Obama, Trump, and the Fallacy of Presidential Doctrines

March 31, 2016

Donald Trump and Barack Obama might agree on at least one thing — presidential doctrines are a way of the past. Doctrines constrain our ability to respond effectively to the complex and dynamic threats of the 21st century. In fact, presidential doctrines tend to encourage binary thinking, hubris, and cognitive dissonance. They are our futile attempt to predict behavior and shape events on a global scale with dogmatic rhetoric and one-size-fits-all thinking. However, we the people long for such prescience. We rely on these doctrines to ease our worries about the future. They feign understanding and create the illusion of control, even when they offer nothing of the sort and presidents do not follow them. Trump and Obama each recognize the futility of this type of programmed thinking in foreign policy — making America great again and not doing “stupid sh*t” may seem like different approaches, but each shirks traditional dogmas as a way to allow for flexible responses in a dynamic world.

In his recent article in The Atlantic, “The Obama Doctrine,” Jeffrey Goldberg gave us what we so long for — a doctrine and a box in which to shove the last eight years of foreign policy, a way to compartmentalize and understand the Obama logic. Through a series of one-on-one interviews, Goldberg distills an essence, a pattern of the Obama decision-making process. He paints a picture of a president torn between the hope of a peaceful world order on one side and the realities of radical terror and revanchist powers on the other. Goldberg describes Obama’s attempts to integrate collaborative solutions to the world’s complex security challenges while in the same breath vowing no hesitation in protecting America’s national security through unilateral action.

Goldberg captures this duality by paradoxically labeling Obama a Hobbesian optimist — a person who recognizes the brutish reality of human nature while simultaneously longing for a future of peace and security. However, Goldberg fails to fulfill the promise of his title; the Obama doctrine is anything but doctrine — it is merely a window into Obama’s brain filled with duality, inconsistency, post-hoc justification, and paradox. In the end, Obama describes his own puzzling doctrine of action (or inaction) — don’t do stupid sh*t.

Anderson Cooper tried to pin down the Trump doctrine in a recent interview with the Republican frontrunner. Cooper questioned Trump on a range of issues from politics, to campaign rally violence, to the use of force and torture. Seeking to understand Trump’s red line for using American military power abroad, Cooper asked, “Have you started thinking about a Trump doctrine?” to which Trump resisted, “There can be no doctrine, everything is different, every situation is different.” Cooper, like Goldberg, attempted to give us a box in which to place the Trump machine. In this case, Trump repelled the urge and in doing so proclaimed a doctrine of non-doctrine. However, we know from his recent interviews with editorial boards of The Washington Post and The New York Times that Trump is a mess of inconsistency on international relations. He routinely changes his thoughts, ideas, and understanding of foreign policy mid-sentence. As a result, we might not expect a clear Trump doctrine, but Trump is at least consistently inconsistent.

Trump’s pattern of inconsistency and resistance to a specific way of thinking is similar to Obama’s contradictory optimism and hope amid a world wrecked by terror and hatred. Trump and Obama are unwilling to accept one thesis of action — each, in his own way, craves flexibility and resist the limits of rigid thinking.

So what should we make of presidential doctrinism (or lack thereof)? In theory, presidential doctrines seize the moral high ground and provide clarity in foreign policy. In practice, they oversimplify foreign policy and truncate complex solutions to complicated security challenges — they drive binary thinking, hubris, and cognitive dissonance.

Binary thinking in foreign policy occurs when we believe that we can accurately describe and predict world events (and our response to such events) through enduring doctrines or models. These dogmas aim to provide lasting solutions to complex security challenges — however, they often yield static responses to a dynamic world. Human nature intervenes, circumstances change, power shifts, and interests evolve. Doctrines may satisfy our need for consistency through an “intangible and easily quotable combination of vision and signature style,” but they threaten the efficacy of our actions around the world.

Whether it was President Harry Truman’s attempt to “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures,” or President George W. Bush’s mantra that “we will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them” — doctrines often oversimplify the complexity of human interaction and the fluidity of foreign affairs. In both of these cases, the United States rapidly expanded its engagement abroad while failing to anticipate the unintended consequences of interventionism.

We seek doctrines and thus predictability — we yearn for clarity amidst the muddiness of reality. Yet, labeling our hope does not increase the likelihood of its fruition.

A well-crafted strategy or clearly worded doctrine creates opportunity for hubris. When we truly believe that we can simplify the intricacy of geopolitics down to a glib phrase or monochromatic metaphor, we risk overconfidence and thus overreaction. Peter Beinart belabors this point in his most recent book on America’s history of hubris. Beinart points out several types of presidential hubris, like the Wilsonian hubris of reason — the belief that America could educate foreign nations into peace and away from self-interest — or the Johnsonian hubris of toughness — the belief that sheer American might could deliver us from the communist evil. While hubris might not be only to blame, terse doctrines that stoke the flames of American exceptionalism create the appearance of strategic thinking, in practice, and these doctrines merely satisfy our need for simplicity on the altar of reason.

The positive externalities of a clear doctrine are palpable — domestic and international assurance of future security amid present uncertainty. However, doctrines by their nature assume some level of prescience, some measure of sagacity, and are, therefore, doomed to fail. We cannot predict the future and thus any broad doctrine of future behavior (or response) is incapable of guaranteeing our security or controlling uncertainty.

Doctrines also drive strategic cognitive dissonance — this is the clash between the imagined and the real. The prediction and prophesy of future events demands to be disproved by the reality of tomorrow. Phaedrus was right — things are never what they seem. In fact, Leon Festinger’s less cited theory of cognitive consistency might be to blame. Festinger describes cognitive consistency as our search for consonance amidst dissonant cognitions. This endless pursuit of consistency may drive our desire for strategies and doctrines that look to simplify the complex and predict the future — in Rumsfeldian terms, we naturally seek to know the unknown. After the attacks of 9/11, President Bush quickly proclaimed what we all wanted and needed to hear, that America would “make no distinction” between terrorists and their supporters. This terse moral statement would lay the groundwork for a decade and a half of American intervention and spark the fire of the global War on Terror we are still fighting today.

So how can we avoid doctrines that drive binary thinking, hubris, and cognitive dissonance? Well, Trump may not have the answer, but his unwillingness to commit to a trite canon of action leaves room for dynamic solutions. Moreover, Obama’s generic quip about not doing stupid sh*t may not be the simple answer to our complex problems, but it does create space for flexible responses to the worlds unyielding challenges.


David Jones is a major in the U.S. Army. This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.


Photo credit: White House / Gage Skidmore

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