Presidents of the United States from its inception have felt a pull to leave some form of recognizable imprint on the destiny of the country that would suggest a contribution worthy of the nation’s Olympian founders. Since the end of World War II, this has been elevated by the nation’s position as the undisputed economic and military superpower in the world. At its most identifiable, the policy considerations bear the vaunted label of the chief executive himself as the “architect” of the policy – the Truman Doctrine, the Kennedy Doctrine, the Nixon Doctrine, the Reagan Doctrine, the Bush Doctrine. The establishment of a recognizable doctrine implies the formal intellectual understanding of the world’s various historical forces and the United States’ position within it. It secures for the President his legacy – a measurable effect upon world history that will have legions of intellectuals debating the doctrine’s merits years after – a permanent accolade to the view of this individual as an effective and wise “leader”.
Last week, President Obama felt the need to use the commencement address at West Point Military Academy to try to put form to his foreign policy actions over the previous 51/2 years as President as a logical and consistent doctrine of international management that he hoped would cement a legacy of his time at the helm. An Obama Doctrine, as it were.
The tenets of a doctrine tend to allow for a very contracted definition for what in each case was an extremely complex set of policies that drove the machine of the policy and the tremendous patience and investment in seeing it through: Truman Doctrine : Peace Through Containment Kennedy Doctrine : Peace Through Competition of Ideas Nixon Doctrine : Peace Through Détente and Balance of Power Reagan Doctrine: Peace Through Strength Bush Doctrine: Peace Through Freedom as Universal Ideal
The evolution of a doctrine that holds merit is magnified by its survivorship over future administrations and its continuing logic in changing circumstances, but most profoundly by its ultimate success in accomplishing its goals. The penultimate examples are Truman’s and Reagan’s Doctrines, which are effective bookends of the same strategic overview. President Truman, burdened with the colossal responsibility of an entire continent in collapse as the detris of a crushing military conflict and facing the ominous reality of a megamilitary power in the Soviet Union with a antithical set of ideals as to a future world, saw presciently in an obscure State Department policist George Kennan a means to achieve peaceful containment sufficient for the time required for a free world to recover from its prostrate position juxtaposed to the Russian dominant force. Kennan’s famous Long Telegram, published February, 1946, was a foundation on which a whole set of complex structures were laid – the Marshall Plan, NATO, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank – were developed under Truman’s clear headed understanding of how long the battle would take and what on what fields the battles would be fought.
For thirty years, Truman’s doctrine served to provide the United States the breathing time and protection it needed to avoid direct conflict until the time when the free world’s resources could be fully marshaled to secure a permanent result. That occurred in 1980 with the election of President Reagan. The Reagan Doctrine was natural outgrowth of the Truman process, though few recognized it as such in its time. Reagan saw that containment has reached its evolutionary position where the enormous progress of democratic economies were in position to roll back the hegemony of the communist tyranny in the world. ‘Peace Through Strength’ was the metaphor for the simultaneous release of the economic might of the free world, the advance of technologic innovation into the military force, and the exposure of the deficiencies of the communist world and the aspirations of its subjected populations. In spectacular form, the combined tenets achieved in the life of the two terms of the Reagan Administration, the victory of this ‘cold war” strategy fruition in the collapse of Russian hegemony in Europe and the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union itself in 1991.
What is to be made of President Obama’s attempt to define a ‘premeditated’ thinking to the American actions in an apparent series of passive and confoundingly self-defeating responses to one calamity after another on the world stage? Is there a thinking process that secures a positive outcome in the parade of foreign policy apparent setbacks in the withdrawal of troops from a hard won victory in Iraq, the simultaneous surge and withdrawal strategy in Afghanistan, the red line declarations and subsequent lack of follow through in Syria, the appeasement strategy for nuclear weapon control with a autocratic Islamist regime in Iran, the aggressive military detachment of a functional government from Libya into the current dangerous chaos that cost America a terror attack and loss of an Ambassador and that rules the Libyan people today? What doctrine describes the dithering support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the demonization of the Mubarak and now Sisi regimes, the peripheral disappointment and minimal sanctions for a bald land grab of the Crimea by Russia, and the continuing whining regarding past American policies?
The doctrine of Obama as outlined in his West Point speech shows the reality that the ‘doctrine’ followed the disparate actions, and not the other way around. The speech, a collection of verbosities and generous interpretations of outcomes, suggests the Obama Doctrine to be ‘Peace Through Controlled Decline’. America must lead and when necessary militarily without asking anyone’s permission, but not”rushing into military adventures without thinking through the consequences, without building support or legitimacy for our actions“. America must not be responsible for crises in the world that do not involve our direct national security interests, but “needs to energize the global effort to combat climate change, a creeping national security crisis that will help shape your time in uniform, as we are called on to respond to refugee flows and natural disasters, and conflicts over water and food, which is why, next year, I intend to make sure America is out front in putting together a global framework to preserve our planet.” The concept of American Exceptionalism is not a foreign concept to this President, simply a concept that has been misinterpreted by all the Presidents before him – “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.” America must be prepared to face her enemies with complete resolve and where necessary military action and sacrifice but only with the near certainty of no collateral damage- ” But as I said last year, in taking direct action, we must uphold standards that reflect our values. That means taking strikes only when we face a continuing, imminent threat, and only where there is no certainty — there is near certainty of no civilian casualties, for our actions should meet a simple test: We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield“.
Doctrines and Legacies often intertwine, but the more modern of our politicians progressively confuse that legacies are earned, not managed. The genetic flaw in President Obama’s makeup is his confusion of instinctual intelligence for the hard work of learned strategy. It is depressingly clear every time this President opens his mouth of his alarming ignorance of history and events and his willingness to interpret every event as reflecting his need to insert his personal spin as the defining historical participant . Charles Krauthammer perceptively lays this out in his essay “Emptiness at West Point” which he states more than anything reflected the President’s increasing irrelevance and “smallness”. In the process of “leading from behind” , the two most politically skinned leaders in American history in Barrack Obama and Hillary Clinton have put America in potentially irreversible waters in five short years. A circular Doctrine that sees contrary events as having been guided by the same unidentifiable plan has placed not only America, but the world, in a perceptively more dangerous place. Now that is a legacy likely to leave a lasting impression.