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The Obamians

Is there an Obama Doctrine? 'The Obamians' leaves room for doubt, but it does provide an interesting look at the inner workings of the president's foreign policy team.

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With regard to the Arab Spring, Obama was cautious. He gave reluctant support to popular movements in Tunisia and Egypt but continued ties with undemocratic regimes in places like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

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Critics of Obama were also angered by his reluctance to emphasize human rights issues in China. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was widely criticized for saying that differences over human rights should not hinder diplomacy before her first trip to Beijing in 2009. But this early approach of engagement and conciliation eventually gave way to a firmer approach when China was emboldened by what it perceived to be American weakness.

Yet Obama has broken new ground in showing a commitment to multilateralism and humanitarianism in Libya. In helping to initiate the air campaign and then allowing NATO allies to take over, he was outlining a new role for American leadership. This seems to mark a significant shift in Obama’s foreign policy away from realism and toward broader ideals. Mann emphasizes that “for his part, Obama did not see himself as siding with the realists or even gravitating toward their views. He followed the same approach in foreign policy he often did elsewhere, which was to detach himself from the two opposing camps or schools of thought, sympathize with each and insist the differences between them were less than believed. He sought to blend the two opposing perspectives, the realism of Kissinger and Scowcroft and the idealism of Woodrow Wilson.”

Mann notes that Obama is not simply choosing between two theories of international relations. A shift from America as the “indispensable” nation of the Clinton era to an embrace of multilateralism is the economic reality of an administration with diminishing resources. As Obama said in more than one speech, “the nation we care most about building is our own.”

One of the virtues of “The Obamians” is its inside look at the president’s relationship to his foreign policy team. Mann makes it clear that Obama listens to diverse perspectives, which makes his foreign policy seem confusingly inconsistent. In fact, Obama tends to maintain the status quo when it is prudent, but he does advance greater ideals when it is not in conflict with American interests. The reader, however, is left without a strong sense of whether there is an Obama doctrine.

Amy Rowland is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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