Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Should Obama Have a Doctrine?

As we approach the highly mythologized “100 days” mark of the Obama presidency, I am generally pleased and unsurprised about the directions of his administration.  Without hard poll numbers, my impression is that most of us who supported Obama in the primaries, and many who supported Clinton but lined up behind the Democratic nominee in the general election, feel we received the president we voted for.  I even know some independents who voted for McPalin who are reasonably impressed and feel comfortable with our Chief Executive and Commander in Chief.  One such relative informed me yesterday that he is currently reading The Audacity of Hope, finds its arguments compelling, and thinks Obama’s initial policies and initiatives follow coherently from the principles he lays out there.  

Accordingly, I believe this is an appropriate moment to begin to discuss how applications of these principles are beginning to shape a doctrine.


Attempts to define the “Obama Doctrine” can be located across the ideological spectrum of professional punditry.  What these writers seem to share is an implicit orientation regarding the necessity of having one.  Supporters volunteer to articulate it for him while detractors either conceive one as wrongheaded in order to attack it, or even worse, they argue its absence.  But the question of whether a doctrine is a positive thing becomes clear in the way the term “doctrinaire” is often positioned pejoratively as opposed to “pragmatic,” and as “ideological” is often disadvantageously opposed to “realist.”  We certainly want a government, and hence a nation, that is governed by coherent principles and that aspires to fulfill certain ideals.  But doctrines and ideologies historically have a dubious record and a dark side.  They are often invoked as justifying cover for unethical exercises of power and constrain the framing and implementation of effective policy.  Finally, the rigidity that frequently accompanies doctrine almost of necessity leads to accusations of hypocrisy, or at least inconsistency of application.  From Reagan through Gingrich to Bush, flawed, incoherent and inconsistent [neo-]conservative doctrines have been targets of progressive critique and rightly so.

The German-Jewish-American philosopher Hannah Arendt’s insights regarding “the banality of evil” suggest that critical skepticism should be aimed not only at the doctrines, ideologies, and moral codes of our political and cultural opponents, but at the forms of moral and political judgment that these constructs, especially our own, produce as such.  Arendt’s provocative thesis suggests that none of these can be sorted into objective categories of evil and good.  Rather, adherence to any of them guarantees the potential of evil.  To hazard a gross oversimplification, reliable opposition to evil and its frustration must be located in a post-modern, neo-Socratic opposition to the very form of moral code and political doctrine.  To qualify, Arendt’s collection of quasi-hagiographic essays, Men in Dark Times, reveals the nuances and sophistication of her thinking, as she dedicates an entire piece to a critical appreciation of none other than Pope John XXIII.  Yet her unexpected apprehension of Adolf Eichmann during the observation of his trial that was published as Eichmann in Jerusalem inaugurated a highly controversial and productive debate regarding the nature of evil and the functions of moral codes and political doctrines.  Instead of seeing the architect of the NAZI’s infamous “final solution” for Europe’s Jews as a psychopath, she saw in him nothing structurally distinct from an average government bureaucrat.  Regardless of whether one agrees with Arendt’s perspective on Eichmann, her skeptical position that no particular doctrine, code, or […]ism, could guarantee justice, and more significantly her call focus critical and skeptical energy at all forms of social and cultural regulation in themselves as potentially evil, represents a deeply important contribution to fields that range from political sociology to moral philosophy.

Over the past decades, we have consistently pointed out the inconsistencies that emanate from the ideologically over-determined policy positions advocated by our political opponents.  They oppose reproductive choice in the name of “the sanctity of human life” while seeking to simplify and expand exercise of the death penalty.  Their commitment to the same “sanctity of life” somehow fails to extend to the establishment of health care, its guarantor, as a universal right.  They seek to undermine public education in the name of expanding opportunity and argue for equality while protecting the privilege of the wealthiest.  They want to fight crime through a revolving-door prison system that incarcerates non-violent drug offenders and spurs criminalization instead of supporting rehabilitation.  They embrace China and Saudi Arabia while demonizing Cuba and Venezuela.  They want smaller government and less regulation, unless it extends to our bedrooms.  And the list goes on.  The question is whether doctrinaire judgments necessarily produce such inanity.  If so, do we want or need our executive branch and legislative majorities to formulate one?

