By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Let’s face it: If the rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips had failed, the foes of President Obama’s foreign policy would have thrown the Book of Handy Jimmy Carter Epithets at him.
Obama would have been called every name in that book: “feckless,” “weak,” “naive,” “powerless,” “irresolute,” “supine” and “spineless.” We know this because all those words had already been hurled at the president even before the Somali pirates grabbed Phillips.
Two days before the rescue, John Bolton, President Bush’s U.N. ambassador, told Fox News that the episode offered “a clear case for the use of force by the United States,” then added: “I am very concerned, however, that both the administration and many of our friends in Europe have fallen into the trap of seeing this as a law enforcement question, which it most certainly is not.”
This rote argument that conservatives have been using against liberals since Sept. 11, 2001, just happened not to be true. Obama didn’t say much. He just relied on the skill and bravery of our Navy SEALs.
But if Obama’s critics were briefly silenced, they won’t stay quiet for long, and not just because the pirates, as they showed Wednesday, are not going away. The truth is that the president is moving American foreign policy in a new direction, and conservatives dislike what is becoming the Obama Doctrine.
His doctrine departs from the previous administration’s approach by embracing a longer tradition of American foreign policy. Obama insists that the United States can’t achieve great objectives on its own, even though it is “always harder to forge true partnerships and sturdy alliances than to act alone,” as he put it in Strasbourg, France.
This may break with George W. Bush’s style—particularly at the level of rhetoric, and especially during Bush’s first term—but it is in keeping with the traditions of Roosevelt, Truman and George H.W. Bush. Obama insists that we do not have unlimited resources to do whatever we want, whenever we want to. We have to make choices. Thus is his buildup in Afghanistan premised on a gradual withdrawal from Iraq.
And the Obama Doctrine seeks to regain the world’s sympathy by acknowledging that while the United States is a great nation built on worthy principles, we are not perfect.
Obama’s willingness to point to our imperfection drives many conservatives crazy. Writing on Commentary magazine’s Web site, Peter Wehner, the director of strategic initiatives in the 43rd president’s White House, expressed his discomfort with “the ease and eagerness with which he [Obama] criticized the country he represents.” Wehner said he got “a queasy feeling” from “the growing sense that Obama is willing to denigrate America in order to boost his own personal popularity in other countries.”
That Obama would run down his country for his personal benefit is a serious charge. It also ignores what Obama actually said and did.
In his Strasbourg speech, Obama spoke of times “where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive.” Is he wrong about that? Has everyone forgotten about “freedom fries” and “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”?
But Obama offered his apology as a prelude to criticism of a European “anti-Americanism that is at once casual but can also be insidious,” which failed to recognize “the good that America so often does in the world” and instead chose “to blame America for much of what’s bad.” Obama wasn’t aggrandizing himself. He was making a shrewd pro-American argument: We’ll acknowledge our mistakes, but you need to admit yours.
If I have qualms about the Obama Doctrine, they have to do with the relatively short shrift it has so far given to concerns over human rights and democracy. The United States cannot impose democracy everywhere, but we should stand up forcefully for democrats, political prisoners and human rights activists anywhere.
Yet on the whole, Obama is simply paying heed to Reinhold Niebuhr, a thinker admired both by the president and by conservatives. Niebuhr warned that some of “the greatest perils to democracy arise from the fanaticism of moral idealists who are not conscious of the corruption of self-interest” and also that a “nation with an inordinate degree of political power is doubly tempted to exceed the bounds of historical possibilities.”
The Obama Doctrine is a form of realism unafraid to deploy American power, but mindful that its use must be tempered by practical limits and a dose of self-awareness. Those are the limits that defenders of the recent past have trouble accepting.
E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group