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The emerging Obama doctrine

The president’s pragmatic worldview is likely to temper military engagement overseas.

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Moreover, in reaching out to Iran and Syria – two countries the Bush administration would not talk to – Obama is not necessarily looking to impose American ideals of democracy and freedom.

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“There is business we have to do with those states to keep America safe and so to a certain extent, we hold our nose, we try to nudge them forward on issues of human rights and democracy promotion, but we understand we’re not always going to win that fight and there are other issues on the table,” says Mr. Nagl.

Similarly, despite an escalation of troops in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has suggested that the US will scale back on their goals there, from achieving a full-fledged stable democracy to achieving a semblance of security.

Darfur may be first policy test

The first big test of Obama’s views on the benefits of international consultation and the limits of US military power may come when he confronts a decision on Darfur, where a civil war has left tens of thousands dead, a massive food shortage, and a burgeoning refugee crisis.

Sudan would be a bellwether for Obama, says Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at Brookings, a think tank. “This will be a test of Obama’s multilateralism,” he says.

The administration is currently mulling over its options, which could include a role for the US military, says the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

“I have no indications that they are going to be shy at looking at all the instruments of national power,” says the official. “There are areas that [the new administration] has been pretty vocal about in terms of wanting to address and resolve specific issues, and Sudan is probably the most prominent in Africa.”

Mr. O’Hanlon, who typically takes more conservative views on defense policy, was not an ardent supporter of Obama during the campaign. But he says he has been pleased to see the new commander in chief take pragmatic and less liberal stances on issues like Iraq and Afghanistan.

While President Clinton’s failed to intervene in Rwanda in the 1990s, O’Hanlon says Obama might want to do something in Darfur. But O’Hanlon, a former peace corps volunteer in Congo, says that probably won’t happen until after he gets a handle on the domestic crisis and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“My guess is that Sudan and Congo are just going to have to wait,” O’Hanlon says.

Early days

It’s too soon to say just how Obama will tackle the broad range of defense policy issues now before him, most analysts acknowledge.

“All foreign and security policy is perpetually a work in progress, so I wouldn’t pretend to argue that the current administration has thought through the range of contingency challenges they may confront,” says Mr. Freier of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“But it appears to me that this administration has a very coherent view of the world… and a degree of temperance and realism in the application of power.”