Over three weeks ago, I asked whether anyone could identify an “Obama Doctrine” in foreign policy that covered the triggers and limits for American intervention. One intervention and a prime-time speech later, most of us are still wondering. If Barack Obama hoped to clarify why the US decided to attack Libya while ignoring similar scenes of oppression in nations like Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain, he left the issue muddier than ever, and not just among conservatives. Dana Milbank, for instance, tries to argue that the lack of a doctrine is somehow a sign of brilliance, but even he admits that Obama’s losing Americans between Bush-like soundbites and opacity:
The Obama doctrine he presented Wednesday night was frustratingly nondoctrinal. Where Bush was all bright lines and absolute morality, Obama dwelled in the gray area, outlining a foreign policy that is ad hoc and situational. …
The policy Obama outlined was a cost-benefit analysis between the burdens of war and the need to defend American values across the globe. In the Obama doctrine, there is a tension between bear-any-burden aspirations and the constraints of an overstretched superpower. …
Obama, by contrast, has been so subtle in his doctrine that he’s baffling Americans. By waiting to make his case to the nation for the action in Libya, he created a vacuum and invited confusion. A new Pew Research Center poll finds that while a plurality supports the attack in Libya, 17 percent of Americans have no opinion on the question. Meanwhile, 50 percent don’t think the United States and its allies have a clear goal.
After all of Milbank’s paeans to nuance and subtlety, however, he can’t avoid the fact that Obama never answered where the line is drawn between intervention and non-intervention, and on what basis. Why Libya and not Syria, where the US actually has significant security concerns in its alliance with Iran, and a track record given Syria’s support for terrorists and insurgents in Iraq over the last several years? Syria also helps prop up Hezbollah in Lebanon, which provides a direct threat to our ally Israel, where Libya had been mostly rendered toothless.
Steven Thomma at McClatchy says forget about any doctrine, or any consistency, either:
President Barack Obama sent a signal to the country and the world Monday night about his decision to attack Libya: There is no “Obama doctrine” here.
Obama used his evening speech to assure skeptical Americans that he was forced to act by a madman in unique circumstances, that the U.S. role and risk would be limited, and that there is no unifying set of principles behind the Libya campaign that would guide the U.S. in other countries with similar problems. …
Meaning: The fact that the U.S. acted to stop Gadhafi from killing more of his own people doesn’t mean that the U.S. will act to stop dictators elsewhere doing the same.
Hours before Obama spoke, White House aides said the president’s National Security Council hasn’t even mentioned the possibility of military action in Syria. “There has not been any discussion of that,” said Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough said Monday.
Ben Smith leads off his report on the speech by also saying there’s no there there:
The doctrine is there is no doctrine.
President Barack Obama answered questions about America’s mission in Libya Monday night with a 27-minute address that focused narrowly on “this particular country, Libya, at this particular moment” and shied away from making sweeping statements about America’s role in the world, the larger principles that guide his decisions on using force or about the U.S. response to the unfolding Arab Spring.
For those at home wondering, would U.S. forces be deployed in Syria or Yemen or Saudi Arabia or even Iran, the answer was … . well, probably not, but hard to say for absolutely sure.
But also at Politico, his colleague Roger Simon thinks that the Obama Doctrine is that the US will only do what it can on the cheap:
“We must stand alongside those who believe in the same core principles that have guided us through many storms: our opposition to violence directed against one’s own citizens; our support for a set of universal rights, including the freedom for people to express themselves and choose their leaders; our support for governments that are ultimately responsive to the aspirations of the people,” Obama said.
Which you could call the Obama Doctrine, except we hold so few countries to it, including dictatorships that we not only do business with, but whom we also call friends and allies, that it doesn’t deserve that title.
But Libya is the right enemy at the right time because we think we can defeat Moammar Qadhafi on the cheap – – that is by using air power alone – – and supporting rebel forces.
It’s worth pointing out here that there is a serious question whether the rebel forces in Libya even qualify under this rubric. At least one of their commanders, Abdul Hakim al Hasadi, fought for the Taliban in Afghanistan and has ties to al-Qaeda. The region is known for AQ recruitment. Shouldn’t we have determined the nature of the rebellion before intervening on their behalf?
On the other hand, one popular rebellion did qualify under Obama’s construct — the Iranian Green Revolution in the summer of 2009. Not only did Obama not impose a no-fly zone over Iran when the mullahs began shooting people in the street, Obama wouldn’t even give them rhetorical support for weeks in hope that a friendly pose would encourage the mullahs to trade away their nuclear program. We didn’t “stand beside” the Iranians when they valiantly but vainly tried to throw off the shackles of the mullahs; we didn’t even stand up.
Smith and Simon come closest to diagnosing the issue. There really is no doctrine.