Brian Birdnow

The first incarnation of a modern “doctrine” came in 1947 when President Harry Truman, speaking to the Congress, enunciated what came to be known as the Truman Doctrine. Truman spelled out a policy of supplying economic and military assistance to Greece and Turkey, in order to prevent them from falling into the Red Bloc. As Truman stated, memorably, “I believe it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” Historians often consider the Truman Doctrine to be the origin of the Cold War and the adoption of the containment policy by the U.S. government in an effort to counter Soviet expansionism. The policy, gradually lengthened from Southeastern Europe to the world at large and worked fairly well, although is sowed the seeds for the bitter Korean War of 1950-53, and the tensions of the 50s and 60s.

After Truman passed into the history books his successors like Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon had their own doctrines mostly specific to place and time. The next doctrine of great note came in January of 1980, that being the Carter Doctrine. On January 23, 1980, during his State of the Union Address, President Carter announced that the USA would defend its national interests in the Persian Gulf, using military force, if necessary to safeguard those securities. This Carter Doctrine reflected a remarkable turnaround in Jimmy Carter’s thinking as President. He came to office sincerely believing that his own good will and friendly intentions would lead America and the world into a new golden age of harmony and peaceful co-existence. The new challenges of radical Islam and the increasing dangers of crucial oil supplies in unstable nations, along with the startling Soviet invasion of Afghanistan December of 1979 caused President Carter to reconsider his position. After publicly admitting that Soviet strongman Leonid Brezhnev had misled him (Carter’s exact words were, “Mr. Brezhnev lied to me.”) President Carter adopted a sterner line toward the Soviets, although the Carter Doctrine had a short shelf life, since the President left office 363 days later.

The last major twentieth century doctrine associated with American foreign policy was President Ronald Reagan’s doctrine of the same name. The Reagan Doctrine committed the U.S. government to support anti-communist resistance movements in hopes of rolling back the frontiers of the Soviet Empire’s client states. This would be attempted in Asia (specifically Afghanistan), in Africa (specifically Angola and Namibia), in Latin America (specifically Nicaragua and El Salvador) and, covertly, in Poland and behind the Iron Curtain. This audacious effort to turn the tables on the Soviet Union and win the Cold war was consistent with Reagan’s long held conviction that the West could and would win the struggle, if they had the stomach to fully engage. Reagan’s inspirational leadership and his actor’s penchant for oratory and drama spearheaded a very successful presidency and foreign policy but implementing the Reagan Doctrine brought its share of problems. The Iran-Contra affair showed the dangers of covert operations involving American agents, shady foreign intermediaries, and many millions of dollars. The problems in Africa showed the difficulties of finding reliable American allies in very fluid situations, which defied easy Communist vs. non-Communist characterization. Finally, the successful expulsion of the Soviets from Afghanistan resulted in the establishment of a new state dominated by the Jihadists who had flocked to the arid expanses to fight the Russians. They hated the Russians, but certainly did not love America and the West.

Now, after the Bush Doctrine of the early 21st century, we have the Obama Doctrine. The generally negative early response to Obama’s speech seems to indicate that he has not converted those who believe his stewardship of American foreign policy has been nothing short of disastrous. Briefly stated, Obama insisted that his foreign policy would avoid the twin extremes of “self-described realists” who urge the country to steer clear of Ukraine, Syria, and Darfur, and the “interventionists from the left and the right” who criticize his perceived disinterest in the reprehensible deeds of Vladimir Putin and al-Assad in Syria. Struggling to differentiate his new and improved foreign policy from the supposedly discredited gunboat diplomacy of George W. Bush, the President stated that his new approach would be based on three pillars. First of all, he would use force, unilaterally if necessary, to defend American “core interests,” those being our people, our livelihoods, and the security of our allies. Secondly, the Obama foreign policy would rule out “invading every country that harbors terrorist networks”, and finally the President promised to strengthen the international order by enlisting partners, and relying on international institutions.

The first of these postulates is an exercise in redundancy. No American President would survive in office if he made the patently ridiculous statement that he would not authorize force to defend our core interests. Even the stoutly anti-military Bill Clinton never renounced the use of force, and did, in fact, find occasion to authorize military action, usually when his political fortunes were at low ebb, such as in December of 1998. Obama, stating that he would authorize military force if American core interests were threatened, is a dramatic statement of the obvious that cannot be taken seriously.

On the second point, no responsible American man of state has ever stood for invading every country that harbored terrorists. Traditionally, from Jefferson’s actions against the Barbary Pirates through Wilson’s invasion of Mexico to apprehend Pancho Villa, to the more recent pursuit and killing of Osama Bin Laden, American Presidents have ordered force when necessary, but they have never advocated invading every country that harbored terrorists. Obama knows this, but hopes to score cheap political points by drawing a distinction between his thoughtful and nuanced approach, and the bull-in-a-china-shop methods of that crazy cowboy G.W. Bush.

The third of Obama’s main points is the contention that he would work through the international order by enlisting partners and using international institutions to advance the national interest is simply another slap at his predecessor George W. Bush. He tries to draw a distinction between his liberal internationalism, similar to Woodrow Wilson, and the lone wolf Bush style. Obama forgets, conveniently, that Bush painstakingly made the case for international action against Islamic extremism, sought and received congressional authorization for military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, and sought assistance from what he called the “coalition of the willing” in the War on Terror.

We must also take a closer look at Obama’s supposed effort to repair the damage to America’s good name done by Bush. Look at the list of nations-all American allies- who have received a backhanded slap from the Obama Administration. We assisted in toppling the thoroughly intimidated neo-American ally Muhammar Gaddafi in Libya, and replaced him with a bloody Islamic extremist state. Obama insulted Britain by returning a Churchill portrait given to his predecessor by Tony Blair. He has double-crossed Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary on missile defense, and wonders why Vladimir Putin feels emboldened to threaten and pressure Ukraine. Obama has ignored Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, to the consternation of our Japanese, South Korean, and Thai allies (and our former Vietnamese enemies, as well as the non-aligned Indians, and Burmese). In a fit of petulance, Obama balked at Iraqi requests on a Status of Forces Agreement, and thereby threw away a hard earned victory, and we are now witnessing the same type of fumble in Afghanistan. Most worrisome, two weeks ago the Chinese and the Russians agreed to bury the hatchet, and have in fact inaugurated a new Sino-Russian Alliance, aimed squarely at the United States of America. This is a geopolitical fact of stunning, and quite worrisome proportions. The forty year rapprochement between America and China is now over, and an anti-American Sino-Chinese alliance is now cemented! It is no wonder the Obamaites haven’t talked about it. Where, however, are the national media?

We should also mention Obama’s regular dissing of Israel as we wrap up here. The reader can plainly see that Obama’s vaunted “reset” of relations around the world consists largely of betraying and bullying friends, and playing the fool and toady toward our enemies. Whether we like it or not, however, the Obama Doctrine is here to stay. It is unlikely that this approach will change much under Biden, Hillary, or Elizabeth Warren. How this plays out in the last two years of the Obama Presidency is unknown. Suffice to say that all the signs point to the Obama Doctrine closely resembling the Carter Doctrine. It will turn into the vacillating and tentative approach of an ineffectual President. The world will end up much the worse for this sad fact.


Brian Birdnow

Brian E. Birdnow is a historian and teaches at a university in the St. Louis area.