The Obama Doctrine

I just finished reading Spencer Ackerman’s American Prospect piece, The Obama Doctrine, and I have to admit that while I like Obama’s foreign policy approach, and I like Ackerman’s piece, the article reflects a certain confusion that seems prevalent in the way we parse the complicated causal matrix that links poverty, security and political repression to terrorism. Ackerman follows up a passage summarizing the various liberal critiques of President Bush’s democracy promotion agenda with this:

What’s typically neglected in these arguments is the simple insight that democracy does not fill stomachs, alleviate malaria, or protect neighborhoods from marauding bands of militiamen. Democracy, in other words, is valuable to people insofar as it allows them first to meet their basic needs. . . “Look at why the baddies win these elections,” [former Obama advisor Samantha] 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].”

This is why, Obama’s advisers argue, national security depends in large part on dignity promotion. Without it, the U.S. will never be able to destroy al-Qaeda.

Notice that in one paragraph, we’ve got the triple whammy of poverty (hunger, malaria), insecurity (marauding bands), and political repression (thug on the street), and to make matters worse, they’re now all wrapped snugly under the blanket of dignity promotion.

I should be clear that not only do I have no objection to addressing all of the problems mentioned, I favor the kind of generous, humane and intelligent approach to doing so that Obama advocates for. What I’m troubled by is the idea of drawing a causal relationship between them and terrorism, especially based on assumptions that have as much to do with our perceptions as with any corrolative evidence.

This study, funded by the National Science Foundation, is based on statistics that are hard to verify and uses economic techniques that I’m not qualified to assess. With that caveat in mind, though, it concludes that controlling for a variety of variables, there is no corrolation between poverty and terrorism. There is one, however, between levels of political freedom (or conversely repression) and terrorism. And as makes intuitive sense, it’s neither the states that enjoy great amounts of political freedom or those that enjoy very little, but those that enjoy middling amounts that pose the greatest risk of breeding terrorism. Specifically, the study’s author, Alberto Abadie, observes that it’s states transitioning from high levels of repression to democracy that are most vulnerable.

Now I’m not offering this as proof that Obama’s team is wrong about whether the “dignity promotion” agenda is an effective way to combat terrorism, so much as evidence that they might not be right. And since a lot of Ackerman’s argument centers around liberals’ fear of losing the national security debate causing them to mimic Republican postures, I wonder if framing core liberal foreign policy values in a national security context that they might not justify isn’t just another way of doing the same thing.

In many ways, Obama’s foreign policy vision, which Ackerman characterizes as the “most sweeping liberal foreign-policy critique we’ve heard from a serious presidential contender in decades”, strikes me as being straight out of the pantheon of the American West: the lone sheriff out to take back the town from the bad guys. Only instead of the John Wayne swagger and shoot first, ask questions later approach of President Bush, Obama has adopted the wholesome integrity of Jimmy Stewart, who only resorts to gunplay once his attempts to spruce things up around town are frustrated by the “baddies.” But make no mistake, as his position on unilateral strikes in Pakistani territory indicate, Obama’s got his sidearm ready and he’s not afraid to use it.

Like I said, I find Obama’s approach refreshing and one worth pursuing, maybe because I always preferred Jimmy Stewart to John Wayne. But I don’t think we have a clear enough understanding of what causes terrorism, especially jihadist suicide bombings, to argue that it will be an effective way to address the problem.