A few months later, Charles Krauthammer dubbed this “overt and unashamed American support for anti-Communist revolution” the Reagan Doctrine in a Time magazine essay. Its essence was use of proxies rather than direct American intervention. If a legitimate popular uprising was taking place against a communist regime in the developing world, Reagan reasoned that it was both morally right and in America’s interests to help it with arms and material support.
President Obama has quietly adopted a similar strategy, one using NATO allies, France in particular, as a proxy. First, we had the March 2011 intervention in Libya, in which American forces played a heavy role in the initial strikes, providing our “unique capabilities,” but then quickly transitioned to a supporting role, providing suppression of enemy air defense; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; and air-to-air refueling assets to enable the mission. We appear to be on a similar path in Mali, quietly providing combat enablers in a mission with France in the driver’s seat.
Unfortunately labeled as “leading from behind” by a staffer during the Libya intervention, critics have charged the president with weakness—ceding America’s rightful leadership role to others. Viewed through the lens of the Reagan Doctrine, though, it’s prudent risk management.
While Republican neoconservatives and Democratic liberal interventionists alike urged Obama to take decisive action early on in Libya, Syria, Mali, and other cases the fact of the matter is that the United States simply does not have vital interests in those conflicts that would justify putting American troops into harm’s way. On the other hand, even realists have to admit that getting rid of Gaddafi and Assad and preventing Islamist takeover of a West African country would be good outcomes for the US. So, if France and other allies want to bear the brunt of fight but can’t pull it off without American communications, intelligence and logistical assets, there’s a strong argument to be made for providing that assistance.