After two years of searching for something resembling a grand global strategy, some pundits tentatively decided they had heard the outlines of an “Obama Doctrine” on Monday night. In a speech to the nation that lasted less than 30 minutes, the president delivered a cogent argument in favor of humanitarian intervention in Libya and sketched out a policy supporting the political ouster of its bloody dictator, Muammar el-Qaddafi.
But the idea that the actions in Libya amount to any kind of a new strategic overlay for the Obama administration is wishful hearing. The real Obama doctrine is to have no doctrine at all. And that’s the way it’s likely to remain.
American history is replete with leaders and senior policymakers who have sought to be identified with a grand strategic policy—such as the Monroe Doctrine, the Truman Doctrine, and the Bush Doctrine—and others who have tried hard and failed. Tony Lake, Bill Clinton’s first national security adviser, sought to define post-Cold War doctrine by calling for the “enlargement of democracy,” which was promptly forgotten. Madeleine Albright, Clinton’s second-term secretary of State, later hinted at something called “assertive multilateralism” as a doctrine. She was laughed at and it too disappeared.
This president seems determined to do the exact opposite abroad. In contrast to James Monroe, Harry Truman, and George W. Bush, Obama wants to be the no-doctrine president. Especially when it comes to the Mideast. Since the protests began in Tunisia three months ago, it has been nearly impossible to discern a coherent strategy of any kind from the White House. At first the Obama team seemed to support Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Then they deserted the Egyptian autocrat and began talking of the imperative of democratic change. Yet when protests in Bahrain, home to the 5th Fleet, grew serious and the Saudis marched in, the administration turned mealy-mouthed again, merely imploring against violence. On Libya, the Obama team followed the lead of Britain and France and deferred to a U.N. Security Council resolution that steers clear of regime change, though Obama has said Qaddafi must go.
In his speech, Obama directly addressed his legions of second-guessers in Washington—both those who decried any intervention at all in Libya and those who called for a more aggressive policy of regime change. He said they put forward a “false choice.” But in the end Obama’s own principles for intervention eluded definition. “Our task is to mobilize the international community for collective action,” Obama declared, citing the unilateral Iraq invasion as an example of what not to do. (“That is not something we can afford to repeat,” he said.) But at another point the president said he would not hesitate to use American force “unilaterally” if needed. We just don’t know when it will be needed.
The unifying principle of his speech? “We can make a difference,” he said.
If that’s a doctrine, give me “assertive multilateralism” any day.
And so Obama seems to have the opposite problem from, say, George W. Bush. Obama’s predecessor was always being accused of hypocrisy by critics—for example when he traveled to the Arab world in January of 2008 and delivered a big democracy speech in Abu Dhabi, but failed to meet with a single dissident or political activist. Obama’s biggest problem is not that he is seen as a hypocrite or that he has lost credibility. It’s that he hasn’t taken enough of a clear stand on any foreign issue to stake his credibility in the first place.
Partly this seems a matter of personal predilection. We’re talking about "No-Drama Obama," after all. This is a president who, despite his soaring rhetoric during the 2008 campaign and his reputation as a crusading liberal since then, has been consumed with caution during his two years in office, especially in foreign policy. On nearly every front, Obama has sought to take a strategic scalpel to the United States' presence abroad. That was even arguably true in Afghanistan, where he expanded the troop presence but only after an agonizing four-month debate over it, and only by forcing his hawks to accept an early withdrawal date.