Essay by Tom Gregg       April 10, 2008


Doctrine for Dummies

In an effort to burnish his none-too-glittering foreign policy credentials, Barack Obama’s brains trust has been elaborating a set of proposals and priorities that would govern America’s relations with the world under a future Obama Administration. And they really deserve to be studied, if only for the pathos of their stupidity. We should all be grateful, therefore, to Spencer Ackerman, who has gathered up the threads of foreign policy thinking, Obama style, and woven them into a doctrinaire tapestry.  

Writing for the American Prospect, Spencer Ackerman describes the emerging Obama doctrine in these stirring words: “the most sweeping liberal foreign-policy critique we've heard from a serious presidential contender in decades.” But the magic moment passes quickly as with no intention of doing so, Ackerman lets the air out of the balloon: 

I spoke at length with Obama's foreign-policy brain trust, the advisers who will craft and implement a new global strategy if he wins the nomination and the general election. They envision a doctrine that first ends the politics of fear and then moves beyond a hollow, sloganeering “democracy promotion” agenda in favor of “dignity promotion,” to fix the conditions of misery that breed anti-Americanism and prevent liberty, justice, and prosperity from taking root. An inextricable part of that doctrine is a relentless and thorough destruction of al-Qaeda. Is this hawkish? Is this dovish? It's both and neither—an overhaul not just of our foreign policy but of how we think about foreign policy. And it might just be the future of American global leadership. 

Got that? “Democracy promotion” is hollow sloganeering, whereas “dignity promotion” is pregnant with substance: 

This ability to see the world from different perspectives informs what the Obama team hopes will replace the Iraq War mind-set: something they call dignity promotion. “I don't think anyone in the foreign-policy community has as much an appreciation of the value of dignity as Obama does,” says Samantha Power, a former key aide and author of the groundbreaking study of U.S. foreign policy and genocide, A Problem From Hell. “Dignity is a way to unite a lot of different strands [of foreign-policy thinking],” she says. “If you start with that, it explains why it's not enough to spend $3 billion on refugee camps in Darfur, because the way those people are living is not the way they want to live. It's not a human way to live. It's graceless—an affront to your sense of dignity.”

In other words, the way to fight genocide is to cultivate a proper sense of outrage. No doubt the genocidal Islamist government of Sudan will be impressed by this call for “dignity.” 

And how is dignity to be promoted? In this regard, no one can accuse the Obama brains trust of innovative thinking. America will export “dignity” to the wretched of the earth by attacking the root causes of extremism: poverty, ignorance, starvation, disease, etc., etc/—welfare for the world, in other words. That the welfare model has governed the West’s approach to Third World development since the Sixties, and has failed miserably time after time, is a point of no importance. For remember, it’s far more important to cultivate the right feelings than it is to do the right thing. This, indeed, is the unifying theme of the Obama Doctrine: “Aren’t we wonderful!”

Lest the misguided conclude from this New Age mumbo-jumbo that Barack Obama is some weak-kneed, chicken-hearted, unpatriotic leftie, however, he has also included a promise to go after al-Qaeda in its Pakistani safe haven. But this destruction of al-Qaeda in Pakistan won’t begin until won’t happen until Iraq has been abandoned to the tender mercies of, er, al-Qaeda—for as the candidate has frequently pledged, the centerpiece of his foreign policy strategy is a disorderly skedaddle out of Mesopotamia. Before you can win, apparently, you have to lose—a contradiction that may seem objectionable to the simple-minded. Nor is it readily apparent why, if it was such a terrible idea to invade Iraq, it’s such a brilliant idea to invade Pakistan.

But that’s the beauty of the Obama approach. Its true sophistication lies not in the area of foreign policy, but in that of psychology. Obama may be our first truly postmodern presidential candidate. In him we find the folk wisdom of practical politics elevated to a principle: If it makes you feel good, it doesn’t have to make sense.

Thus the fact that the Obama Doctrine contradicts itself at every turn is hardly a fatal objection—for as Dostoevsky once quipped, “The formula ‘Two and two make five’ is not without its attractions.” So why bother to ask, for example, how America can promote “dignity” in the Third World while throttling the global economy with protectionist trade policies and growth-inhibiting environmental policies? Facts don’t matter. Reality doesn’t matter. We are the change we’ve been waiting for.

Obama's foreign policy proposals have its critics, of course, including, according to Ackerman, “Jewish right-wingers”—a charming phrase that perhaps reveals more about the psychological underpinnings of the Obama Doctrine than the writer intended. Jew bashing is, after all, one of the specialties of the Rev Jeremiah Wright, the candidate's spiritual mentor. And that might lead some small-minded people to wonder if all the soaring word of Barack Obama, all his promises of a kinder, gentler foreign policy, are not simply fronting for a set of ideas that cater to some of the very worst instincts of the American people.

Read Ackerman’s article, I say. Read the whole thing. It’s the best example so far this year of unintentional political comedy.


Copyright © 2008 by Thomas M. Gregg