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Meet the Obama Doctrine

And meet the Doctrinaires!

12:00 AM, Mar 27, 2008 • By DEAN BARNETT
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A COUPLE OF DAYS ago, Spencer Ackerman of the American Prospect published a lengthy article that revealed at long last--drum roll, please--the Obama Doctrine for foreign policy. Ackerman, working with copious cooperation from the Obama brain trust and himself a de facto Obama press agent, labeled the Obama Doctrine "an overhaul not just of our foreign policy but of how we think about foreign policy." He also tossed around important sounding words like "transformative" with youthful abandon.

Before delving into the specifics of the Obama Doctrine, it makes sense to look at the Doctrinaires who produced the plan. Because of her unfortunate tendency to shoot her mouth off to the media, Obama advisor emeritus Samantha Power is the rock star of the group. While Power will always be beloved in some right wing circles for calling Hillary Clinton "a monster"--the affront that earned Power "emeritus" status on Team Obama--her general attitude regarding foreign policy challenges likely won't appeal to hard-headed, hard-hearted conservatives.

Like her former Doctrinaire colleagues, Power is an idealist. She earned fame being one of the world's foremost opponents of genocide, even earning the nickname "the Genocide Chick" and shooting hoops with George Clooney in the process. Of course, this is an extremely laudable part of Power's background.

What's disturbing about Power's philosophy is how it elevates global politics into an inappropriately high-minded realm. In the Ackerman column, Power muses, "Look at why the baddies win these elections. It's because [populations are] living in climates of fear. [U.S. policy should be] about meeting people where they're at. Their fears of going hungry, or of the thug on the street. That's the swamp that needs draining. If we're to compete with extremism, we have to be able to provide these things that we're not [providing]."

"Climates of fear" are indeed a bad thing, and they can produce undesirable results. But is the principal American foreign policy challenge today really based on people acting out because they live in "climates of fear?" Does al Qaeda act out of fear, or does something more malicious lie in the jihadist heart?

And what are we to make of Power's insistence that we need to meet people "where they're at?" Does "meeting people where they're at" include situations when "where they're at" includes a pining for a world without Israel and a visceral need to control the output of Dutch film makers? That's probably an uncomfortable question for Obama and his Doctrinaires. You won't find it asked or answered anywhere in Ackerman's column.

The problem with having idealists form your foreign policy is that idealists tend not to care for the grotty details that upset their world view. Power is (or rather was) just one of the high-minded Doctrinaires whose résumé evidences a certain fondness for dovish idealism. Sarah Sewall is, according to Ackerman, one of Obama's closest advisors. Sewall made her bones as a human rights advocate and disarmament advocate. Disarmament advocates since their regrettable Helen Caldecott led heyday in the 80's have never been a repository for hard-headed foreign policy prescriptions.

Even the member of the team who's supposed to give the rest of them muscular cover shows a proclivity for airy aims. General Scott Gration flew 274 missions as fighter pilot in the First Gulf War. As a veteran of 32 years of service in the Air Force, Gration, according to Newsweek, is the guy "who lends gravitas to Obama."

But even Gration aims so high as to separate himself from reality. Newsweek quotes him as saying, "I believe if you could get rid of all the nuclear weapons this would be a wonderful world." True enough. And if unicorns could gather peacefully beneath a setting sun each night, the world would be a better place. Of course, there's nothing wrong with Gration's sentiment. But coming from the guy who's supposed to provide a dash of blood and steel to Obama's foreign policy prescriptions, it's a jolting dalliance with an unattainable fantasy world.

SO WHAT KIND of Doctrine have the Doctrinaires produced? Not surprisingly, one jammed with high-minded goals but an aversion to taking on the intellectual or physical challenges necessary to achieve them. Given the stark disparity between their expressed goals and the Doctrinaires' reluctance to act, the Obama Doctrine is predictably overflowing with internal contradictions and sweeping flowery assertions that ignore uncomfortable facts on the ground.