Obama’s guiding principles seem quite clear.  They combine idealism and pragmatism, coherence with flexibility.  Cass Sunstein described him as a “visionary minimalist” in an essay in The New Republic that helped solidify my understanding of him and strengthened my support.  In a sense, Obama’s combination of a progressive vision with a Burkean respect for cultural traditions and existing institutions makes him more of a reformist than a radical, more evolutionary than revolutionary.  Certainly, this has drawbacks.  His Geithner-Summers economic team has frustrated many of us.  His reticence to hold the Bush regime and its agents legally accountable troubles those of us who think this ultimately undercuts the clearly superior ethical standards he has set.  All of these are due to his minimalist, Burkean, pragmatic approach to effecting the change many of us still believe in and believe is already being demonstrated.

At home and abroad, we are seeing the outlines of what we expected from him begin to take shape, with regard to those aspects we admired during the campaign and those we acknowledged as less progressively transformative than we desired.  The Obama-Clinton-Mitchell approach to the Israel/Palestine conflict has not flinched from the atrocious new Israeli administrations attempts to explicitly repudiate commitments to a two state solution.  Nonetheless, will Obama display the political courage to apply pressure with teeth?  Gaza remains blockaded.  Medical, food, and necessary building supplies are held up, exacerbating the atrocities inaugurated by Israel’s idiotic war on an already beleaguered population.  Settlements proceed apace in the West Bank.  The lifting of travel restrictions to Cuba and beginning of a process of reexamination of economic restrictions is an eminently positive sign.  But what about human rights in Darfur, or for that matter our ally Saudi Arabia?  The infrastructure investments are in motion.  But many of us are concerned not enough will be done with regard to health care or not as quickly as we think is necessary.  

Obama’s pace is impressive.  His learning curve, demonstrated so dramatically during the campaign, has not disappointed.  Irrational impatience helps no one.  But as his presidency proceeds, do we see as th
e outlines of a doctrine?  Should he have one?  How would we define its emerging parameters and what do we think they should be?


  1. Lot’s to digest here, but this sang out immediately

    But doctrines and ideologies historically have a dubious record and a dark side.

    As did your reference to Arendt. As time passes, I’m more convinced of her argument about critical scepticism over claims of being on the side of ‘good’ or calling others ‘evil’. Such moral judgements can only be made when, like an omniscient deity, you can measure ‘intent’. Other than that, we have to measure harm and benefit againsts outcomes, with all their unintended consequences.

    For example, I was a very active proponent of NATO intervention in Bosnia. I suppose I would have been categorised as a liberal hawk, but actually it was just the awfulness of the Serb army pounding innocent civilians while our jets flew over head, and UN aid was hijacked by gangsters.

    Because of the labelling of the liberal hawk doctrine, I finally found myself finally defending the Iraq invasion in spring 2003, even though I’d been initially against it. Why?

    Because I was a liberal hawk now, and other people I admired were defending it, and I had to have a consistent ‘doctrine’

    So this is a very important point, at a very important time, and an vital antidote to the predictable banal labelling of the punditocracy.  

  2. Neef

    as I’ve come to expect from you.

    My question regarding the meat of your diary is – can you not have a doctrine? if we accept that a doctrine is a codified set of beliefs, the lack of a doctrine essentially implies either an incoherent set of beliefs, or no guiding principles at all.

    To use a current example “Torture is wrong at all times and in all places” is a doctrine. It’s a widely accepted one, and nearly irrefutable. But that doesn’t excuse it’s dogmatic nature, the idea that there is no “sometimes you can torture when…” clause.

    I would submit that it is not the presence of doctrinaire thought that is ripe for abuse, but rather rigidity in maintaining outmoded doctrines when situations change.

  3. He has stated it clearly over and over. It’s been on his campaign web site for a couple of years. He’s spelled out how he thinks government should run and how he views foreign policy. What more do you want him to do – write up a list and nail it to the door of the White House?

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