Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- The search for an Obama Doctrine that unites and motivates his foreign policy hasn't turned up much. The administration itself is dismissive of the idea of grand strategy, stating a preference for flexibility over coherence. Supporters praise Barack Obama's subtlety and nuance, invariably contrasting them to the simplistic certainties of George W. Bush. Obama's fogginess, in this view, conceals an admirable realism.

But Occam's razor -- the superiority of the simplest explanation -- applies even in foreign affairs. As a candidate, Obama defined his approach as the opposite of everything Bush. Whatever the issue, Obama would be the photographic negative. But as president, Obama's foreign policy has been slowly evolving toward the views of his predecessor. Obama's pride will not allow him to admit it. His rhetorical imprecision obscures it. But behind the fog is the Bush Doctrine.

Having had a hand in shaping that doctrine, I know it when I see it. It begins with the idea of pre-emption -- confronting dangers to America before they fully emerge. Obama's 2010 National Security Strategy downplayed the idea of preventive force and banished the language of a "war" on terrorism. But Obama was adding about 30,000 American troops to the Afghan War, on the theory that "it is from here that we were attacked on 9/11, and it is from here that new attacks are being plotted as I speak." He dramatically increased the pace of drone strikes in Pakistan, and continued to detain terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, employing the same legal theories used by the Bush administration. Obama's opposition to pre-emption consists mainly of criticisms of the Iraq War made years ago.

Another element of the Bush Doctrine is the promotion of democracy and human rights as alternatives to Islamist ideology. Initially, the Obama administration sneered at the whole idea, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claiming, "Let's put ideology aside; that is so yesterday." During Obama's first year in office, funding for democracy programs in Egypt was cut in half. The initial stirrings of discontent in the Middle East were treated as unfortunate complications in the administration's strategy of engaging dictators.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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