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Obama Doesn't Have a Doctrine - Good

30/09/2014 13:31 BST | Updated 29/11/2014 10:59 GMT

Much has been made of President Barack Obama's "fecklessness" in international affairs. He doesn't have a coherent strategy against ISIS, according to Senator Rand Paul. He won't stand up to Putin, according to Governor Chris Christie. He's golfing too much, according to Maureen Dowd.

An underlying critique is that Obama has no doctrine, no conception of America's place in the world or what is to be done to protect and advance it, other than "don't do stupid stuff."

To political journalists, whose worldviews are punctuated by elections, who revolve around the rise and fall of candidates, coalitions, and parties, this may make sense. It fits into a world in which willpower, backbone, and lines like "morning in America" are bandied about by people in blue suits acting serious on Sunday mornings.

To those who are looking at the crises the President is dealing with, this is absurd.

To show why, let's take a brief rundown of some of the most famous doctrines in American history.

The Monroe Doctrine said that the US would act against any European interference in the Americas. The Truman Doctrine pledged American support against countries threatened by Soviet action. The Bush Doctrine advocated pre-emptive strikes to bring democracy to countries.

There is a common thread. All were basic frameworks for dealing with the most pressing threat (according to the Executive Branch) to the country at the time. European re-colonization in 1823, Soviet expansionism in 1947, terrorist safe havens in 2002. All were deemed by the Presidents as the single most important national security threats and deserving of an overarching, concerted response.

But at no point did those doctrines consume all American energies. Trade deals continued, diplomatic spats were smoothed over, and subsidiary policies pursued. To see American foreign policy history as a series of doctrines is to look back at Hollywood and see a series of blockbusters and Oscar winners. Yes, they were the most important. But the day-to-day reality was whether to see that Western or this rom-com.

This brings us to the reason why Obama does not have a doctrine when dealing with ISIS or Russia. They are not issues worthy of a doctrine.

ISIS at the moment is a regional crisis, involving the stability of a regionally important state, with implications for terrorist attacks. The response has been a combination of what was pursued in 2011 in Libya, when a state's stability and civilian massacres were at stake, and counterterror actions in Yemen and Pakistan.

Russia is interfering with a neighbor, as it did in Georgia in 2008, and using natural gas supplies as a weapon, as it did in 2009.

This is not to say that Obama's policies towards either situation is necessarily correct. Maybe Russia deserves more sanctions. Maybe ISIS is significant enough for boots on the ground. Maybe the opposite. But let's not think that a nuclear-equipped Security Council member state playing power politics and a radical insurgent group are the same. Or that they demand a wholesale reconsideration of the United States' global priorities.

The purpose of foreign policy is to advance the national interest. In most situations, that's difficult. Supporting those in Hong Kong protesting for democracy vs. alienating Beijing. Engaging with the new Indian Prime Minister while indicating disapproval for his past. And in many situations, we've done it badly. But problems with execution, with analysis, or with confronting various issues is not helped by shoehorning them into single doctrine. To do so would to unduly complicate matters by treating them simplistically.

So Obama's critics are right that "don't do stupid stuff" is not a doctrine. What they don't understand is that trying to create a single doctrine to address the current world would itself be pretty stupid.