Spencer Ackerman on the “Obama Doctrine” in The American Prospect:
Obama is offering the most sweeping liberal foreign-policy critique we've heard from a serious presidential contender in decades. It cuts to the heart of traditional Democratic timidity. "It's time to reject the counsel that says the American people would rather have someone who is strong and wrong than someone who is weak and right," Obama said in a January speech. "It's time to say that we are the party that is going to be strong and right." …
"There is a popular notion that Democrats have to try to appear like Republicans to pass some test on national security. The fact that that's still the case after
is absurd," says one of Obama's closest advisers. "So you break from that orthodoxy and say 'I don't care if the Republicans attack me because I'm willing to meet with the leadership in Iraq . We haven't for 25 years, and it's not gotten us anywhere.'" Iran
Most of the members of Obama's foreign-policy team expressed frustration that they had taken a well-considered and seemingly anodyne position on
and suffered for it. Obama had something similar happen to him in the spring and summer of 2007. He was attacked from the left and the right for saying three things that should not have been controversial: that if he had actionable intelligence on the whereabouts of al-Qaeda's leadership in Pakistan but no cooperation from the Pakistani government, he would take out the jihadists; that he wouldn't use nuclear weapons on terrorist training camps; and that he would be willing to meet with leaders of rogue states in his first year as president. "No one [of Obama's critics] had thought through the policy because that was the quote-unquote naïve and weak position, so they said it was a bad position to take," recalls Ben Rhodes, the adviser who writes Obama's foreign-policy speeches. "And it was a seminal moment, because Obama himself said, 'No, I'm right about this!'" Iraq
Instead of backing down, Obama asked his foreign-policy team to double down. Rhodes wrote a speech that Obama delivered at DePaul University on Oct. 2, which criticized the boundaries of acceptable discourse set by the same establishment that backed the war. "This election is about ending the
War, but even more it's about moving beyond it. And we're not going to be safe in a world of unconventional threats with the same old conventional thinking that got us into Iraq ," Obama said. One of his advisers, recalling the fallout from Obama's comments about pursuing al-Qaeda in Iraq , says, "He takes policy positions that are a break from both rigid orthodoxy and the Bush administration. And everyone says it's a gaffe! That just encapsulates everything that's wrong about the foreign-policy debate in Pakistan and in Democratic politics." Washington
The Obama foreign-policy team describes it as "the politics of fear," a phrase most advisers used unprompted in our conversations. "For a long time we've not seen much creative thinking from Dems on national security, because, out of fear, we want to be a little different from the Republicans but not too different, out of fear of being labeled weak or indecisive," another top adviser says. Identifying that fear as the accelerant of the
War mind-set is the first step to a new and innovative foreign policy. John Kerry was not able to argue for fundamental change in foreign policy because he was consumed by that very political fear. Obama's admonition to Democrats is much like Pope John Paul II's to the Gdansk shipyard strikers -- first, be not afraid. Iraq
This ability to see the world from different perspectives informs what the Obama team hopes will replace the
War mind-set: something they call dignity promotion. "I don't think anyone in the foreign-policy community has as much an appreciation of the value of dignity as Obama does," says Samantha Power, a former key aide and author of the groundbreaking study of Iraq foreign policy and genocide, A Problem From Hell. "Dignity is a way to unite a lot of different strands [of foreign-policy thinking]," she says. "If you start with that, it explains why it's not enough to spend $3 billion on refugee camps in U.S. Darfur, because the way those people are living is not the way they want to live. It's not a human way to live. It's graceless -- an affront to your sense of dignity."
During Bush's second term, a strange disconnect has arisen in liberal foreign-policy circles in response to the president's so-called "freedom agenda." Some liberals, like Matthew Yglesias in his book Heads In The Sand, note the insincerity of the administration's stated goal of exporting democracy. Bush, they observe, only targets for democratization countries that challenge American hegemony. Other liberal foreign-policy types, such as Thomas Carothers and Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, insist the administration is sincere but too focused on elections without supporting the civil-society institutions that sustain democracy. Still others, like Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch, contend that a focus on democracy in the developing world without privileging the protection of civil and political rights is a recipe for a dangerous illiberalism.
What's typically neglected in these arguments is the simple insight that democracy does not fill stomachs, alleviate malaria, or protect neighborhoods from marauding bands of militiamen. Democracy, in other words, is valuable to people insofar as it allows them first to meet their basic needs. It is much harder to provide that sense of dignity than to hold an election in
Baghdador and declare oneself shocked when illiberal forces triumph. "Look at why the baddies win these elections," Power says. "It's because [populations are] living in climates of fear." U.S. policy, she continues, should be "about meeting people where they're at. Their fears of going hungry, or of the thug on the street. That's the swamp that needs draining. If we're to compete with extremism, we have to be able to provide these things that we're not [providing]." Gaza
This is why, Obama's advisers argue, national security depends in large part on dignity promotion. Without it, the
will never be able to destroy al-Qaeda. Extremists will forever be able to demagogue conditions of misery, making continued U.S. involvement in asymmetric warfare an increasingly counterproductive exercise -- because killing one terrorist creates five more in his place. "It's about attacking pools of potential terrorism around the globe," Gration says. "Look at U.S. Africa, with 900 million people, half of whom are under 18. I'm concerned that unless you start creating jobs and livelihoods we will have real big problems on our hands in ten to fifteen years."
Obama sees this as more than a global charity program; it is the anvil against which he can bring down the hammer on al-Qaeda. "He took many of the [counterinsurgency] principles -- the paradoxes, like how sometimes you're less secure the more force is used -- and looked at it from a more strategic perspective," Sewall says. "His policies deal with root causes but do not misconstrue root causes as a simple fix. He recognizes that you need to pursue a parallel anti-terrorism [course] in its traditional form along with this transformed approach to foreign policy." …
"He goes back to
Roosevelt," Power says. "Freedom from fear and freedom from want. What if we actually offered that? What if we delivered that in the developing world? That would be a transformative agenda for us." The end of the IraqWar mind-set, it turns out, may be the beginning of 's re-acquaintance with its best traditions. America
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