Talk about deja vu. The doctrine laid out in President Barack Obama’s commencement address yesterday at the U. S. Military Academy sounded eerily familiar. Obama insisted upon our willingness to use force to deter our adversaries, and, when necessary, to strike them before they strike us. He then had this to say:
“Our nation’s cause has always been larger than our nation’s defense. We fight as we always fight, for a just peace. A peace that favors human liberty. We will defend the peace against threats from terrorists and tyrants. We will preserve the peace by building good relations among the great powers. And we will extend the peace by encouraging free and open societies on every continent.”
Just kidding. That paragraph was actually the controversial heart of what has come to be called the Bush Doctrine -- laid out by Obama’s predecessor at West Point’s 2002 commencement. But what is striking about Obama’s speech, billed in advance by the White House as setting out his approach to foreign policy, is how tightly this president's words track those of his predecessor.
Pundits who have focused on whether the Syrian rebels actually care what the president says, or whether the speech received an “icy reception” from the cadets, are missing the point. For all that the remarks have been viewed as “repudiating the wars of George W. Bush,” Obama seems to have rejected not what we might call the political theory underlying the Bush Doctrine, but only its implementation.
Consider. Obama told his audience that he was going to set out four foreign policy goals, but they reduce, really, to two. The first proposition is simple and straightforward: “The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it.” And, as the president made clear, he has no intention of waiting for the nation’s enemies to reach our shores. He will go after them in their lairs -- including, in particular, by drone strikes -- “when we have actionable intelligence.”
The second is more complex, but equally important:
“America’s support for democracy and human rights goes beyond idealism. It is a matter of national security. Democracies are our closest friends and are far less likely to go to war. Economies based on free and open markets perform better and become markets for our goods. Respect for human rights is an antidote to instability and the grievances that fuel violence and terror.”
True, all of this was intermingled with talk of multilateralism, of international institutions, of respect for the rule of law. But, in terms of action, Obama made two promises: to meet the terror threat abroad, and to support democracy and human rights around the world. These twinned propositions, the president contended, were the best way to protect the nation’s security.
If this all sounds familiar, that’s because it is. The Bush Doctrine was built around the same two prongs: the determination to fight the nation’s enemies abroad rather than waiting to be attacked, and the belief that the spread of democracy and human rights was crucial to U.S. security.
In spite of the hard knocks the Bush Doctrine has received, this is hardly the first time Obama has reiterated it. For example, in his 2010 remarks at the memorial service for the seven Central Intelligence Agency officers killed in Khost Province, Afghanistan, Obama lauded the agency for secret legacy, “written in the extremists who no longer threaten our country -- because you eliminated them.” In the context, his meaning was clear: the CIA’s mission was to get them before they can get us.
Then there is this, from Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 2009:
“I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies.” Again, Obama echoes Bush’s 2002 address: “We are in a conflict between good and evil. And America will call evil by its name.”
These parallels should hardly be surprising. As I have argued at length elsewhere, the Bush Doctrine itself wasn’t particularly new. It fell in a long American tradition on both the use of military force and the desire to build a better world around our vision of what is right.
To be sure, Bush and Obama differ in their implementation of the fundamental ideas. In particular, Obama wouldn’t have gone to war in Iraq. That’s a distinction that matters enormously, and not only because the Iraq War was over weapons of mass destruction that never turned up. It’s also the case that much of America’s war-weariness -- which makes intervention abroad less attractive even when it may be necessary -- is an exhaustion born of the effort to fight too large wars at once.
Still, although one cannot minimize the difference over Iraq, it’s important not to emphasize the wrong distinction. Obama warned in his remarks that “a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable.” He’s right, but he’s attacking a straw man. The strategy he derides has no supporters. The only country Bush invaded because it harbored terrorists was Afghanistan, and Obama himself has called the Afghan War a war of necessity. It is Obama, not Bush, whose drone strategy has carried the Terror War into Yemen and Somalia.
And Obama has had foreign-policy setbacks of his own. He struggled at West Point to explain his approach to Syria. He seemed to suggest that Ukraine represents an American victory. He mentioned the attack in Benghazi, Libya, as an example of the risks facing U.S. personnel abroad, and blamed the attack on “decentralized al -Qaeda affiliates and extremists” – without saying precisely what he planned to do about it.
Nevertheless, the overall thrust of the president’s remarks was consistent with the approach of his predecessor -- except with drone strikes replacing big wars. That’s no small distinction, and it may represent the less objectionable path. But, in the end, Obama faces the same challenge as Bush: the ultimate judgement on his record as commander-in-chief will not rest on his words, but on his deeds.
Like I said: deja vu.
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