The Obama doctrine? Let’s see what he says to Mubarak
|Tuesday, June 2,2009 11:19|
|By Michael Tomasky|
On Thursday Barack Obama is set to deliver a much-anticipated speech from Cairo in which he will reportedly discuss democracy and human rights. These two traits, of course, are in scant supply in his host country. Whether this is an irony that the president hopes to side-step or a condition he will address head-on is an interesting question. The answer will help us address the larger question of whether, four months along, there exists anything that we might call "the Obama doctrine" of foreign policy.
There are three basic schools of foreign-policy thought in America. Neoconservatism holds that … well, I suspect you"re familiar with that one. Realism opposes neoconservatism"s zeal to remake the world through force and suggests the US act chiefly on the basis of national interest, not messianic or humanitarian urges (the coarsest expression of this view in recent history: George Bush Sr"s secretary of state, James Baker, telling Congress as war raged in Bosnia that "we don"t have a dog in this fight").
Third, there is liberal internationalism, a sort of realism with sugar on top. Liberal internationalism also privileges the national interest but defines it more broadly than realism does. Here, national interest is advanced through international co-operation and by expansion of human rights. The liberal internationalist argument on Bosnia, for example, saw US interests as explicitly tied to post-communist European freedom and stability – and wanted to encourage the Bosnian attempts to create a multi-ethnic rather than pan-ethnic society. Realists would say the society they chose to have was their business alone.
There are two smaller schools – leftwing anti-imperialist and rightwing isolationist – that have traction here and there. But the above are the big three. So where does Obama fit? We can"t say yet. But if you made me, I"d say it"s mostly realist, with a few shots of liberal internationalism and even a jigger or two of neoconservatism.
In fairness to the new administration, it was handed a mountain of calamities that, the world being the messy place it is, had the gall to refuse to fit neatly into these three categories. In Afghanistan, he inherited a full-on war. In Iraq, he took on a problem that he hopes doesn"t get worse. Iran, North Korea, Israel and the Palestinians; the world economic meltdown, global warming and pollution; nuclear proliferation … these are all problems Obama"s predecessor either created or exacerbated, and they"re all at crisis or near-crisis point.
In such circumstances, insistence on one -ism would be not only unattainable but outright undesirable. The problems require different approaches. As to Afghanistan, like it or not, no US president can inherit a war and walk away from it – for a host of political and substantive reasons, that"s ill-advised. Even the neocons have cheered Obama"s approach there (which makes me a little twitchy, but neocons, like stopped clocks, can be right sometimes).
In the current North Korea crisis, we"re looking at old-school, textbook realism. The administration needs China to co-operate on North Korea – not to mention climate change and the economy – which is why Hillary Clinton told reporters in February that Tibet and Taiwan "can"t interfere" with these other matters.
Finally, and more hopefully, there are, to borrow from our current economic lexicon, green shoots of something more humanitarian and forward-looking. The opening to Cuba was long overdue and ought to be the first step of several. The overtures to Iran are, at very least, worth a shot, given how badly the previous belligerent posture failed. And the recent admonition to Binyamin Netanyahu about stopping all settlements puts on the table an issue that US administrations of both parties avoided for years.
And so all this returns us to Thursday. The most interesting question, to me, is how he"ll describe his vision of what America can do to promote democracy and liberty. Yes, these were neocon goals. But it"s not the goals that were wrong, just the ends (military force). During the Bush years, some American liberals came to reject even these goals just because Bush endorsed them. So one of Obama"s tasks on Thursday is to reclaim these goals, yank them out of their neoconservative context and place them in a liberal-internationalist one.
That discourse will be directed toward Americans, and others living in countries where freedom is secure. But much of the speech has to be aimed at people – and leaders – in the developing world, where it is not. Obama"s election inspired the world. Can he inspire now that he"s president? Can he lay out principles and values that a complex and defiant and snappish world will hear, absorb and maybe even try to live by? Egypt is a ripe test case, and I wonder whether Obama will have the bad manners, but laudable courage, to direct any words about freedom to President Hosni Mubarak.
It"s not cause for alarm that there"s no Obama doctrine yet. There was no Bush and no Clinton doctrine at this point. One may begin to take shape in Cairo, but I suspect two things. First, that it will be years in the making. Second, that it will re-prove the imperishable insight that all the –isms are now –wasms.