Forget the "Washington playbook": How the Obama doctrine is so vastly different from what Americans are used to in the Oval Office

Saying he's a radical would be overstating it. But in one crucial respect, Obama truly has rejected the status quo

Published March 12, 2016 11:30AM (EST)

President Obama (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
President Obama (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

The gargantuan long-read on the “Obama doctrine” that the Atlantic published earlier this week is full of revealing (and at times vaguely “Bulworth”-y) quotes from the president. You should read it if you haven’t already; in terms of illustrating how this allegedly remote and distant man understands the world, only David Remnick’s (similarly mammoth) 2014 piece in the New Yorker comes close.

Yet although Obama spends most of his time defending his foreign policy against those who describe it as a defeatist break from America’s postwar tradition — the piece is clearly intended to be the opening salvo of a campaign to write the first draft of his legacy — it was the president’s explanation of why he’s “controversial” that interested me the most. The “source,” he argues, is his disdain for “the Washington playbook.”

Here’s how he puts it:

Where am I controversial? When it comes to the use of military power …. That is the source of the controversy. There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.

What Obama is saying here, albeit not explicitly, is that he subscribes to the view, popular on the anti-interventionist left and realist right, that his Very Serious critics within America’s foreign policy elite have conflated influence and military force.

Whether they realize it or not, these people — the ones who chastise him for “leading from behind” and “retreating” (note the martial language) from the world stage — believe that the only way to exert real influence is to drop bombs, deploy troops and dole out weaponry. So when Obama refuses to flood the Middle East with materiel or troops, what he’s truly doing, they think, is giving up. And they can’t stand it.

On first blush, however, the sheer intensity of their rage doesn’t make sense. Obama has often been portrayed as the only reason the U.S. hasn’t assumed the responsibility of ending Syria’s civil war already, it’s true. But it’s not like he’s some kind of isolationist. He’s been more than willing to deploy deadly force; just ask people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Iraq and Yemen. There’s hardly a corner of the Middle East his drones haven’t touched.

So what explains the hyperbole of so many of his critics — and not just from those within the Republican Party, either? Well, at the risk of engaging in a little pop psychology, I think it has to do with metaphysics, and with Obama’s conviction that there’s nothing the U.S. can do to “solve” the Middle East’s problems. Certainly not on its own, and regardless of what its leaders may want.

It’s Obama’s near-mystical belief in the inescapable limits of human agency, I think, that people find so threatening. It suggests that even the U.S. military, the most powerful and fearsome machine humanity’s ever created, is at the mercy of bigger forces. And if the organization that supposedly “saved” the world from the Nazis and the Bolsheviks can’t bring order to the universe, then imagine how vulnerable that makes the rest of us!

Here, for example, is another fascinating glimpse of what the world looks like through the eyes of the president. It comes, again, from the Atlantic. And it helps explain why Jeffrey Goldberg, the piece’s author, describes Obama as both “a tragic realist” and a “Hobbesian optimist.” The world we live in, Obama says (my emphasis):

…is a tough, complicated, messy, mean place, and full of hardship and tragedy. And in order to advance both our security interests and those ideals and values that we care about, we’ve got to be hardheaded at the same time as we’re bighearted, and pick and choose our spots, and recognize that there are going to be times where the best that we can do is to shine a spotlight on something that’s terrible, but not believe that we can automatically solve it. There are going to be times where our security interests conflict with our concerns about human rights. There are going to be times where we can do something about innocent people being killed, but there are going to be times where we can’t.

Coming from a college professor or a foreign policy realist, this would be a banal statement. But it’s been a long time — 25 years — since this was the way a U.S. president talked. It could hardly be more different from his predecessor’s rhetoric. George W. Bush bragged of lighting “a fire in the minds of men”; a “fire of freedom” to “reach the darkest corners of our world.” Obama’s less interested in remaking the world in America’s image. Not because he doesn’t want to, but because he knows it can’t be done.

It’s this belief, in the end, that earns him the most criticism. And it’s what his opponents are gesturing toward when they say he doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism. Ever since the brief dalliance with introspection and humility that was the Jimmy Carter experience, Americans have been told that their nation was, essentially, magic. Just this week, in fact, Sen. Marco Rubio declaimed that “Americans can do anything”; there is “no problem before us,” he said, that “we cannot solve.”

If “we” refers to humanity itself, I doubt Obama would differ. He believes, he tells Goldberg, that “humanity has become less violent, more tolerant, healthier, better fed, more empathetic, more able to manage difference.” But unlike most of the stewards of the U.S. empire, he doesn’t believe American can just make the world follow its directions. The United States is indispensable; but it can only do so much.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

MORE FROM Elias Isquith