Partly the Obama approach is a matter of an excruciatingly complex foreign-policy problem that doesn’t lend itself to a clear doctrine. Libya is mainly a humanitarian problem, as Obama said on Monday, and no one wants to deal with the daffy Qaddafi much longer. But when it comes to other Arab countries roiled by protest, such as Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen, the regimes have been friendly and usually cooperative. So two contradictory American interests are in play. Sure, Americans favor democratization—the United States will always be the “well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all,” as John Quincy Adams once said—but there are also powerful arguments in favor of a preservation of the status quo, which has helped in counter-terrorism, creating a united front against Iran’s nuclear program, preserving Israel’s security, and maintaining the flow of oil critical to America’s economic health.
I mean, do we really want to listen to the neocons, who are out there keening for democracy promotion as if they hadn’t just trashed that idea over the previous decade by launching the disaster in Iraq?
But more than anything else, Obama’s no-doctrine approach is a measure of these budget-straitened times. The real question is, can the United States afford a grand, strategic doctrine any longer, for theor any place else? Or is Obama simply forced to speak, as he seemed to on Monday, in the fainter voice of an economically fading superpower?
Grand doctrines go with the notion of American exceptionalism, but they are also invariably expensive. The Monroe Doctrine, which warned Europe to stay out of the Western Hemisphere, led to wars in Latin America. The Truman Doctrine, which sought to identify U.S. interests with movements aligned against the Soviet Union, and its successor, containment, arguably cost a lot more in American military commitments during the Cold War than some prominent critics believed was necessary (Walter Lippman called the policy a “strategic monstrosity”). It may have even drawn us into Vietnam.
And the Bush Doctrine, a squishy and evolving concept that was last defined in the second inaugural address, when he declared: "It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture," also led to serious overextension. It was no surprise that Bush spent much of his second term retreating from aggressive democracy promotion as his experiment in Iraq foundered in blood, and America under his leadership foundered in debt.’s
Judging from Obama’s approach so far, he won’t have to retreat from much. But will much that he does be remembered?