Obama on Libya: The dawn of a foreign policy doctrine?
Libya may have been less a precedent than a case study in the president's blend of pragmatism and idealism.
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Still a cautious realistSkip to next paragraph
His focus then on the practical limitations that would determine whether the use of force could be successful – rather than on the idealistic impulses for intervention – suggests that Obama remains what he was when he took office two years ago: a cautious realist in his worldview and in his conception of the uses of American power.
"I don't think a whole lot has changed in Obama's approach to foreign policy," says Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "If you step back from the military operation in Libya and ask how this administration has responded to the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, they have been cautious, guided by likely outcomes rather than by an ideological agenda, and they have stayed behind the curve," he says. "That's all to say I see pragmatism in command here."
Which doesn't mean that Obama's invoking of moral imperatives to justify the Libyan intervention was not genuine. As Bob Woodward, the Washington Post journalist and chronicler of Obama's foreign policy decisionmaking, likes to say, the long-competing strains of US foreign policy – the idealism and the pragmatism, the interventionist tug yet the impulse to have the US mind its own affairs – occupy this president's head like two roommates.
Both the soaring appeals to America's moral authority in the world and Obama's pragmatism were on display in the president's March 28 address explaining the Libya intervention.
"Given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action," Obama said. Then he added: "But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what's right."
From the day the Obamas moved into the White House, presidential scholars and foreign-policy analysts have pored over this president's words and actions for signs of an Obama doctrine. Was it simply multilateralism, as opposed to George W. Bush's unilateralism? Was a willingness to engage America's adversaries or former enemies, like Iran, Syria, Russia, or Cuba, his defining principle? Or was it a return to a traditional American internationalism based on the global institutions whose establishment the US had spearheaded?
In the days following the launch of airstrikes on Libya, a rush of commentary focused on how "cool Obama" – who had maintained a steely focus on long-term strategic goals when Iranian protesters had faced their government's bullets in June 2009 – had this time been swayed by emotional appeals.