January 2010

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The Obama Doctrine

by Thomas G. Vincent

"What we heard articulated today in the president's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech was nothing short of the Obama Doctrine -- the most comprehensive view we've been offered yet of how the president views foreign policy -- and how he sees himself within the pantheon of world leaders."

ABC News Senior White House Correspondent Jake Tapper

The Obama Doctrine. It sounds so noble, so statesman like. If there is a doctrine contained in Obama’s speech, however, when it deals with the subject of war, it doesn’t sound that much different than the Bush/Reagan doctrine. In essence, what Obama said to the Nobel Committee was: “Nonviolent peaceniks like Ghandi and Martin Luther King are all very well and good, however, the world’s a dangerous place full of bad people and the US will continue to go to war with anyone, at any time, for any reason that we deem “just.” – and we can think up a whole lot of reasons.

So exactly what doctrine is Obama supposed to have outlined? Let’s examine some of the things said in the speech.

1)“Evil does exist in the world.” Man is imperfect and there are limits to reason.

2) There are times when nations find “the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.”

3) The purpose of military action can extend “beyond self-defense or the defense of one nation against an aggressor.

4)”The instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace.”

5)“Force can be justified on humanitarian grounds.”

“Evil does exist in the world.”

“There are times when nations find “the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.”

Taken together, the first two statements are very troublesome. Obama seems to be saying: 1. There are bad people in the world who won’t listen to reason. and 2. to deal with these people, nations are justified in “the use of force.” While I agree that there are plenty of imperfect, unreasonable, and even nasty people in the world that doesn’t justify classifying them all as “evil.” Nor does it provide moral absolution for nations that use force in order to deal with them.

The problem with these two statements - as with most political doctrines - is that they are conveniently vague. They allow Obama to perform the same moral gymnastics that George W. Bush practiced when he justified pre-emptive strikes as an acceptable strategy to deal with “evil doers.” Even more disturbing, however, is Obama’s oratorical sleight of hand. Placing “Hitler” and “al Qaeda’s leaders” in back to back sentences Obama infers that they are equal.

Even from a purely practical standpoint, they are in no way similar. Hitler was the leader of a large nation, a totalitarian regime, with a huge military machine at his disposal. Nazi Germany slaughtered and tortured millions. Al Qaeda is a small network of radical Islamic fundamentalists with no army, or navy that has to hijack passenger planes in order to attack us. They are not equivalent evils. But because Obama treats them as such it gives him license to use the same moral argument to support the use of massive military power against both.

The purpose of military action can extend “beyond self-defense or the defense of one nation against an aggressor.

Extending acceptable military action “beyond self-defense,” is opening the lid to a Pandora’s box of uses for our military might. Our army is not a police force. Its purpose is not designed to build hospitals, roads, schools, or nations. It has one legitimate purpose: to defeat enemy armies by force of arms. By extending the army’s mandate beyond self-defense is akin to trying to use an M-16 to pound nails. Not only is it a bad idea for practical reasons, it also stretches the moral justification of military action past the breaking point. It is every bit as bad as condoning torture.

“The instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace.”

“Instruments of war.” A curious phrase. Bunker busters, cluster bombs, depleted uranium shells, land-mines, these are some of the instruments of war currently used by the United States military in the Middle East. For Obama to stand and accept a peace prize while declaring that these horrific weapons have a useful, moral purpose in preserving peace is, in my opinion, the most repugnant and insensitive statement the president has uttered since he took office.

“Force can be justified on humanitarian grounds.”

Here again, what does he mean by “force?” What does “humanitarian grounds" mean? Is he trying to say that he thinks “just war theory” should be altered to make it Okay to send 100,000 soldiers to invade and occupy a nation for eight years merely because they harbored a group of extremists who hatched a plot to hijack some jet planes and fly them into buildings? The events of 9-11 were horrific acts. However, is the president trying to infer in his speech that anytime an al Qaeda like terrorist organization pops up we have the moral license, even the responsibility, to mobilize our massive military machine and invade yet another country?

Obama’s statements that the nature of future world conflicts, “...will require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace,” are curious. While it displays an admirable intellectual curiosity of the type lacking in his predecessor, Obama seems to be developing a sort of “make it up as we go,” morality. In his excellent article in The Atlantic, David Brooks indicates that the evolution of some of Obama’s ideas on “practical morality” stem from his interpretation of the writings of Reinhold Neibuhr:

Niebuhr's great foe was idealism. American idealism, he believed, comes in two forms: the idealism of noninterventionists, who are embarrassed by power, and the idealism of imperialists, who disguise power as virtue. David Brooks.

By his words, and by his actions, Obama is certainly not coming down on the side of non-intervention. But while he may not be as rabid as the Neo-Cons in seeing military power as virtue, by stating that “the use of force” is morally justified for an ever-expanding range of uses, he nonetheless is continuing to ally himself with those who feel that war is necessary, moral, and good. When the leader of a nation that spends more than half a trillion dollars on its military avers in public that military might is an efficacious means of combating evil, I think this should give the world pause.

President Obama can assert the morality of his actions as Commander-in-chief all he likes. He can try to claim the moral high ground by twisting and torturing the definition of what constitutes a “just war.” He can continue to claim that all the death and misery we visit on foreign countries is moral as long as we are working toward “...a just peace based on the inherent rights and dignity of every individual...” But in the end, it all comes down to the USA declaring its right to launch unilateral pre-emptive wars against whomever we please, whenever we please.

To paraphrase the late George Carlin, in the future under president Obama, US foreign policy will continue to be one of: “bombing the crap out of brown people.”


Thomas Vincent is an independent writer and blogger on all things political. Interested readers are invited to check out Tom's personal blog "Certain Doubt"