Medical services Star of Life featuring the staff of Asclepius, the ancient god of medicine.

Medical services Star of Life featuring the staff of Asclepius, the ancient god of medicine. Public domain

In her shot-at-Obama heard ’round the world, Hillary Clinton told the Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg, “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”

Personally, I like the Obama Doctrine. I mean, “Don’t Do Stupid Sh#*! (in its original formulation) may not quite be up there with the Jesus Doctrine: “Do Unto Others as You Would Have Others Do Unto You.” But it’s a whole lot better than the Bush-Cheney Doctrine: “Do Unto Others If There’s a One Percent Chance They May Do It Unto You First.”

The Hillary Doctrine appears to be something like, “Contain and Defeat Global Jihadism.” As she said to Goldberg:

Jihadist groups are governing territory. They will never stay there, though. They are driven to expand. Their raison d’etre is to be against the West, against the Crusaders, against the fill-in-the-blank—and we all fit into one of these categories. How do we try to contain that? I’m thinking a lot about containment, deterrence, and defeat.

This is in line with the claim in her new book that she urged a more gradualist approach to getting rid of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak — which, in theory, might have avoided the (temporary) ascendency of the Muslim Brotherhood. On the other hand, if anti-jihadism were really the necessary organizing principle, then instead of criticizing her former boss for insufficiently supporting the democratic opposition to the Assad regime in Syria, Clinton should have said that the surest approach would have been to join with Vladimir Putin in keeping it in power. But that would have helped Putin “restore his vision of Russian greatness” — also a bad thing though not as bad a thing as jihadi Islam. So much for organizing principles.

When the great diplomat George Kennan advanced containment of communism as the organizing principle for post-war American foreign policy, the great journalist Walter Lippmann criticized it as “a strategic monstrosity” that could “be implemented only by recruiting, subsidizing and supporting a heterogeneous array of satellites, clients, dependents, and puppets.” In other words, it was a recipe for a lot of stupid sh#*! Like getting rid of the duly elected president of Iran in the 50s. And going into Vietnam in the 60s. And underwriting the jihadi insurgency in Afghanistan in the 80s. Other examples provided upon request.

Organizing principles like “contain communism” and “defeat jihadism” don’t tell you how to decide when it’s smart to intervene in another country’s affairs and what’s the best way to do it if it is. Obama has made his share of mistakes, but his vulgar apothegm provides guidance on both scores. It’s a version of the  Hippocratic Doctrine “primum non nocere“: First, Do No Harm. You might even call it an organizing principle.

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Categories: Politics

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Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

2 Comments

  1. As per the scientific principle, “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” and so it is more or less true in the international politics of the post WWII period. Gone are the days when colonising nations could dictate to their fiefdoms with little consequence.

    Perhaps the Organising Principle for the Great and mighty of nations should be “let us lead by example and clean up our own backyards first, then the lesser and smaller nations might learn from our successes and mistakes”.

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