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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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Indeed, Obama presents the hand-off of command of the Libya operation to NATO, and America's shift from the lead to a "supporting role," as accomplishments. "Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well," Obama declared in his Libya speech.

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But Professor Lieber frowns on this new direction Obama has taken, saying it reflects an administration interested more in process – in this case, nurturing the emergence of responsible new powers in the world – over substance.

And he believes it is "naive" in its conception of power and of how international action is accomplished, even in the 21st century of the rising BRICs – Brazil, Russia, India, and China.

"There is nothing inevitable about a sea change in America's leadership role in the world, but a president who believes the time has come for America to take a back seat will certainly have an impact," Lieber says. "What they [in the administration] don't seem to grasp is that the alternative to American leadership is not that some other country steps in and continues in America's footsteps." Instead, he adds, it's that "the force behind America's unique position in the world would be lost."

Is Libya a precedent?

Another question raised by the debate over the emergence of an Obama doctrine is this: Does Libya now become the precedent for US intervention in future humanitarian crises? If Syria's Bashar al-Assad follows his father's lead and starts bombing rebellious villages, does the US lead the charge to stop him?

Would Obama's response be markedly different now if the Iranian regime again fired on its own people?

Many foreign-policy analysts think not. "I understand the argument suggesting an Obama doctrine – that intervention for humanitarian purposes and at the behest of the [UN] Security Council establishes a precedent that could guide US policy from now on – but my guess is that won't be the case," says Andrew Bacevich, an international relations expert at Boston University. For one thing, he says, there are just too many cases of repressive leaders raining terror down on their people.

Obama himself in his March 28 speech was clear about the factors that allowed the US to jump in this time. The Libyan people and regional organizations were demanding it, an international coalition was forming that could take over the lead role, and the conditions on the ground suggested an intervention would work.

Those are not circumstances that are likely to come together again anytime soon.

"I don't expect to suddenly see international military coalitions in Ivory Coast, Yemen, and Syria," says Kupchan. "Libya was a one-off for this administration, and not the beginning of a doctrine of humanitarian intervention."

RELATED: Updated Libya timeline


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