Of “Doctrines” and “National Debates”

Online, in print, and from TV/radio, I’ve heard references recently to “a new doctrine” of foreign policy advanced, implicitly, by President Obama’s decision to help European air-forces bomb Libya. For a longer time, I’ve heard commentators and politicians suggest that “we” have a “national debate” on this or that issue. My listening has led me to ponder the value of the two words, “doctrine” and “debate,” in connection with American politics. Both seem highly problematic because of the state of American politics.

The Monroe Doctrine–no more colonizing the Western Hemisphere, Europe–was probably worthy of the term, as it was written down, established a clear point of view regarding Europe, and articulated to Congress. But “the Bush Doctrine” or “the Obama Doctrine”? I don’t think so.

There certainly was Bush Behavior: reckless, arrogant, probably counter to international law (debatable; however, several countries now regard Bush as a war criminal), and slippery: the reasons for invading Iraq kept and keep shifting, and markers of success in Iraq and Afghanistan kept and keep shifting. Christopher Hitchens and others supported the wars because it was (I paraphrase) better to fight “them” over there than over here; that line of reasoning made me think that there was an impeding invasion, and it also reminded me that the terrorists responsible for “9-11” and the Iraqi regime had nothing to do with one another. In other words, the line of thinking didn’t and doesn’t make sense–to me, at least. It does, I realize, to others.

At any rate, if impetuous, hasty, illogical, dishonest, and ill conceived translate into a doctrine, then there is a Bush Doctrine. And is slightly more cautious and cooperative translate into an Obama Doctrine, well, there you go.

I think the more pertinent issue may be that presidents don’t need no stinking doctrines anymore. They can order an invasion or bombing missions whenever and against whomever they want, without consulting Congress. When was the last declared war, after all (duly declared by Congress)? It was World War II, as you know. Congress’s weakness in this area keeps getting worse, to the extend that shaky old Robert Byrd had to be the one to ask why Congress didn’t even discuss or debate the invasion of Iraq. How sad is that?

Which brings us to “national debate.” Maybe one was possible once, but I can’t see how one would be now. The rise of the pseudocracy means almost all discourse is subject to constant manipulation, distraction, and spectacle (thank you, Murray Edelman). There are no agreed-upon facts with regard to most if not all important issues, and once “counseling in connection with terminal illnesses” becomes “death panels,” there can be no debate, only a kind of improvised playground scrum.

Into the debate-vacuum strolls the Executive Branch, especially with regard to foreign policy. Into the debate-vacuum strolls whoever happens to be in charge of Congress for a two-year span–to address problems that require sober thought and action over many years. Into a debate-vacuum strolls the Supreme Court, who may turn a corporation into a person and unleash a flood of cash from unknown headwaters–cash that will make the manipulation, spectacle, absence of agreed-upon facts, and so on even worse.

To deploy a Nixonesque term (Nixon seems so charmlingly amateurish by comparison these days), “doctrine” and “national debate” no longer appear to be “operable.” Have a nice day.


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