The Obama Doctrine

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

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“You’ve knocked down a wall with Burma. You’ve knocked down a bigger wall with Cuba. And potentially you’re going to knock down a really big wall with Iran. . . . I feel like underneath there is a bit of an Obama Doctrine in there. It’s take care of all the strategic concerns. Satisfy them as much as you can. But you do believe that engagement is possible, that engagement can lead to different outcomes that are unpredictable in advance.”

“You know what I would combine it with though, Tom, is also a sense that we are powerful enough to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk.”

* * *

That exchange is from Thos. Friedman’s interview Saturday with President Obama. We don’t mind saying that the President has rarely spoken more articulately in respect of Iran and Israel and more broadly of his strategic vision. It is a reminder of the eloquence that did so much to help him trounce the Republicans in two general elections. But what has this doctrine wrought? His doctrine has been met with such chaos, and so many advances by our adversaries, that it has taken on the air of appeasement and defeat.

It would be one thing had the president brought in a successful test anywhere. But his — and Secretary of State Clinton’s — “reset” with Russia has been greeted with aggression from President Putin and his camarilla. The “pivot” to Asia has turned into a palsied pirouette and been unmasked as cover for fading from the Middle East. The redlines in Syria have been erased. Libya, Yemen, Venezuela are wrecks. Afghanistan is teetering to the Taliban, while Mr. Obama’s withdrawal has left Iraq at the mercy of Iran and the Islamic State.

This religious war now rages from Asia to Africa, from France to Australia. Israel has been insulted and marginalized. The Times is reporting that the Democrats’ hold on the Jewish vote is eroding. Voters have already revoked Democratic control of the Senate, while leaders in both houses assert they no longer trust the president to carry out his constitutional tasks overseas. One senator, Lindsey Graham, was on Face the Nation Sunday arguing for deferring an Iran deal until the next president, Democrat or Republican.

It’s not that in principle the idea of testing the intentions of our adversaries is illogical. Reagan did it with the Soviet regime. But he prepared for it by a military buildup — and the introduction of the Strategic Defense Initiative known as Star Wars. He did it in the context an economic boom unleashed by his supply-side tax cuts and Paul Volcker’s campaign against inflation. Mr. Obama, obsessed with one-party programs like Obamacare, allowed the Great Recession to swallow his presidency.

We’re not against presidential doctrines. There have been some doozies. Truman’s was “containment” (okay, but not so good for the long-suffering subjects of the Soviet Empire). Eisenhower’s was economic and military aid to threatened Mideast countries (the Soviets got Egypt). JFK’s — “pay any price, bear any burden” — was eventually betrayed by his own brother. The Johnson doctrine targeted revolution in our own hemisphere. Nixon’s led to “Vietnamization” of the Indochina war.

The Reagan doctrine — to roll back and defeat the Soviet — was the first post-World War II doctrine that really triumphed. The George W. Bush doctrine was to act pre-emptively to protect our interests, and by our lights was working pretty well until Mr. Obama went to the polls against it, declared that Iraq was the wrong war and Afghanistan was the right one, and then retreated on both fronts. When he blithely asserts that we can do all this without putting ourselves at risk, we’re inclined to ask what about our friends and allies?

So it’s a useful thing that Mr. Friedman has brought up the subject of the Obama Doctrine. Add it to the questions on which Congress can hold hearings as it wrestles with what to do about the proposal deal with Iran. It is, after all, but a proposal. One or more committees will look into its features, if the president is prepared to disclose them, and see whether they make sense. But the context, the larger doctrine, deserves to be put on the scales of checks and balances. There’s a doctrine for that too — the United States Constitution.


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