The Trouble with Doctrines

Many presidential foreign policy doctrines ago, George Kennan figured out what was wrong with them. In my latest post for The Skeptics, I rely on his insight to try to stop pundits from inventing an Obama Doctrine.

The national effort to discern an Obama Doctrine from our attack on Libya is likely to be futile. If it succeeds, it will be harmful. No one can make foreign policy without some theory or strategy. But as Kennan’s lament about the Truman Doctrine points out, doctrines tend to be post-hoc rationales of actions that confuse policy later. If taken seriously, they typically encourage foolish wars.

Kennan attributed the American desire for doctrines to our love of law and rules. I see it more as a product of divided power, which heightens the need for sales. Doctrines have a pseudo-scientific air that helps legitimate policy. They endow the messy process of presidential decision-making with false order. They over-generalize.

The rest of the post briefly applies this formula to all our presidential doctrines, from Monroe to Bush. With the exception of Nixon’s, almost all arose to justify military action and thus tend to encourage war. While I can imagine doctrines, like Weinberger-Powell, that might marginally help keep us out of trouble, even that substitutes a formula for careful consideration of action based on theory.

So I propose the Kennan Doctrine, which says don’t have a doctrine.