There have been several attempts lately to discern some sort of “Obama Doctrine” in foreign policy. This piece from the FT is just the latest example.
Actually, the doctrine has been apparent from the first, to those paying attention. To put it crudely, but oh-so-accurately, it is “F*ck our allies, let our enemies f*ck us.”
The roots of this doctrine have also been quite obvious. There are two main ones.
The first is his very progressive view that the United States has been a malign force in the world. This is best encapsulated in his Cairo speech, with its criticism of American arrogance. It is also demonstrated in word and deed, in his insistence that American presence in foreign places creates disorder rather than reduces it, and his concerted effort to withdraw from the world and to defer to others (to “lead from behind”, if you will).
In his younger days, he was a supporter of the nuclear freeze movement, which was animated at the very least by morally relativistic beliefs, but that moral relativism was usually merely a fig leaf to disguise deep-seated anti-Americanism (and anti-Westernism). He is a product of romanticism about the Third World that flourished in the 70s and 80s, and he came by it honestly, from both parents, inveterate leftists both.
Indeed, Obama’s views on these matters are quite aligned with Ayatollah Khamanei’s, as set out in this fawning (but revealing) piece in Foreign Affairs. Khamenei’s constant invocation of American arrogance is an eerie echo of Obama’s: or is it the other way around? Either way, it is easy to understand Obama’s benign attitude towards the most strident rhetoric coming out of the Iranian regime, e.g., the motto of “Death to America.” (One of Obama’s spokesman said that this rhetoric should be ignored, even when uttered by the Supreme Leader, because it is just “background noise” intended for domestic consumption.) He views it as an understandable, if somewhat overwrought, expression of a legitimate critique of the United States.
This helps explain his willingness to treat with Iran, and to make concession after concession. From the “closed fist/open hand” rhetoric of his first campaign and first term, to his recent statements that Iran would moderate its behavior and become a responsible nation when it achieves a rapprochement with the US and the West, it is clear that he believes that Iranian actions are an understandable response to American and Western hostility, rather than a dangerous brew of Persian chauvinism and imperialism on the one hand, and fanatical Islamist ideology on the other.
This can lead him to deny some very basic and obvious realities about the Iranian regime. For instance, he pushed back against Arab criticism of his quest for a deal with Iran by saying that they needed to pay less attention to an Iranian threat, and realize that their greatest risk was “dissatisfaction inside their own countries”.
Truly, there is much to criticize about the Saudis and Qataris and Egyptians: I find the oil ticks particularly loathsome. But Obama’s criticism of the Arabs is not matched by a similar criticism of Iran, even though by every measure (e.g., public executions of gays, oppressive lifestyle police, totalitarian control of civil life), Iran is as bad or worse than the Saudis et al. But Obama is silent about Iranian repressions and internal dissatisfaction even as he criticizes the Saudis and Egyptians.
Indeed, in 2009 Obama notoriously spurned a broad-based expression of popular dissatisfaction in Iran during the “Green Revolution,” yet disastrously embraced the Arab Spring: the fervent support for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was particularly disastrous.
Looking at this history, it is clear that the best predictor of whom Obama will support (or at least not criticize) and home he will oppose (and criticize) is not the political system, or the repressiveness of the government, but whether it is allied with the US, or not.
Cuba is the latest example. The spectacle that is occurring in Panama is sick-making in the extreme. The Cuban regime has not reformed, in the least. It remains oppressive, and inveterately anti-American. Yet Obama strives to normalize relations without demanding the slightest moderation of Cuba’s domestic oppression or anti-American foreign policy.
Obama’s progressive blaming of the US is implicit in these actions. His words also betray the second taproot of his “doctrine”: his overweening arrogance. I have mentioned several times that I was going to start dating things “BO” for “Before Obama” and “AO” for “After Obama”, because he quite evidently believes that things that happened before his birth are irrelevant, and that his arrival makes a new world possible. Whoops, he did it again!:
“The Cold War has been over for a long time,” Obama said. “And I’m not interested in having battles frankly that started before I was born.”
As if the date of his birth has any relevance whatsoever to the historical, political, economic, and social forces that drive the relations between nations. (BTW, Raul Castro obviously knows how to play Obama: with obsequious praise for his genius.)
This statement about the Cold War is particularly amazing, given recent developments, including developments involving Cuba. I recalled just the other day Obama’s sneer at Romney’s warning about Russia, saying that the 80s wanted their foreign policy back, because the Cold War is over, and noted that this statement was risibly clueless because Putin clearly wants to refight it: a war ain’t over if one guy is still fighting it. (This is another principle that Obama seems to ignore because of his narcissism: in Iraq and Afghanistan, he declares peace simply because he has stopped fighting. But there is no peace.) If you’ve been paying attention (and Obama clearly hasn’t been, or worse, has been and doesn’t care) you will have noticed that one Cold War strategy that Putin is resurrecting is extensive military and intelligence cooperation in the Caribbean, in particular with Nicaragua, Venezuela . . . and Cuba.
That’s all right out of the Cold War. And believe it or not, some of it happened after Obama was born!
So while Putin is busy trying to reignite superpower competition, Obama acts as if it’s a thing of the past, to be ignored. Which explains why Obama does not condition dealing with Cuba on its agreement to forego military ties with a revanchist and revisionist Russia.
This all demonstrates another symptom of Obama’s narcissism: his mental rigidity and inability to admit a mistake, or that conditions have changed in a way that invalidate his original judgments. He has believed that the Cold War is over, and nothing will budge him from that view.
My conclusion is based on observation from a distance. Someone who observed him up close for many years, Richard Epstein, has noted the same thing. His criticism of the Iran “deal” is withering, and it culminates with this conclusion (at about the 14:35 mark):
I see no sign that he will change his mind. He is always the smartest man in the room. That’s true when there’s one person there.
In other words, Obama believes that he is incapable of error; that facts cannot change in ways that make it necessary to change his mind; and that he can ignore criticism because no one is capable of achieving his Olympian insights.
I am not alone now in trying to determine whether Obama’s actions are the results of incompetence or intent: this question is debated with some regularity, and this is not limited to the right anymore (though of course it is predominant there). I do not discount that he is incompetent and over his head, but I think he is intentionally pursuing these various courses out of a firm set of beliefs rooted in a progressive, fundamentally anti-US and anti-Western worldview, and in a belief in his transcendent superiority. Isis and other disasters are unintended consequences, but by and large he ignores them because he is convinced that these are irrelevant to his ultimate quest to remake the world and redeem America’s sins, original and derivative.
Hanlon’s Razor says never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence. What Obama is doing cannot be explained by mere incompetence alone. It has to be intentional, and is arguably malicious.