Wednesday, March 30, 2011

There is no Obama Doctrine, and that's Okay

On Monday night, President Obama gave a speech meant to explain U.S. actions in Libya.  It has been widely perceived as a declaration of the Obama Doctrine, but I think his speech was less about a doctrine and more about a rationale for action in a specific situation.  But that’s okay.  President Obama doesn’t need a doctrine, indeed doctrines can be counter-productive.  However, there are people who like the structure a stated doctrine provide.  They like a fixed lens, with which to view a president’s actions.

First, I want to come back to the concept of a doctrine in international affairs.  Perhaps the most often lamented doctrine of late was the Bush Doctrine.  A doctrine largely defined by American unilaterialism and preventative war.  The costs of this doctrine were made plain in Iraq, still that same drumbeat often associated with the neo-conservative movement reared it’s ugly head regarding Libya, which drew this stern rebuke to Max Boot that I penned a few weeks ago.  There are other doctrines out there though.  

The prevailing foreign policy posture of the United States for about 45 years could be summed up as the Truman Doctrine.  Basically, the Truman Doctrine said the U.S. would combat communism anywhere it appeared.  This doctrine begot the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and dozens of other incursions into foreign lands that, on the whole, have had disastrous consequences for the United States.  The hang over from the Truman Doctrine continues to impede American credibility around the world long after the Cold War.  I point out both the Bush Doctrine and the Truman Doctrine because they are the clearest examples we have of a president acting based on a specific, unified doctrine.  Results from that sort of approach to international engagement are nothing short of calamitous.

President Obama, on Monday, laid out the humanitarian case for intervening in Libya.  Much has been made of Susan Power’s voice in the administration.  Ms. Power’s was in the Clinton administration during the run up to the war in Bosnia and during the genocide in Rwanda.  While history has been kind to Clinton for the final outcomes in Bosnia, inaction in the face of the Rwandan genocide is a mark on the record of his administration and indeed a point of personal shame for many involved, including Ms. Powers.  To be sure, her voice and the voice of many Democratic hands during the Clinton administration, obviously inclusive of Secretary Clinton herself, were loud in the president’s ear and you could feel the memory of bumbling Clinton press conferences during the Rwanda genocide in the background as Obama laid out the goal of preventing a massacre.  It’s good to learn from history, but I think many pundits forget why Clinton didn’t intervene in Rwanda.  People forget that not 8 months before the genocide began, American troops were dragged dead through the streets of Mogadishu following the failed attempt at intervention in Somalia.  People weren’t kind to the Clinton administration following the Black Hawk Down incident, and I wonder how the U.S. might have intervened in Rwanda without putting boots on the ground.  In Rwanda, a no-fly zone wouldn’t have cut it.  And that brings me back full circle.

President Obama, in laying out the case for intervention in Libya, cited several reasons.  First, there is an opposition that asked for help, second, there were declarations from Qaddafi that he would massacre dissenters once the rebellion was squashed, third, intervention had the public support of the Arab League, fourth, intervention had the authority of a UN resolution, and fifth, there was a viable alliance to intervene (we didn’t bribe our way to a Coalition of the Willing).  Based on all those things, we decided to intervene in a limited way.  People want to call Obama’s willingness to intervene a doctrine.  To me, it sounds like a reasoned decision based on the facts at hand.  Could the U.S. intervene elsewhere?  Maybe.  Should we have intervened in Bahrain or should we be intervening in Syria?  I have my doubts, but of course I had and have doubts about intervening in Libya.  However, when you are the bad neighbor that doesn’t cut his lawn, the neighborhood committee can turn against.  Such is the case in Libya.  When you swear to burn down the kitchen because the stove didn’t work right, somebody is going to step in and take away your matches. We could make an impact on the situation with the low-intensity no fly zone, and so we did.

There is no doctrine here.  Like so many of President Obama’s policy choices, you don’t find a doctrine or a dogma.  You see a policy that reflects the contours of the moment and the situation.  You see a policy that works now for this instance, but may not be the best in six months time or a year’s time.  And that’s boring policy-making.  You can’t put someone in a category when they look at each decision and situation independently with an appreciation for time and history.  That’s not sound-bite governing.  I remain skeptical of our intervention in Libya and I’m not sure what the end game for our involvement is and I’m fearful for what might happen to the Libyan people in the future no matter if Qaddafi or the rebels "win," however, I’m encouraged the president laid out a case for intervention here that was compelling (if not entirely convincing) and by acknowledging no two situations are the same.

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