This is the first in a series of articles on the record of the Obama administration.
WASHINGTON — On the afternoon of March 15 last year, President Obama and top advisors sat in the White House Situation Room poring over grainy satellite photos of an armored column thundering down on a largely unprotected Libyan city. Their choices appeared to be stark: Plunge the United States into a new war in the Arab world, or risk the slaughter of thousands.
Obama decided to split the difference — committing the American military for part of the job. That decision has come to exemplify the Obama doctrine: Because Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi’s assault on insurgents and civilians didn’t directly endanger U.S. security, there was no justification for a major U.S.-led ground assault, the president decided. But, he said, the U.S. could take a role in protecting civilians if allies shared the burden, regional and international groups blessed the effort, and the mission was limited.
“The burden of action should not be America’s alone,” Obama said in a speech that announced the United States would be one participant in a NATO mission led by France and Britain.
Obama’s approach to the use of force, as seen most clearly in Libya, is the cornerstone of a foreign policy that differs sharply from that of his predecessor, George W. Bush, but also from the paths pursued by recent Democratic presidents.
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Leading a nation confronting the limits of its power after two draining wars — and with budget strain at home — Obama shies from the type of ambitious and high-risk missions with which Bush aimed to reshape other countries. Under Obama, the United States has been more picky about missions aimed at humanitarian relief, peacekeeping and maintaining world order.
Yet more than other Democrats of the recent past, Obama has been willing to wield military power. As he nears four years in office, Obama has sent U.S. forces into at least eight countries, from Pakistan to West Africa, often covertly and with little public debate.
Supporters of the administration point to the military intervention in Libya as an example of success for the Obama doctrine, despite the storming of the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi last week. While agreeing that the deaths there of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans show that Libya is still threatened by Islamist radicals and other armed groups, they say the radicals remain weak and that Libya has made a promising start after decades of dictatorship.
Obama’s critics, however, say that by putting the U.S. more often in a supporting role, he has abandoned America’s commitment, as President Kennedy put it, to “pay any price, bear any burden” to assure the “survival and the success of liberty.” In the presidential campaign, Republicans have cast Obama as feckless and reactive, too willing to be shaped by events, rather than taking charge and clearly leading the nation and its allies.
Obama’s record of incremental steps is seen by supporters as patient determination and by critics as timidity.
He has had no grand foreign policy triumphs, but neither has he had any major disasters. He has made no breakthroughs in trouble spots such as Iran, North Korea and Cuba. But the covert war against militants from Pakistan to North Africa succeeded in killing Osama bin Laden and dismantling much of Al Qaeda’s leadership.
As a candidate in 2008, Obama promised to engage with regimes that Bush had shunned, rekindle the Israeli-Palestinian peace effort and intensify the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan that he believed Bush had neglected.
By his third year, he had been forced to adjust his approach on almost every front.
Obama’s approach to the Middle East shows the clearest shift from the idealism of his 2008 campaign to the incremental realpolitik that has characterized much of the last two years.
When Iran’s leaders refused his outstretched hand, Obama helped organize a campaign of unprecedented international sanctions that has battered the Iranian economy. Officials remain hopeful that the sanctions — backed by the threat of force — may prod Tehran into agreeing to limits on its disputed nuclear program.
On Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Obama tried to restart the process by pressing Israel for concessions on settlements. That plan quickly collapsed, forcing him to backtrack and essentially give up for now on substantive progress. The experience soured relations between the president and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but overall cooperation between the two countries has continued.
When the “Arab Spring” uprisings began early in 2011, Obama promised U.S. help for any country struggling toward democracy. But he didn’t abandon Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Washington’s authoritarian ally, until it appeared clear that Mubarak was on his way out. Obama subsequently opened ties to Islamists who won election in Egypt, yet he kept $1.5 billion in aid flowing to the generals of the old regime even as they harassed U.S.-funded pro-democracy groups in the country.
All sides in Egypt ended up feeling somewhat alienated, but the U.S. avoided a definitive rupture with Cairo as power changed hands.
In recent months, as Syria careened toward chaos, Obama resisted pressure to provide arms to the rebels. Instead, the administration encouraged Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other neighboring states to cooperate to undermine Bashar Assad’s regime. The results of that strategy remain to be seen.
Obama similarly switched course on Afghanistan as it became clear that he lacked a reliable government partner there. He lowered his sights regarding the change the U.S. could bring to that country, ordered military withdrawal by the end of 2014 and began seeking a power-sharing deal with the Taliban and neighbors.
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In other parts of the world, Obama also has pursued a gradualist policy. With China, for example, he strengthened economic ties while pressing Beijing on human rights issues. At the same time, he has expanded military alliances with smaller nations on China’s periphery.
In the last three years, the Chinese have fulfilled one long-standing U.S. goal — allowing their currency’s value to rise against the dollar, making U.S. businesses more competitive. And U.S.-Chinese relations weathered a potential crisis this year when a Chinese human rights activist sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
Obama also strengthened ties with European powers and India, though his effort to “reset” ties with wary, authoritarian Russia fell short.
As Obama’s approach came into clearer focus, some critics saw a superpower ceding influence.
Obama’s policies “would give up America’s true role and hand too much leverage to other nations and groups,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “The United States would end up sitting on the sidelines, which is the most dangerous outcome for the world at large.”
American leadership, as laid out by Obama, was “maybe here, but not there; maybe a little, not all the way … maybe to lead, but not for very long,” Josef Joffe, editor of Die Zeit newspaper based in Hamburg, Germany, wrote when the Libya mission began. American doctrine was now a pleasing mild chardonnay, but without the “punch and power” of the old moonshine, he wrote.
Administration officials say that although they want to avoid having the United States provide most of the ground troops and dollars in pursuit of global stability, as it did in past decades, it will still have a major leadership role.
“We’re still the only one who can truly galvanize action,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor to Obama.
That appeared to be the case in Libya. The U.S. shaped a United Nations Security Council resolution directing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to use “all necessary means” to protect Libyan civilians, and then, after it became apparent that NATO didn’t have the necessary military capability, provided more air sorties than any other country.
The resulting mission ended up costing about $1 billion but no American lives until the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others on Tuesday. By contrast, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the war in Iraq cost $1 trillion and nearly 4,500 American lives.
Rhodes acknowledged that relying on allies with smaller militaries risks the possibility that certain missions won’t get done, especially at a time of worldwide budget strains.
“There is a risk, particularly in the European context, if they don’t figure out how to invest in the long term in their defense,” he said.
Despite that, the same approach has been used in other places.
In the West African nation of Ivory Coast, the United States worked with France and the African Union to launch a U.N. military effort that ultimately ousted the President Laurent Gbagbo after he refused to leave office in 2010 after an election loss.
In Somalia, the United States has organized, trained and supplied a force of 15,000 from five African countries to fight the Shabab militia, an Al Qaeda ally. No U.S. troops are involved in combat.
Indeed, David Rothkopf, president of the Garten Rothkopf consulting firm and a former Clinton administration official, said it was striking how many times Obama has launched small operations in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere.
“He prefers arthroscopic surgery to open heart surgery, but the number of times he’s intervened in a foreign country is still very high,” Rothkopf said. “He’s shown the historic American appetite for intervention — he’s just doing it his own way.”