Many writers, including the president's own speechwriting team, have struggled to define an "Obama doctrine" driving his approach to foreign policy. To understand it, you could do worse than to watch the president attempt to calm a lawn full of screaming children who are terrified of a bee.
"It's okay, guys," he says. "Bees are good. They won't land on you."
"They sting, and they're scary!" a child yelled in response.
Terror is the biggest threat of terrorism
Like the child frightened of the bee, Obama's critics have spent most of his time in office slamming him as naive about the nature of foreign threats. Like the kid, they are concerned that Obama is blind to the bee's menace — or perhaps even in league with the bee and its nefarious agenda. But if you look on the scene with the slightest bit of maturity and generosity, it's conceivable that the president is actually aware that people sometimes get stung by bees. His point is less that the bee threat doesn't exist than that ruining a nice event by obsessing over the bee would be counterproductive.
If you stay calm and more or less ignore the bee, the odds are that things will be fine. Of course, over the long term someone or other is going to get stung by a bee, and it's going to hurt. Someone with a bee allergy may need medical treatment. Indeed, tragically about 40 Americans die per year due to bee stings.
But panicking at every bee sighting would be counterproductive. If anything, stings become more likely when people lose their nerve and fuss around.
By the same token, the president told me in January that "our invasion of Iraq was counterproductive to the goal of keeping our country safe." He described "maintaining pressure on terrorist organizations so that they have a limited capacity to carry out large-scale attacks on the West" as a top priority of his administration. But his team knows perfectly well that they can't guarantee there will be no small-scale attacks all across a vast world, and they worry about how to manage the reaction to those attacks.
Self-confidence is an asset
While telling the children that bees aren't scary didn't work, a later tactic was more effective. Beeghazi had interrupted a reading of Where The Wild Things Are, and Obama turned to the book as a reference point. He told the kids they were "wild things" and as such were not "supposed to be scared of bees."
This appeal to pride and vanity settled things down, and the reading proceeded without incident. Likewise, the president recently pitched Thomas Friedman on the notion that America's superpower status should make us willing to embark on new diplomatic initiatives and avoid counterproductive panics over minor issues:
"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."
This is entirely in keeping with the spirit of things Obama has been saying at least since 2007. But it's a specific formulation — that irrational fear prevents us from conducting potentially useful outreach — that he hasn't often used since taking office. It worked well with frightened children, though, and it just might be key to selling a skeptical Congress on a new deal with Iran.