James Monroe had the Monroe Doctrine; Harry Truman had the Truman Doctrine; George W. Bush had the Bush Doctrine; and now, the L.A. Times reports, Barack Obama will have the Costanza Doctrine.
Or at least that’s the best way to understand it. In a season five episode of “Seinfeld,” George Costanza’s character decides his life has been marked by an almost uninterrupted parade of bad decisions, and he must now do the opposite to break the pattern. The L.A. Times tries delicately to couch the Obama administration’s second-term foreign policy agenda in terms of moderation and pragmatism, but voters may, if the report is correct, witness an agenda quite different in tone and substance from what Obama told them he would do if reelected:
For months, these issues had what some U.S. officials called “AE” status, meaning any policy changes would be put off until after the election.
But with Obama winning a second term last week, top administration officials say they are weighing whether to deepen U.S. involvement in Syria’s civil war, accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan, and offer Iran a compromise deal to curb enrichment of uranium.
They also are considering ways to work out new cooperation with China, an undertaking that Obama campaign operatives had feared might alienate swing state voters anxious about Chinese trade policies and competition.
To be sure, replacing a failing policy with a better one, as the administration seems to be doing with regard to Syria, is of course a good thing. We’d always rather have better policy than consistent but principled failure, especially when lives are at stake. So now that the Obama team no longer needs to paint Republicans as warmongers, they can take their advice on the Syrian conflict.
Additionally, to be fair, the Afghanistan policy here is the one change that wouldn’t be a total about-face, instead simply accelerating the pace of retreat. But if the Afghan forces are handed total control before they are ready, it would certainly contradict Obama’s promise that the withdrawal would be done in a “responsible manner.” The others–Syria, China, Iran–all signal an administration relieved to finally reveal it didn’t mean anything it said prior to November 6. It also tells us why the Israeli administration seemed so unnerved by Obama’s Iran policy despite his repeated assurances that the Israelis–and the broader Arab world, much of which is also concerned about Iran’s nuclear program–had nothing to worry about.