Think of Barack Obama’s recent return to West Point at graduation time to offer his approach to an increasingly chaotic world as a bookend on an era. George W. Bush went to the Academy in June 2002 — less than a year after 9/11, seven months after the U.S. had triumphantly invaded Afghanistan, 10 months before it would (as he already knew) invade Iraq — and laid out his vision of “preemptive war.” In that commencement address to a class about to graduate into the very wars he was launching, he threw the ancient Cold War doctrines of deterrence and containment to the sharks and proclaimed a new, finger-on-a-hair-trigger vision of global policy for a country that wasn’t about to step aside for anyone or anything. “If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long,” he said to resounding applause. He added, “Our security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives.”
Speaking to the class of 2002, Bush conjured up an epic struggle without end (that certain neocons would soon begin calling “the Long War” or “World War IV“). It would be global, Manichaean, and unquestionably victorious. “We must uncover terror cells in 60 or more countries, using every tool of finance, intelligence, and law enforcement. Along with our friends and allies, we must oppose proliferation and confront regimes that sponsor terror, as each case requires. Some nations need military training to fight terror, and we’ll provide it. Other nations oppose terror, but tolerate the hatred that leads to terror — and that must change. We will send diplomats where they are needed, and we will send you, our soldiers, where you’re needed.”
It was Bush’s initial foray into the dream of a subjugated Greater Middle East and a planet destined to fall under the spell of a Pax Americana enforced by a military like no other in history. It was visionary stuff, a genuine Bush (or Cheney) Doctrine. And the president and his top officials meant every word of it.
Twelve years later, the results are in. As President Obama pointed out to the class of 2014, some of those “terror cells in 60 or more countries” have by now become full-scale terror outfits and, helped immeasurably by the actions the Bush Doctrine dictated, are thriving. In Afghanistan, a long-revived Taliban can’t be defeated, while neighboring Pakistan, with its own Taliban movement, has been significantly destabilized. Amid the ongoing drone wars of two administrations, Yemen is being al-Qaedicized; the former president’s invasion of Iraq set off a devastating, still expanding Sunni-Shiite civil war across the Middle East, which is also becoming a blowback machine for terrorism, and which has thrown the whole region into chaos; Libya, Obama’s no-casualties version of intervention, is now a basket case; across much of Africa, terror groups are spreading, as is destabilization continent-wide.
Facing this and a host of other crises and problems from Ukraine to Syria to the South China Sea, and “pivoting” fruitlessly in every direction, Obama, in his second trek to West Point, put together a survey of a no-longer American planet that left the cadets sitting on their hands (though their parents cheered the line, “You are the first class since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan”) and critics from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times bored and dismissive. It was, all agreed, the exhausted speech of an exhausted administration addressed to an American public exhausted by more than a decade of fruitless wars in an exhausting world.
If that commencement address had just been visionless words offered by a rudderless president, it might not have mattered much, except to the nattering class in Washington. As TomDispatch regular Dilip Hiro makes clear, however, in a magisterial look at where the Arab Spring ended up in Egypt, it isn’t only unfriendly states or stateless terror groups that aren’t cooperating in the organization of an American world. The former “sole superpower” of planet Earth that the president (with “every fiber” of his being) insisted was still both “exceptional” and “indispensable” seemed to be losing its sway over former allies as well. If there is no Obama Doctrine, it may be because the world of 2014 is in a state of exceptional and indispensable entropy.