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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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The liberal hawks of his national security team had prevailed upon the president to employ American military force to prevent a massacre at the hands of a regime. In short, the proclamations proliferated of a new Obama doctrine for using force in the name of humanitarian intervention.

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But is that what it was? In reality, Obama's deliberations on Libya – what some critics called dithering – and his preoccupation with "what can work" told a different story.

It may just be that the word "doctrine" isn't right to use in conjunction with this president. As policy analysts and even members of the Obama staff have concluded, there is little that is "doctrinaire" about Obama's approach to foreign and national security policy.

A set of guiding principles

But Obama's actions over more than two years of an often surprisingly intense international agenda have allowed for gleaning at least a set of guiding principles for American foreign policy.

Among the key elements, in addition to multilateralism: American leadership is still often indispensable but must recognize – and even increasingly stand back in – a world of emerging new powers; and the use of US military power must not be a first impulse but only a last resort.

"If you had to sum up in a few words Obama's vision of international intervention, it would be 'multilateral if we can, unilateral only if we must, and the military should not be the first option,' " says Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington and a former assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration.

Another hallmark of Obama's foreign policy, Mr. Korb says, is "distinguishing between a vital national interest, and what is nice to have." If Obama ended up siding with the interventionists in his midst on Libya, several administration officials have said, it was in no small measure because he concluded that a failure to prevent Mr. Qaddafi from carrying out his professed intentions could have had a potentially devastating impact across a roiling Middle East, and thus on US interests.

America in the back seat

Still, other foreign-policy experts take a dim view of Obama's vision of America's role in the world, especially in what they see as its encouragement of a world of increasingly diffuse power and its elevation of multilateral action to "prerequisite status" for US international involvement.

"Where the Bush doctrine was 'as much multilateralism as possible, as much unilateralism as necessary,' the Obama administration is establishing something very different: 'Unless there is multilateralism, we cannot and will not act,' " says Robert Lieber, a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University in Washington.

"What strikes me is an embarrassment about American power," he adds, "and that's something that sets Obama apart from his Republican and Democratic predecessors."

Mr. Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations agrees that if anything is new about Obama, if there is something that may end up distinguishing him from other foreign-policy pragmatists, it is his experiment with taking a back seat to other powers in leading the way on international interventions. "The governing mantra since World War II has been, 'America is out in front,' so it's quite striking how prominent the administration's focus is on letting others take the lead," he says. "It's really kind of revolutionary."

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