The Obama Doctrine

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.

  1. #1 by Sean Patrick Hazlett on March 29, 2011 - 03:03


    Always appreciate great analysis like this. I focused on trying to read Obama’s justification of the action in Libya and did not even consider that he may have been trying to lay out the “Obama Doctrine.” That’s for putting this together.

    Not surprisingly, I am not a big fan of the Obama Doctrine. I think it takes the worst parts of the Bush Doctrine and depends too much on the “international community.”

    However, I do agree that other world powers need to start sharing the burden of international stability. China, in particular, has been getting a free ride at our expense. Or not, since they do still keep buying dollars after all…;-)

  2. #2 by Mike Lovell on March 29, 2011 - 14:41

    You say that pointing at other regimes being the weakest argument. Could you elabortate on that point with a little more historical detail? Because I have seen many oppressive regimes that we leave alone constantly, or even aid in one form or another, so to me, Obama failed to really tie in the WHY LIBYA side of things to me.

    I am all for going forth with the help of our allies, when military interdiction is required, however, telling me the U.S. is stepping away form the lead and handing it to NATO, seems to be more of a sleight of hand trick to me. The U.S. is the biggest player, both finance wise and in the realm of logistics and deployment in NATO, at least the last time I had looked. SO basically we’re saying we’re stepping back from leading this coalition to allowing the coalition which we lead to take charge. Sounds kind of hinky to me…
    and again, where’s the endgame here??? I know its an oft-fired question coming from those in opposition to whichever party the current president comes from, but I also questioned the end game of Iraq, and Afghanistan…. and so far, there has yet to be defined an endgame to any of them. Does it change according to the prevailing political winds???

    • #3 by Scott Erb on March 29, 2011 - 18:39

      I think Obama does need to answer the “why Libya” question and last night was his attempt to do so. If Americans find his answer unconvincing, he’s in trouble. I think he was trying to sketch out the circumstances when US involvement would be chosen.

      I’d liken the US approach to leading with my days as a pizzeria night manager. If I organized the crew right I could be almost invisible, helping out here and there, but able to chat with customers, watch the whole process, see if little things were out of line and have a smooth night. If I understaffed the crew or had too many inexperienced folk scheduled, I’d have to myself run ovens and top pizzas, perhaps not able to see a poorly bussed table, dirty bathroom, or other problems. Leadership is not being out front and controlling everything, but setting in place processes and actors (in this case forming a coalition) that can function on its own. Yet (taking this example to an absurd extreme), just as Laurel might be the ‘oven man,’ Tom might run Til, Renee may be the pizza topper and Bill will run the roll out machine, I’d actually be responsible for all of those.

      Back to the war — the US wants this ‘behind the scenes’ leadership to assure burden sharing, convince the allies we are not trying to dominate (the best leaders don’t micro-manage), minimize the chance that anti-Americanism will guide the response abroad by focusing on the non-Americans involved and ‘leading,’ etc.

      Don’t know for sure about the end game. That definitely is the $1 million question! I think they want the rebels to succeed and Gaddafi to know he has two choices — fight it out and assure he and his family end up before the ICC, or make a deal that allows some form of exile. Officially we can’t endorse that, but I suspect that’s where the effort is right now. This won’t be like Iraq, but might be like Kosovo, which had a very ambiguous and unsatisfying finish.

  3. #4 by Mike Lovell on March 29, 2011 - 19:06

    Okay, so in response to your first paragraph… the speech was supposed to justify Why Libya….well, what was the why??

    • #5 by Scott Erb on March 29, 2011 - 19:13

      From Obama’s speech transcript:

      “Ten days ago, having tried to end the violence without using force, the international community offered Qaddafi a final chance to stop his campaign of killing, or face the consequences. Rather than stand down, his forces continued their advance, bearing down on the city of Benghazi, home to nearly 700,000 men, women and children who sought their freedom from fear.

      At this point, the United States and the world faced a choice. Qaddafi declared he would show “no mercy” to his own people. He compared them to rats, and threatened to go door to door to inflict punishment. In the past, we have seen him hang civilians in the streets, and kill over a thousand people in a single day. Now we saw regime forces on the outskirts of the city. We knew that if we wanted — if we waited one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.

      It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen. And so nine days ago, after consulting the bipartisan leadership of Congress, I authorized military action to stop the killing and enforce U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973. “

      • #6 by Mike Lovell on April 1, 2011 - 20:01

        I guess, maybe its me and the historical parallels with a half a dozen other places in the world, his argument only justifies Libya if it justifies everywhere else at the same time. Granted that wouldn’t be a smart action at all on our behalf, but I don’t think Libya is a smart move either. So far, the rebel forces, frinedly towards us or merely having a common enemy, show little in the way of waging their battle to successful fruition. Therefore, this “kinetic military action” (odd choice of words, because I’ve never seen a “potential military action” in the midst of being carried out). WE can sanction the hell out of Qaddafi all we want, but it isn’t going to change the outcome of this “civil war-like military action” without continued NATO (read U.S.) controlled military interference.

