Jacob Heilbrunn

The Obama Doctrine

In recent decades, we've had the Carter doctrine (Persian Gulf), the Reagan doctrine (arming rebels to rollback communism), and the Bush doctrine (democracy promotion, or depending on your viewpoint, crusade). Now comes the Obama doctrine. Though the progenitor of it is disavowing any intention of creating a doctrine, claiming that Libya is "unique."

No, it isn't. As Rory Stewart points out in the March 31 London Review of Books, Libya doesn't meet the criteria of genocide or ethnic cleansing. The West intervened not because it had to but because it could. And Obama, confronted with advisers who remembered Rwanda (Hillary Clinton) and Bosnia (Samantha Power), decided that he wasn't going to go down in history as the president who fiddled while Benghazi burned. So he sent in the Air Force, created a multilateral coalition, and then gave a speech justifying it all.

The speech earned the praise of Robert Kagan as "Kennedy-esque." In this view, Obama has shouldered the responsbilities that come with being president. Grown in office. Ready to make the big decisions. Understands the importance of American leadership. Moral values. And so forth.

It's not entirely clear that Obama himself sees it that way. He's being coy. Or trying to avoid arousing great expectations of American aid to other insurgent forces. "It's important not to take this particular situation and then try to project some sort of Obama Doctrine that we're going to apply in a cookie-cutter fashion across the board," he said on Thursday. But as Doyle McManus observes in an astute column, Obama is definitely flirting with a doctrine, even if he doesn't want to admit it. According to McManus,

the president and his aides also see the revolution in the Arab world as the most important event of Obama's time in office — as important, perhaps, as the end of the Cold War in 1989. They are already working on a larger policy to help it come out right, including a big international aid program — one they hope will be funded partly by Arab oil states — to help Egypt, Tunisia and other new democracies succeed. They won't call it a "doctrine," but it will almost certainly look like one. From here on out, they say, this will be the centerpiece; this will be what Obama's foreign policy is about.

There is a problem. It sounds as though the administration believes that its promotion of liberty in the Middle East can be predicated on the assumption that events will develop peacefully. But what if they don't? What if the Arab revolutions have the effect of prompting an internal crackdown in Syria as well as an even more hostile stance toward Israel? Or what if upheaval inside Israel results in an aggressor state, intent on war with Israel?

The administration also appears to be assuming that Col. Qaddafi is a spent force. But the rebels do not cut an impressive figure. Nor can anyone figure out who they are, if Hillary Clinton's statements are anything to go by. Obama is assuming an unlimited commitment in Libya without really acknowledging it. That appears to be the true Obama doctrine--mission creep.

The Libyan venture is unlikely to end well. Perhaps American air power will carry the day. But the more probable result is a partition of the country with an indefinite no fly zone. The Obama doctrine may well collapse before it ever gets off the ground.