Don’t Get It Twisted: There Is an Obama Doctrine

This is as good a global doctrine as you could ask for: steady, cautious and collaborative.

President Barack Obama arrives at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., to deliver the commencement address May 28, 2014.
President Barack Obama arrives at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., to deliver the commencement address May 28, 2014. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

As President Barack Obama dropped foreign policy science on graduating West Point cadets, a fresh battle re-emerged over whether or not he actually has a foreign policy, rekindling fresh rounds of debate over the existence of an “Obama doctrine.” Hating conservatives are as convinced of its nonexistence as they are in doubt about his birthplace.

Of course he has a doctrine—it’s just a nasty, openhanded slap of realism pulling us away from a decade-plus of nonstop precision bombing, explosive roadside devices and waterboarding. Just because he’s the first black president doesn’t mean he’s the first president without a coherent foreign policy strategy.

That he’s a man of color injecting sorely needed keep-it-realness into diplomacy defies long-standing cultural convention. Contrary to what may have been previously thought, there is no raging black man running simple in the street and “busting caps” in every nation-state that crosses him. The previous administration filled that role quite well.

But the restless naysayers in today’s commentariat knew what they were getting into when they voted for him in 2008. It’s not as if he didn’t define his proposed foreign policy at the time as a complete reversal of post-9/11, trigger-happy cowboy interventionism. We knew what the deal was, from every debate in which he knocked nation-building Bush-doctrine escapades to every speech in which he promised to catch up with that megalomaniacal faux-Islamic cat who set it all off in the first place.

It’s Obama’s dose of cold water that so many can’t stand.

It has triggered a schizophrenic response from a war-jilted public still managing its way through combat fatigue and cold turkey. According to a Wall Street Journal-NBC poll, 47 percent of respondents want the U.S. to be less active in world affairs, while only 22 percent want the next president to be “more willing” to use military force, according to YouGov. Yet according to the RealClearPolitics average, more than 50 percent disapprove of the president’s handling of foreign affairs—despite the fact that he’s doing exactly what folks want.

“U.S. military action,” Obama said at West Point on Wednesday, “cannot be the only, or even primary, component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”

Interestingly enough, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the latest libertarian caped crusader and 2016 wannabe to hit the scene, once expressed similar sentiments: “Foreign policy, the interventionist critics claim, has no place for nuance or realism. You are either for us or against us. No middle ground is acceptable.”

Paul, however, gets the benefit of serious debate from conservative hawks as he slowly slithers his way into the next GOP presidential nomination. In the case of Obama, critics have resorted to slimy emasculation worthy of its weight in racialized narrative. It has created the current tight space between a rock and a hard place in which Obama finds little wiggle room. From “he’s not muscular enough” to “he’s a dove,” many detractors—mainly Republicans—have sissified the current White House occupant as quizzically weak.