        As for Obama’s last paragraph… and enforce UN Security COuncil Resolution…..since when were we all about enforcing anything U.N sanctioned?? Any given year you saw somewhere in the neighborhood of 50-100 serious sanctions being violated, and yet we did nothing. Except maybe talk tougher, and threaten a new round of sanctions. By Obama’s very speech he made the case for the Iraqi military action that we actually delayed well beyond the killing of many people by government forces, weapons development, caching and use of, constant violation of U.N. Sanctions.. And yet neither the U.S. or anyone else wanted to do anything, until the Bush Presidency decided it was going to happen some 10 years after the fact… So I’m going to have say there is either something else at play here, or even the president himself, pardon my language is full of something stinky.

  4. #7 by Vern R. Kaine on March 29, 2011 - 19:21

    In an age where Political Correctness seems to trump all, it’s hard for both a) a President to say what they really mean and want to say, and b) people on either side to read between the lines and interpret what someone’s doctrine might be.

    We can use “for humanitarian reasons” and “to spread democracy and freedom” all we want, but it all comes down to PR and economics. Why are we in Libya and not in Darfur? In my opinion, because the Chinese seem to own Sudan and its oilfields. You might free the people, but you won’t free the oilfields. In Libya, it appears (so far) to be relatively easy to achieve both, so that’s why we’re there. Libya’s got 5 million people (or so), Egypt has over 75 million – it would seem that Libya’s the easier and faster target for citizen-based change which could provide more leverage in changing the regions around it. It’s like the board game Risk – settle in on Papau/New Guinea and build out from there. 🙂

    Did Obama justify Libya? I don’t think so, because coming at it from the humanitarian angle is false and therefore ultimately impossible to justify. He can’t say publicly why I think we’re really there, so he’s between a rock and a hard place. Best course for him seems to be to hand over ownership of the mission to Nato and control things indirectly through there. If that’s right or wrong, I don’t know, but as far as expecting an answer from his speech, I wasn’t expecting one and I don’t see how anybody really could. The real reasons for being there are ones that I think, after Iraq, no one right or left wants to hear from this President.

  5. #8 by Scott Erb on March 29, 2011 - 22:01

    Nick Clegg, Deputy PM in Britain, said this: ” The lesson of Iraq is not that intervention in support of liberal aims is always wrong. The lesson of Iraq is that any such action must only and must always be multilateral sanctioned and driven by humanitarian concerns … The action in Libya doesn’t signal a return to the trigger-happy policies of the past. It represents a responsible collective decision to int ervene on clear and moral grounds. A new ‘axis of openness’ is forming.”

    It could be that in an era of globalization the old state centric myopic notion of national interest is becoming obsolete.

  6. #9 by brucetheeconomist on March 30, 2011 - 04:23

    This will look like a mistake if the rebels are unable to ultimately get Colonel K to stop attacking and negotiate some solution where’s he’s out of power. That looked possible 24 hours ago, but now the government seems on the offensive again. This may force us to double down here, or ultimately concede defeat.

    More internationalism seems prudent in the world as it is coming to be, but the thing that may have been missed here was enough thought to can the rebels win even with our support. That’s looking more doubtful tonight.

    Again, Scott I pray this turns out well for the people of Libya, and the world.

  7. #10 by Scott Erb on March 30, 2011 - 20:28

    Given difficult times today for the rebels, the voices against this action are becoming more persuasive. I wish I was privvy to the inside information the leaders are receiving. You can’t base conclusions on one day’s fighting, but today’s advances by the pro-Gaddafi forces certain give more credence to the views of those skeptical of the use of military action.

  8. #11 by renaissanceguy on March 31, 2011 - 02:38

    Scott, the invasion of Iraq was multilateral. Why do people drone on and on about it being unilateral?

    • #12 by Scott Erb on March 31, 2011 - 03:26

      Because it was controlled, planned and implemented by the US every step of the way. The US cajoled others to help, but it had been rejected by the UN Security Council, and participants were recruited by the US and promised rewards. It was a US policy. The US led it and defined the scope and mission. That’s why in foreign policy texts and analyses it is considered an example of US unilateralism. It was.

  9. #13 by renaissanceguy on April 3, 2011 - 01:12

    Mike at #6 makes some good points. Care to respond?

  10. #14 by Scott Erb on April 4, 2011 - 20:31

    I would hope that in cases of imminent humanitarian crises the UN Security Council will be able to agree to act. Ultimately the US can’t solve world problems, we’re not that powerful. If humanitarian crises are to be addressed, real burden sharing is necessary and the UN is the only body with the legal authority and general international respect that can move in that direction at this point.

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