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Thoughts on an "Obama Doctrine"

9:27 PM, Dec 10, 2009 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Eamon Javers at Politico writes:

President Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize speech Thursday is drawing praise from some unlikely quarters - conservative Republicans - who likened Obama's defense of "just wars" to the worldview of his predecessor, Republican George W. Bush.

It's already being called the "Obama Doctrine" - a notion that foreign policy is a struggle of good and evil, that American exceptionalism has blunted the force of tyranny in the world, and that U.S. military might can be a force for good and even harnessed to humanitarian ends.

He's not alone. Several others have suggested -- nudged by WH advisers -- that the president's Nobel speech amounts to something close to an explication of an "Obama Doctrine."

There were some good things in the speech and there were indeed some echoes of the rhetoric from George W. Bush. But none of the three things that are supposed to define the new "Obama Doctrine" -- foreign policy as a struggle of good and evil, American exceptionalism and the US military as a force for good -- are new or unique to Obama. In fact, in the case of two of the tenets of the new Obama Doctrine the evidence suggests he doesn't subscribe to them.

We will assume that he embraces pillar #3 -- that the US military can be a force for good. What about #1 and #2? On #2, Obama spent much of the 2008 presidential campaign arguing that foreign policy is much more than a struggle of good versus evil, and that his predecessor's insistence on seeing the world that way was a chief cause of our loss of popularity and influence. And on #2, Obama has directly repudiated the concept of American exceptionalism, arguing that Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism, Brits believe in British exceptionalism, etc.

So what is the Obama Doctrine? It seems to be evolving. But the president himself addressed this question at a press conference in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, back on April 19, and what emerged was some combination of of aggressive multilateralism, geopolitical egalitarianism, cultural relativism and self-criticism -- all in the service of US national interest.

NBC's Chuck Todd asked:

Q What should -- a lot of people are going to start trying to write about the "Obama doctrine." What should be the -- what are the pillars of that that you think people should be taking away -- after observing you on the world stage the last three weeks, what are the pillars of the Obama doctrine?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, you know, I will leave it up to you, Chuck, to write the definitive statement on Obamaism. But there are a couple of principles that I've tried to apply across the board: Number one, that the United States remains the most powerful, wealthiest nation on Earth, but we're only one nation, and that the problems that we confront, whether it's drug cartels, climate change, terrorism, you name it, can't be solved just by one country. And I think if you start with that approach, then you are inclined to listen and not just talk.

And so in all these meetings what I've said is, we have some very clear ideas in terms of where the international community should be moving; we have some very specific national interests, starting with safety and security that we have to attend to; but we recognize that other countries have good ideas, too, and we want to hear them. And the fact that a good idea comes from a small country like a Costa Rica should not somehow diminish the fact that it's a good idea. I think people appreciate that. So that's number one.

Number two, I think that -- I feel very strongly that when we are at our best, the United States represents a set of universal values and ideals -- the idea of democratic practices, the idea of freedom of speech and religion, the idea of a civil society where people are free to pursue their dreams and not be imposed upon constantly by their government. So we've got a set of ideas that I think have broad applicability. But what I also believe is that other countries have different cultures, different perspectives, and are coming out of different histories, and that we do our best to promote our ideals and our values by our example.

And so if we are practicing what we preach and if we occasionally confess to having strayed from our values and our ideals, that strengthens our hand; that allows us to speak with greater moral force and clarity around these issues.