to clean the barn. What it may not do is sustain the American role in the world that he himself claims to want. 

Obama’s own strategic judgment—announced publicly in May 2011 and repeated to Goldberg—is that stability in the Middle East will only emerge through addressing dysfunctional governance, notes Tamara Cofman Wittes, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy:

But after the first blush of 2011, Obama demonstrated little readiness to invest political capital or build platforms for persistent engagement on behalf of the messy, imperfect, and always incomplete work of democratic growth. To the contrary, Obama cut funding for democracy assistance globally throughout his presidency. Between May 2011 and his 2013 speech at the United Nations General Assembly, democratic reform in the Middle East moved from a “top priority” to a bare footnote.

Where does the 44th president fit into America’s ideological history? Stanford University’s Josef Joffe asks:

The answer emerges at the end of “The Obama Doctrine.” His mindset is rooted in the oldest tradition of them all. Many of the Founders were isolationists with a special mission. Their lodestar was “not dominion, but liberty,” as John Quincy Adams had it. America would not go “abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Nor would it have to; that was the best part. History would do the job, bringing about the foreordained triumph of freedom and democracy.  If history is on America’s side, then Americans need not force or fight others. Let Iran, Russia, and China push their pawns forward in search of glory and power.

Obama speaks of the need for Muslims to “undergo a vigorous discussion within their community about how Islam works as part of a peaceful, modern society” and speaks of a “reformation that would help people adapt their religious doctrines to modernity,” notes Brookings analyst Shadi Hamid:

That Islam—a completely different religion with a completely different founding and evolution—should follow a path similar to Christianity’s is an odd presumption. Why, exactly, should Christianity and its eventual secularization in the West be the standard by which other religions are judged? The Reformation was a response to clerical despotism. The modern Middle East’s curse, if anything, has more often than not been secular despotism. In the pre-modern era, meanwhile, it was a self-regulating clerical class that, as keepers of God-given law, provided a check on the sultan’s executive power and authority, as Harvard’s Noah Feldman has argued.

In Goldberg’s article, Stephen Sestanovich [a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy] describes Obama as a “retrenchment” president akin to Dwight Eisenhower or Richard Nixon, notes analyst Kori Schake:

That seems to me not quite severe enough a judgment. The better parallel is to Lyndon Johnson fighting wars “he believed to be unwinnable” (as Goldberg describes Obama). Sending soldiers into harm’s way when you consider their fight pointless must weigh heavily on the conscience. And that may be the best explanation of Obama’s inaction: He does not appear to believe that military force can achieve anything lasting. And yet he cannot see that the uncertainty he projects about his policies, and the half-hearted military efforts he undertakes, are what prevent military force from being successful.  

There is no “Obama doctrine”; rather, we see here a full-blown revolution in American foreign policy. And this revolution can be summed up as follows: The foes shall become friends, and the friends foes, argues historian Niall Ferguson:

In the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia are out, Iran is in. Similarly, in the Far East, China is out, Vietnam is in. As for a special relationship, the president would rather have one with Cuba than Britain. Nothing could better illustrate the extent of Barack Obama’s repudiation of the “foreign-policy establishment.”

Yet grand strategies are judged by their consequences, not by their intentions, and in the Middle East—not to mention North Africa and parts of South Asia—the consequences are not looking pretty.

If the arc of history is in fact bending toward Islamic extremism, sectarian conflict, networks of terrorism, and regional nuclear-arms races, then the 44th president will turn out to have been rather less smart than the foreign-policy establishment he so loftily disdains.

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