The Obama Doctrine

by Amitai Etzioni Amitai Etzioni is a professor of international affairs at The George Washington University and the author of Security First (Yale, 2007). He can be contacted at 22.07.2009

In contrast to the thesis -- much promoted by the president himself -- that he is not an ideologue but a pragmatic, Obama has laid out a strong new normative foundation for his foreign policy. He seeks to promote peace and security but leave democratization and liberalization to the people who find their regimes oppressive. This is in direct contrast to the Bush Neocon thesis that forced regime change is essential because only democracies are reliable partners in peace.

Obama officially unveiled his doctrine on his first day in office. One is entitled to read much in the following short lines, as every line in major presidential speeches, above all on inauguration day, are carefully crafted, reviewed, and checked one more time, precisely to ensure that they send the right signal. Obama stated: "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."

Soon thereafter Obama ordered a full blown review of the war he declared as the central front of his administration, the war raging in Afghanistan. He concluded that the US goal in Afghanistan was not nation building; the US was no longer seeking to turn Afghanistan into a shining democracy, to build a civil society, and lay the grounds for a free market economy. The new goal was strictly security related: "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda."

Obama stuck to the same theme in Cario by stating: "I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other."

The Obama doctrine was tested during the uprising in Iran following the June elections. As long as the demonstrations were peaceful, Obama chose to keep a low profile. Only when the regime used violence to suppress the demonstrations did Obama speak up, stating "The Iranian government must understand that the world is watching. We mourn each and every innocent life that is lost. We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people."

The new doctrine has been well received by those who recognize that our ability to re-engineer other societies is highly limited, and that our forces and resources are over extended, to put it mildly. That is, the doctrine makes sense on pragmatic grounds.

Still, one should not overlook that it also has a clear and strong normative underpinning. The observation that we value the right to life more than any other is reflected in the finding that in the criminal codes of all free nations, taking a life is punished much more severely than any other violation of rights. Moreover, ranking the value of life over most, if not all, other values reflects on the elementary but profound truth that the respect for all other rights depends on the sanctity of life. People who are shot dead gain little if they have right to freedom of speech, religion, assembly, and so on. In contrast, those whose lives are well protected can live to fight another day, to struggle to gain their other rights. Hence the profound value of promoting security first.

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