Obama flirts with a doctrine

Is an Obama Doctrine in foreign policy developing before our eyes?

The president and his aides wave off the idea, at least if it means seeing the U.S.-led military intervention in Libya as a one-size-fits-all model.

“It’s important not to take this particular situation and then try to project some sort of Obama Doctrine that we’re going to apply in a cookie-cutter fashion across the board,” the president said in a television interview Tuesday. “Each country in this region is different.”

But then Obama went ahead and sketched the outlines of something that looks, well, like a doctrine in the making. “We want to make sure that governments are not attacking their own citizens,” he said. “We want governments that are responsive to their people. And so we’ll use all our tools to try to accomplish that.”


Obama has insisted that Libya is “a unique situation,” a combination of circumstances that’s unlikely to recur: a tyrant threatening to massacre his opponents and a strong international consensus to stop him, in a country that’s a relatively easy, uncomplicated target. So the use of military force against dictators isn’t a doctrine, since it can’t be generally applied. Instead, the doctrine lies in the larger commitment Obama has come to after three months of uprisings in the Arab world: that the United States will be on the side of the democrats, and will use “all our tools” — within limits — to try to help them win.

What that means in practice still hasn’t been filled out. This week, Obama talked almost solely about Libya, a conflict his administration jumped into without explaining fully to the public. In the weeks to come, he’s expected to talk more often and more broadly about the future of the whole Middle East — including his hopes that the democratic wave convulsing the Arab world can overflow into neighboring Iran.

This is a significant shift after two years in which Obama offered only modest support for democratic reform movements — and three months in which he initially hesitated to support demonstrators in the streets. (His administration’s initial impulse, after all, was to defend Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as a reliable ally.)

But the broader issue of when the United States should intervene in other countries is something Obama has been thinking about for a long time. In his 2006 book, “The Audacity of Hope,” he posed an earlier version of the questions Americans have been asking this week.

“The United States still lacks a coherent national security policy,” he complained. “Instead of guiding principles, we have what appears to be a series of ad hoc decisions, with dubious results. Why invade Iraq and not North Korea or Burma? Why intervene in Bosnia and not Darfur?”

One conclusion he came to then echoes in his recent actions: “It will almost always be in our strategic interest to act multilaterally rather than unilaterally when we use force around the world.”

In those days, and even this week, Obama defined his position by contrasting it with that of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who took the United States to war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Obama supported one of those wars but not the other. But on one issue, at least, the two presidents appear to have converged.


In a 2005 pledge that some called the Bush Doctrine, our last president also declared the United States to be on the side of democracy activists everywhere. Obama has already used more military force in a country of secondary strategic interest than Bush ever did.

Right now, Obama and his staff are too focused on winning the war in Libya to spend much time elaborating on the fine points of a grand doctrine. They know that if Moammar Kadafi is toppled in a matter of weeks, they’ll look brilliant; if Kadafi hangs on, they’ll look like blunderers.

But the president and his aides also see the revolution in the Arab world as the most important event of Obama’s time in office — as important, perhaps, as the end of the Cold War in 1989.

They are already working on a larger policy to help it come out right, including a big international aid program — one they hope will be funded partly by Arab oil states — to help Egypt, Tunisia and other new democracies succeed.


They won’t call it a “doctrine,” but it will almost certainly look like one. From here on out, they say, this will be the centerpiece; this will be what Obama’s foreign policy is about.