I read this Spencer Ackerman piece with some interest, thinking it promised to define Obama’s foreign policy. And, since Obama has been roundly criticized for being all rhetoric, with no “there” there (as Gertrude Stein would say), I was looking forward to something specific at last.
Ackerman writes that Obama is proposing:
…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.”
“Strong and right;” sounds good. And so I read the piece, trying to extract the meat of it.
But that proved elusive. There was some talk about helping people around the world achieve dignity. A bit like what you’d expect from a preacher (although not necessarily Obama’s ex-preacher, whose rhetoric tends towards the more histrionic) or a social worker or therapist.
But even a social worker or therapist would have to do what’s called “operationalize” the concept in order to get a grant based on the idea. That is, the proposal would have to have some clear definition of dignity—and more importantly, specific proposals for action by which this now-more-clearly defined thing could be fostered, plus the identity of the target population and how success could be measured. Even the fuzzy touchy-feely world of social science research requires at least that much hard-nosed practicality.
But politics is often less hardnosed than even psychology or social work. In politics you can sometimes survive, as the fictional “Death of a Salesman’s” Willy Loman said (about another hoary profession, sales), by “riding on a smile and a shoeshine.”
Well, nowadays you can probably subsitute “some sophistry” (just to keep the alliteration going) for the shoeshine, and it will apply to politicians. Most especially, it seems, Obama—at least, until recently.
Ackerman talked to Obama’s foreign policy advisors “at length.” This is what they told him about the new and improved Obama approach to foreign affairs:
They envision a doctrine that first ends the politics of fear and then moves beyond a hollow, sloganeering “democracy promotion” agenda in favor of “dignity promotion,” to fix the conditions of misery that breed anti-Americanism and prevent liberty, justice, and prosperity from taking root. An inextricable part of that doctrine is a relentless and thorough destruction of al-Qaeda.
So, Obama envisions replacing one “hollow” slogan—”democracy promotion”—for another hollow slogan, “dignity promotion.” The goal is (italics mine) “to fix the conditions of misery that breed anti-Americanism and prevent liberty, justice, and prosperity from taking root”—and they call neocons naive and ignorant of the realities of the third world?
Ackerman’s statement of Obama’s policy is almost too target-rich an environment to bother to fisk; it fisks itself. But just for starters: a great deal of anti-American feeling around the world (in Europe, for example) has century-old roots and occurs in wealthy countries; drives towards liberty, justice, and prosperity (as many anti-neocons have pointed out almost endlessly) encounter cultural and structural elements in the third world that make implementation difficult, to say the least; and whether the war in Iraq was originally an anti-al Qaeda move or not, it certainly is now, and thus part of the battle against al Qaeda.
What is this “dignity,” anyway, and how does Obama propose to promote it? Former Obama aide Samantha Power (fired recently for calling Hillary Clinton a “monster”) takes a stab at it:
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 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.”
Power has an answer to this gracelessness, and it’s nothing less than more social work programs for the entire third world:
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].”
My goodness. We have to provide these things. Good luck.
It’s not as though we don’t already give a great deal of foreign aid targeted for development, and haven’t for many decades. It’s not as though these problems and goals haven’t been studied, both abroad and in this country, and it’s not as though we really have effective ways to accomplish what Power describes. This has been true no matter how much money has been thrown at the problem (have you ever noticed all those NGOs?).
I think of the Palestinians as the best example in the world of the failure—the utter, abject failure—of such an approach. After all, they are the group that has received the most “dignity” promotion of probably any people on earth, if you look at the time, effort, and money involved.
That’s not to say that helping people in other countries achieve economic growth, liberty, justice, and “dignity” wouldn’t be a good thing. It’s just that (a) it’s certainly on the neocon agenda, and that doesn’t seem to have gotten them high praise; (b) some form of this has been tried over and over, through just the methods Obama seems to be advocating, and found wanting; and (c) (earth to Obama!) it’s actually what the US military is already attempting in Iraq, and with no small success.
And yet, on that latter issue, Obama wants nothing more than to leave, and immediately. Go figure. Instead, he should be using what’s happening there post-surge as a template, if he were really serious about his rhetoric.
As Ackerman describes it, Obama isn’t interested in half-measures. He wants to transform American foreign policy in a way that McGovern and Carter wanted to do but lacked the guts to attempt.
Citing these two as precedent does not give me a good feeling—but hey, maybe that’s just me. And the fact that Obama not only has no foreign policy experience whatsoever but no administrative or executive experience either ought to give everyone pause when listening to this sort of supposedly revolutionary thinking.
I’m certainly not the only one to have noticed the slimness—and the rhetorical emphasis—of the Obama foreign agenda as described by Ackerman. Dean Barnett has this to say about it:
If the Obama Doctrine held that President Obama would send a fleet of Navy vessels to the shores of every country where dignity wasn’t being adequately promoted, that would at least be a Doctrine worthy of the name. It would be a stupid Doctrine, but at least for once Obama would be matching his rhetoric with a plan for action. As it is, the Obama Doctrine is of a piece with the rest of his campaign. It’s an attractively outlined set of worthy goals unsupported by any apparent plan of action to realize those goals.
But for Obama, intention seems to be the main point. The fact that he offers no evidence that lack of “dignity” is actually responsible for the ills of the world is no obstacle. The fact that he offers no particular program to alleviate said lack of dignity is no obstacle. The fact that he offers no guidance as to how we would convince the rulers of other countries to allow us to implement unsaid programs without a series of invasions and occupations similar to the one we performed in Iraq (one he bitterly opposes) is no obstacle. The fact that there are economic, societal, religious, cultural, political, and countless other obstacles to such changes, obstacles that have proved remarkably resistant to previous attempts to overcome them—well, those obstacles seem to be no obstacle, either. Not for Obama.
What matters is that Obama’s heart is in the right place. And that place is—well, the following extremely non-PC (and racially inappropriate; they’re from his poem “The White Man’s Burden“) words of Kipling somehow come to mind:
Take up the White Man’s burden–
The savage wars of peace–
Fill full the mouth of Famine,
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
(The end for others sought)
Watch sloth and heathen folly
Bring all your hope to nought.