As his second term is about to begin, we may finally be seeing the emergence of an Obama Doctrine in foreign policy. It's one that looks very much like the Reagan Doctrine.
In his 1985 State of the Union address, Reagan asserted that "we cannot play innocents abroad in a world that's not innocent; nor can we be passive when freedom is under siege." He urged that "we must stand by all our democratic allies. And we must not break faith with those who are risking their lives—on every continent, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua—to defy Soviet-supported aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth."
A few months later, Charles Krauthammer dubbed this "overt and unashamed American support for anti-Communist revolution" the Reagan Doctrine in a Time magazine essay. Its essence was use of proxies rather than direct American intervention. If a legitimate popular uprising was taking place against a communist regime in the developing world, Reagan reasoned that it was both morally right and in America's interests to help it with arms and material support.
President Obama has quietly adopted a similar strategy, one using NATO allies, France in particular, as a proxy. First, we had the March 2011 intervention in Libya, in which American forces played a heavy role in the initial strikes, providing our “unique capabilities,” but then quickly transitioned to a supporting role, providing suppression of enemy air defense; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; and air-to-air refueling assets to enable the mission. We appear to be on a similar path in Mali, quietly providing combat enablers in a mission with France in the driver’s seat.
Unfortunately labeled as "leading from behind" by a staffer during the Libya intervention, critics have charged the president with weakness—ceding America's rightful leadership role to others. Viewed through the lens of the Reagan Doctrine, though, it's prudent risk management.
While Republican neoconservatives and Democratic liberal interventionists alike urged Obama to take decisive action early on in Libya, Syria, Mali, and other cases the fact of the matter is that the United States simply does not have vital interests in those conflicts that would justify putting American troops into harm's way. On the other hand, even realists have to admit that getting rid of Gaddafi and Assad and preventing Islamist takeover of a West African country would be good outcomes for the US. So, if France and other allies want to bear the brunt of fight but can't pull it off without American communications, intelligence and logistical assets, there's a strong argument to be made for providing that assistance.
Of course, the original Reagan Doctrine was hardly an unalloyed success story. Most notably, the backing of the anti-communist mercenaries known as the Nicaraguan Contras was a disaster militarily and politically. Conversely, the arming of Afghanistan's mujahideen—in fairness, a policy that began under the Carter administration—arguably played a significant role in the eventual fall of the Soviet Union. (And, no, while the post-Cold War transition was abysmally handled, these are not the people who became al Qaeda.) In between, support for Jonas Savimbi's UNITA movement in Angola, backing the government of El Salvador, and support for the Khmer People's National Liberation Front in Cambodia were mixed successes.
Similarly, while the ouster of Gaddafi came without the loss of a single American life or piece of major equipment, it was by no means a total victory. The degree to which a democratic, pluralistic society will emerge has yet to be determined. And the spillover of arms at the end of the fighting there led directly to the takeover of northern Mali by the very forces that we're now trying to oust by backing France's lead.
Interestingly, despite the caricature of Krauthammer as a knee-jerk neocon these days, his 1985 Reagan Doctrine essay was quite mindful of the pitfalls: "By what right does the U.S. take sides in foreign civil wars? What about sovereignty? What about international law?" Krauthammer develops a nuanced argument for when and how intervention is warranted.
Additionally, he acknowledges, "The Reagan Doctrine is more radical than it pretends to be. It pretends that support for democratic rebels is 'self-defense' and sanctioned by international law. That case is weak." Krauthammer ultimately argues that, if the United States is prudent in its selection of proxies, there's both a strong moral and national interest case to be made for flouting international law. And, in the intervening years, the development of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine has gone some way to answering those questions.
General Colin Powell, an enthusiastic backer of the Reagan Doctrine as Reagan's national security advisor, famously warned President George W. Bush, whom he served as secretary of state, of the Pottery Barn rule—"You break it, you own it"—during the march to war in Iraq. That surely applies just as well to wars one leads from behind. To the extent that intervention-by-proxy makes interventions less daunting, it will surely lead to more interventions. And to the extent the risk of those interventions is lowered by being in a supporting role militarily, it will surely diminish the focus on the longer-term consequences of said interventions. We haven't done that well in thinking them through—even when we're the main force.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council and a contributing expert at Wikistrat.