In his interview with Tom Friedman, President Obama discussed how his foreign policy is guided by a principle I haven’t heard him articulate before.
What struck me most was what I’d call an “Obama doctrine” embedded in the president’s remarks. It emerged when I asked if there was a common denominator to his decisions to break free from longstanding United States policies isolating Burma, Cuba and now Iran. Obama said his view was that “engagement,” combined with meeting core strategic needs, could serve American interests vis-Ã -vis these three countries far better than endless sanctions and isolation. He added that America, with its overwhelming power, needs to have the self-confidence to take some calculated risks to open important new possibilities — like trying to forge a diplomatic deal with Iran that, while permitting it to keep some of its nuclear infrastructure, forestalls its ability to build a nuclear bomb for at least a decade, if not longer.
“We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk. And that’s the thing … people don’t seem to understand,” the president said. “You take a country like Cuba. For us to test the possibility that engagement leads to a better outcome for the Cuban people, there aren’t that many risks for us. It’s a tiny little country. It’s not one that threatens our core security interests, and so [there’s no reason not] to test the proposition. And if it turns out that it doesn’t lead to better outcomes, we can adjust our policies. The same is true with respect to Iran, a larger country, a dangerous country, one that has engaged in activities that resulted in the death of U.S. citizens, but the truth of the matter is: Iran’s defense budget is $30 billion. Our defense budget is closer to $600 billion. Iran understands that they cannot fight us. … You asked about an Obama doctrine. The doctrine is: We will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities.”
The notion that Iran is undeterrable — “it’s simply not the case,” he added. “And so for us to say, ‘Let’s try’ — understanding that we’re preserving all our options, that we’re not naÃ¯ve — but if in fact we can resolve these issues diplomatically, we are more likely to be safe, more likely to be secure, in a better position to protect our allies, and who knows? Iran may change. If it doesn’t, our deterrence capabilities, our military superiority stays in place. … We’re not relinquishing our capacity to defend ourselves or our allies. In that situation, why wouldn’t we test it?”
I say that I haven’t heard him articulate this principle before – but that’s simply because I haven’t heard him apply it to foreign policy. But the minute I read this portion of the interview, I thought of something a young Barack Obama told Tammerlin Drummond back in 1990 not long after he’d been elected the first African American President of the Harvard Law Review.
The post, considered the highest honor a student can attain at Harvard Law School, almost always leads to a coveted clerkship with the U.S. Supreme Court after graduation and a lucrative offer from the law firm of one’s choice.
Yet Obama, who has gone deep into debt to meet the $25,000-a-year cost of a Harvard Law School education, has left many in disbelief by asserting that he wants neither.
“One of the luxuries of going to Harvard Law School is it means you can take risks in your life,” Obama said recently. “You can try to do things to improve society and still land on your feet. That’s what a Harvard education should buy – enough confidence and security to pursue your dreams and give something back.”
I believe that what the President is talking about is something we all know deep inside ourselves but rarely allow to take hold. Too often our fears feed our sense of insecurity and keep us from taking the kinds of risks that could improve things. We embark on a never-ending quest to find more (money, power, etc) and never recognize that the ground we are standing on is already secure enough to allow us to let go and explore the possibility of our ideals.
The damage that kind of cycle does to an individual is very similar to how the fear-mongering from Republicans is affecting our country right now. It is in this way that President Obama embodies what is truly exceptional about the United States. He knows that just as a young man with a degree from Harvard Law School could afford to take some risks with his career (and look where that got him!), the richest and most powerful nation on this earth is secure enough to be able to take some risks to promote engagement and the potential for peace.