March 28, 2011
President Obama's address to the American people on Monday heralded the birth of the Obama Doctrine. While pundits have been tirelessly trying to extract such a dogma out of his Af-Pak or Mid-East policies, the decision to intervene in Libya is the real thing. Contrary to Dana Milbank's dismissive take on the "ad-hoc" nature of Obama's foreign policy, I believe the magnitude of the President's speech, though not immediately appreciated, is bound to be recognized for its doctrinal nature. The Libya speech revealed more than a non-doctrine doctrine. The Cairo speech was nice, but it remained nothing more than a speech.
In deciding to enforce the United Nations Security Council resolution 1973, which calls for the establishment of a No-Fly Zone and the protection of civilians "by any means necessary," the United States is entering a new foreign policy era. She is not falling back onto Wilsonian/Clintonian ideals of liberal interventionism. President Obama put strong emphasis on America's national security interests in seeing the rebels' succeed in their cause. These interests include ensuring the stability of Egypt, precluding the emergence of a potential "giant Somalia", stabilizing oil markets and ousting a regime proud of its terrorist ties. Libya is not Kosovo.
The President refrained from neo-conservative hyperbole as well. No where in his speech did we find the emotionally-charged language of George W. Bush promising a new age of liberty and admonishing freedom-haters and tyrants. More importantly, the United States has set itself to act neither unilaterally, nor preemptively. Benghazi almost fell before the first French missile was fired on a Qaddafi tank. The action was justified by the decision of a neo-con-loathed international body, and carried out in concert with other nations, including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Additionally, absent are the vows of regime change, cakewalks and the operation "paying for itself." This is not the Bush Doctrine 2.0.
Finally, Obama is not the realist people think he is. As much as the national interest is vital to him, the President was also driven by a humanitarian concern for the lives of Libyans jeopardized by a dictator who promised to "cleanse Libya house by house." A hard-core realist may have opted to turn a blind eye to a country that does not pose a direct threat to the security and prosperity of the United States. American power and resources could after all be better saved for or expended at more strategically significant countries (such as Syria, North Korea or Iran).
So what do we have in Obama's doctrine? We have a unique hybrid of realistic and humanitarian interventionism. The United States is a country, so Obama's reasoning goes, that will not stand idly by while a dictator unleashes the full force of his military against his people, especially when that military is as vulnerable as Qaddafi's. Yet, such an intervention has to make sense strategically, and must be the outcome of international law and consensus. American interests must be at stake, and its values tested.
According to the President:
"There will be times when when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and our values are. Sometimes, the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and our common security. — responding to natural disasters, for example; or preventing genocide and keeping the peace; ensuring regional security, and maintaining the flow of commerce. These may not be America's problems alone, but they are important to us. They're problems worth solving. And in these circumstances, we know that the United States, as the world's most powerful nation, will often be called upon to help. In such cases, we should not be afraid to act — but the burden of action should not be America's alone."
America will lead collective action that does what is right, beneficial and not prohibitively costly. Obama wants U.S. national security to have the brains of realism, the moral force of Wilson and the belief in the utility of military power of neo-conservatism. Just how well this combination might work remains to be seen. The progress of the rebels and the Arab public support for the coalition action are signs of an effective strategy. That strategy's sustainability against the messiness of history is a different matter altogether.