Monday, June 30, 2014

The Obama Doctrine Under Siege

In 2008, Barack Obama swept into office, riding on the public mood that the United States did not need another war-mongering president. Yet a beleaguered Obama facing an Iraq spinning out of control in 2014 shows that if one can wait long enough in politics, even a Dick Cheney can find absolution. Politics, after all, is the art of the impossible.

Ideologies, ultimately, stem from properly basic beliefs about human nature. They are reasons beyond reasoning that are simply given in the ideologue's mind as a matter of fact. Among such reasons are two antithetical orientations toward power, both of which are probably partly true: power breeds fear, but it also feeds resentment. Neo-conservatives think that the former effect outweighs the latter effect, and so they believe, as Machiavelli counseled, that it is better to be feared than to be loved; liberals are convinced that no one can be feared forever because no person or state can be powerful at all times or forever.

The superstructure of all our political beliefs, including our interpretation of "facts" are built on such foundations. This superstructure has a variable, deliquescent nature because it is easier to select for information that confirms our beliefs than it is to seek out alternative explanations. Most ordinary citizens have neither time nor inclination to treat their foundational beliefs as hypotheses to be tested; rather, they use these beliefs as frames for making sense of a chaotic and otherwise senseless world.

And that is why there is no proving to either liberals or conservatives that whatever that is happening now in the Ukraine or in Iraq is evidence that more engagement or disengagement is the way forward; that the Obama doctrine is either flat-out wrong or not quite docile enough.

The very language by which commentators describe the situation in Iraq is indicative of the degree to which foundational beliefs frame the content of what is being said. We are now told that we are "losing Iraq" or "losing in Iraq." The neo-conservative assumption is that the United States once "had" Iraq, and that "winning" is the goal there. Liberals reject this us-versus-them framework, believing that it is not possible to defeat one's enemies, because each victory will breed new enemies. For them, to go in with the wrong strategy in the wrong theater would obviously only create more enemies. At the heart of the Obama Doctrine is the assumption that the only viable long-term foreign policy strategic goal is to make friends out of erstwhile enemies. Liberals are usually wrong in the short term, and usually right in the very long term; but as neo-conservatives will quickly point out: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness occur in the here and now. For the latter, there is no time to dawdle.

On the matter of Cheney versus Obama, there can be no verdict. Obama, like Carter, will simply have to wait this one out; while Rand Paul and Hillary Clinton have already taken note.

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