President Obama’s speech on March 28, 2011 may go down as one of the historic Presidential speeches as he not only explained and defended a controversial foreign policy decision, but clearly enunciated a foreign policy doctrine. It also was a forceful, unambiguous speech, resisting efforts to use vague slogans and unclear rhetoric to cover up tough issues. For the first time in his Presidency Obama has had to show true foreign policy leadership and he has come through.
Rather than look again at Libya, I’m intrigued more by what the Obama doctrine indicates. He rejects the notion of “Captain America” as world cop, intervening to stop all repression and violence. Realistically, that’s not possible. There will be cases where repressive dictators will act against their people, and despite our outrage, it would be contrary to our core interests to act. In that, he certainly is correct. US power and wealth are limited and recently under strain. Interventions that would be costly and without a likelihood of success would do us clear harm.
However, that doesn’t mean we should never act. The weakest argument against action is to point to other repressive regimes and say “why not intervene there?” To be sure, that argument was often made against President Bush’s choice to go to war with Iraq. But while President Bush did not fully answer that, President Obama gave guidelines on when US military power is to be used.
First, the US must have a coalition that supports military action. The coalition must be broad based and willing to share the burden. Interestingly he did not say UN Security Council approval was absolutely necessary, leaving open the possibility that at some point the US might act even if China or Russia threatens a veto. Second, US action should be focused on a clear global interest – shared by us and others – ranging from protecting commerce (presumably including oil flows) to stopping genocide. Finally, the US will have a limited role, using the unique power and capacity of the American military to support interventions aimed at specific goals (e.g., stopping Gaddafi’s assault on civilians) not for broader goals like regime change.
This backs down considerably from the kind of idealist (or ‘neo-conservative’) approach of spreading democracy that President Bush embraced, but borrows the core elements of Bush’s ideology. Interestingly, Bush’s thoughts about the need to spread democracy and aid the rising youth in the Mideast are embraced by Obama. Obama differs on the means to use. We must not do anything that undercuts our own interests, or lead us down a path of ever growing costs and national trauma.
He also was clear to point out the effort to strictly limit military action, noting that regime change even by air power alone would require bombing that would lead to unacceptable civilian casualties. At the same time Obama distanced himself form the pacifist wing of his party. He rejected the idea that US military power was useless, immoral or only to be used in national defense. Instead he argued that in an interdependent and linked world it would be against our interest not to use our power to try to maintain international stability and human rights.
Obama’s core principles differ little from those of Republicans like Reagan or Bush, or Democrats like Carter or Clinton. In that sense he is clearly an establishment President, not breaking with long held values on how to use American military power. Yet unlike other Presidents, he refines the conditions in which it will be used, rejecting the kind of unilateralism that has so often defined US foreign policy in the past.
In part this is a pragmatic reaction to historical circumstance. Just as President Nixon and Secretary of State Kissinger had to adopt detente in response to the cost of the Vietnam war and the rise of the USSR to nuclear parity (not to mention Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik), President Obama is dealing with a US rocked by the great recession, divided by partisan bickering, and still wounded from long and not yet complete wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Simply, the bipolar world of the Cold War and the unipolar world of the early post-Cold periods are gone. The President has to adjust US policy to reflect US capacity.
In doing so he stresses the need for American leadership (weakened though the US may be, no other country has the same military capacity), but leadership of the sort that doesn’t say “do it our way or no way” but builds coalitions and requires international legitimacy. In that he reflects the ideals of President Bush the Elder, who undertook a similar strategy in Iraq in 1991. Yet unlike the elder Bush, President Obama situates US policy within a global framework in which the US voice is a leading, but not dominate one.
To some, that may seem weak. To me it seems prudent. The US cannot dominate, the Iraq experience shows us what the cost can be if we try. But leadership can be exercised within the framework of international cooperation and burden sharing within the larger global community.
Time will tell what historical reputation the Obama Doctrine will earn (I’ve not read other reactions to the speech, so I’ll be interested if others will see this as proclaiming a doctrine), nor does this quell the arguments of the hawks and doves, between which Obama has crafted a well defined middle ground. It has a typically American mix of idealism and realism, with a pragmatic recognition of our limits. I have to say I’m impressed with both the speech and the policy. A United States working in concert with allies to promote our interests and principles in a pragmatic and realistic manner may be the best way to navigate these uncertain times.