Michael Gerson: Obama’s global war on straw men
WASHINGTON -- After five and a half years, President Obama finally has a foreign policy doctrine all his own, which White House aides summarize as: “Don’t do stupid sh--.”
FDR had his Four Freedoms. Harry Truman would stand against the further expansion of communism in Europe. Ronald Reagan would attempt to roll back communism by providing assistance to freedom fighters. Jimmy Carter would use military force, if necessary, to defend American interests in the Persian Gulf. George W. Bush would support the growth of Democratic movements and institutions as an antidote to radicalism.
Obama doesn’t do “stupid sh--.”
Like any good foreign policy doctrine, it has a number of corollaries. “Don’t do stupid sh--,” except calling for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to step down, then doing almost nothing to make it happen—encouraging the creation of a chaotic terrorist haven at the heart of the Middle East. Except drawing a red line against the use of chemical weapons, then rewarding Assad with engagement and legitimacy when he actually used them.
Except launching a war for regime change in Libya and then failing to do postwar reconstruction, leading to creation of another terrorist haven. Except for failing, after a pathetic attempt, to conclude a Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government that might have helped stabilize a key country in a key region.
Except for needlessly alienating our Canadian ally by refusing to approve the Keystone XL pipeline for political reasons. Except for initially poisoning our relations with Israel by demanding a settlement freeze. Except for surging troops to Afghanistan while announcing a drawdown date that has encouraged the resistance and patience of the enemy.
The Obama Doctrine has the virtue of simplicity, but it defies the rhetorician’s art. “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we don’t do stupid sh--.” It is hard to carve the sophomoric and insipid into marble, or to inspire a nation with shrunken ambitions.
The natural result of this foreign policy theory is a speech such as the one Obama recently delivered at West Point. The president does not inspire. He does not persuade. He justifies himself. The world he depicts is a choice between foolhardy extremes. The proper response is not primarily an assertion of American values or the defense of American interests; it is a trust in Obama’s own balancing judgment.
America will not, as some people hope, invade and occupy every country on Earth to impose our imperial will. And we will not, as others urge, enter nuclear bunkers and live as mole people. We will instead act with reason and moderation, employing force only with universal agreement, while morally posturing about Syrian refugees and kidnapped Nigerian girls.
America will lead the global war against straw men; on all other matters, let’s not get carried away. It is a message that a foreign policy seminar of academic realists might have hooahed. It was an odd choice for delivery to newly minted Army officers serving in a military currently at war: Put none but the risk-averse on guard tonight.
This purely negative doctrine—America will not assume “every problem has a military solution” or “rush into military adventures” or attack people “to avoid looking weak”—is, above all, a method of political self-justification through the caricaturing of critics. The president’s argument can be summarized: Those who think I’m weak want war. If you accept the premise, Obama is beyond criticism.
This approach is also a rhetorical distraction from other, more positive but failed foreign policy enterprises. Obama, for understandable reasons, does not want to talk about the “new beginning” in the Middle East, or the “reset” with Russia, or the “pivot” to Asia (as China exposes its emptiness).
The West Point argument, in a narrow political way, works for the president. It also exposes the unctuousness of Obama’s strongest foreign policy supporters. A doctrine of risk aversion can only be justified by minimizing the seriousness of global challenges and miniaturizing the role of presidential leadership. Was serial risk-aversion effective in the Syrian crisis? Will it effectively deter Russian adventurism? Will it be sufficient in dealing with the rise of China?
And this is the Obama Doctrine’s most serious problem: Its vapidity is evident to leaders around the world, who are even less inclined to trust or fear the United States when determining their own actions. Which is where the doctrine hits the fan.
Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group; email firstname.lastname@example.org.