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

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
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.

A questionable and just-short-of-anarchist crusade from Edward Snowden, with intensified bullying from Russian President Vladimir Putin, gives the false and crudely offensive impression of impotence. That’s had the effect of dangerously projecting a timid, pushover president at a time when rivals are testing us, whether it’s the Russians in Ukraine, the North Koreans in Asia or Boko Haram in West Africa.


Obama is not weak. Maybe he’s a bit too slow for comfort on the draw, and maybe a bit too deliberative and overly wonkish when events call for speed. But we had that, right? And look where it got us. Working smarter rather than shooting hard is a groove we should all get used to. He is simply making an attempt at fitting in, as best he can, to the tune of the times we live in. That’s as good a global doctrine as you could ask for: steady, cautious and collaborative when it’s time to pass it on.

Of course, there’s nothing we can do in either Syria or Ukraine just short of full-blown war—and who wants that? In Syria, Obama achieved his goal: to keep us out of it. In Ukraine, it’s the same: Do what you do, Putin. We’ve got the world’s largest economy to mend over here.


We can’t eliminate deficits, debt and the famously “out of control” federal spending that Republicans love to campaign on if we’re endlessly mired in foxholes. 

In this day and age of troop drawdowns, defense cutbacks and a cautious imperative to de-fang the surveillance state, the Obama doctrine is simply doing what we set it to do. Americans will need to fundamentally alter their Hollywood-baked perceptions of tanks rolling into the explosion-lit horizon blasting whatever comes their way. It’s not as simple as John Wayne in Green Berets or as over-the-top as Chris Evans in Captain America. We don’t need more sheriffs—just a few more social workers, teachers and therapists as we rebuild for the next Great Reset. Make up your mind.


Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and regular contributor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. Follow him on Twitter.

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.

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