'Obama Doctrine': Does U.S. Intervention in Libya Chart New Course?

The president staked out middle ground on preemptive military action with Libya.

March 29, 2011, 10:32 AM

March 29, 2011 — -- President Obama sounded hawkish Monday night, drawing comparisons by some pundits to his predecessor, President George W. Bush, whose foreign policy famously endorsed pre-emptive action on the international stage.

In explaining American intervention in Libya, Obama said that "faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale," the United States must act boldly to prevent it, even in cases where there is no immediate domestic threat.

The president tacitly acknowledged the Clinton administration's failure to act more quickly in Bosnia or Rwanda, when hundreds of thousands of civilians were slaughtered in bloody civil wars, and said he "refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action."

But at the same time, in a nod to the perils of seeking regime change in every repressive state around the world, Obama suggested that he does not favor using force widely or unilaterally, charting a different course from Bush. "To be blunt," he said, "we've been down that road in Iraq."

In short, Obama supports pre-emptive military intervention but only if there's an "international mandate for action," a broad coalition, including support from neighboring countries and pleas for help from the victims themselves.

The middle-ground approach reflects what many observers see as an emergent Obama philosophy for how and when the United States might get involved in foreign conflicts in the future.

"To brush aside America's responsibility as a leader and -- more profoundly -- our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are," Obama said of the Libya intervention.

It might be too soon to tell whether the values laid out in the president's speech rise to the level of an "Obama Doctrine," as some observers have suggested. The situation in Libya remains fluid, and the administration hasn't yet indicated an eagerness to apply its principles elsewhere in the region.

Obama also does not seem inclined to make the Libya conflict a signature foreign policy effort of his first term.

But that hasn't stopped critics on both the left and the right from warning that the president has set a dangerous precedent for the future.

"This is a new Obama doctrine, which is that you act on threats," Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio said after Obama's speech. "Remember, that's what George Bush did. It might make us feel good for a few days but once the civil war starts and we get enmeshed like we are in Afghanistan and Iraq, it's not going to feel so good after awhile."

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin said the president hasn't gone far enough, calling his vision "dodgy and dubious."

"The Obama doctrine is still full of chaos and questions," Palin said on Fox News. "He did not articulate what our purpose was except some humanitarian interest. What about Darfur, what about Syria?"

Less Doctrine, More Hypothesis?

Foreign policy experts on both sides of the political spectrum said Obama's speech reflected more of a "hypothesis" than a doctrine, despite striking similarities in rhetoric to that used by Bush in the lead up to the Iraq War.

"The Bush Doctrine to a degree was about geopolitical goals," said Thomas Donnelly, director for defense studies at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. "It was about renunciating a 'maintain stability' objective in the Middle East, and embracing regime change and advancing freedom, as Bush put it."

In his speech Monday night, Obama did emphasize U.S. "interests" in supporting democratic movements around the world and employing "unique abilities" to help affect change. He also suggested that the United States take the lead in fulfilling a moral responsibility where innocent civilians' lives are at risk.

But, Donnelly said, Obama stopped short of connecting those values with a broader vision or goal.

"There were the trappings of a doctrine," he said. "But his speech was more a description of what's happened."

Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign policy analyst at the left-leaning Brookings Institution, agreed.

"I think it's premature to credit anybody with a doctrine at this point," he said. "But at a conceptual level, Obama did try to advance a notion that he hopes he can back up on the ground.

"It only works if it works, and we're only 10 days in," O'Hanlon said. "It's not going to be a doctrine if the mission fails."

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