WASHINGTON -- In his first term, President Barack Obama went to Cairo and promised not to intervene in the affairs of other countries, let alone invade them. He sped up the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. He refused to send troops into the vicious civil war in Syria.
Yet also during his first term, Obama ordered Navy SEALs into Pakistan to get Osama bin Laden without telling the Pakistanis, acted to remove Muammar Gaddafi and his regime from Libya, sided with revolutionaries in Egypt who deposed Hosni Mubarak, and enforced draconian economic sanctions against Iran.
Voters have a right to be confused and to ask in traditional terms: Is Obama a "realist" or a "moralist" in foreign policy?
Thus far he’s been both, to a perplexing degree. In truth, he is probably a 21st century synthesis of both, but he has yet to explain his world view in a convincing or even coherent way. As he begins his second term, perhaps Obama's biggest challenge as a global leader is to clarify his operating theory of how best to protect American interests in the world -- at a time when the ability of the United States to influence, let alone control, events is beginning to wane.
It’s not an academic exercise. Foreign policy requires public support in the U.S., and the American public, innately skeptical of the world and its ancient entanglements, wants a road map.
Especially in the Middle East, Obama finds himself buffeted about by this centuries-old, never-ending argument: Do we need to change the world to be safe in it?
If you say no, you are regarded as a play-it-as-it-lies, value-neutral "realist" in the manner of, say, President George H.W. Bush, who threw Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait for his illegal land grab, but who refused to remove the dictator from Baghdad because he was a useful counterweight to Iran.
If you say yes, you are a "moralist" in the manner of President George W. Bush, who saw things in black and white, called Saddam Hussein evil, and invaded Iraq and Afghanistan with the stated goal of uprooting millennia of habits and installing American-style democracy.
Obama himself has clearly wrestled with this question, as the rise of a democratic protest movement in the Middle East threatened to upend his assumptions about U.S. power -- and the world's demand for it.
In a moment of great historical resonance, our first African-American president journeyed to Cairo early in his first term to declare that the United States had embarked on a new, non-interventionist course after eight years of his predecessor.
"I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq," Obama said at the time. "So let me be clear: No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation [on] any other."
A year and a half later, the protesters who took Cairo's Tahrir Square repeatedly wondered where was the United States to support their message of peaceful change and democratic governance.
For Obama, the months of the Arab uprisings was a period of constant crisis management and policy formulation on the fly. "I think people don't often appreciate the sheer tempo of events," said Colin Kahl, who was deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East at the time. "By nature it was going to be pretty reactive."
At the State Department, officials were citing the British World War II poster "Keep Calm and Carry On" as a motto. "I think that's a pretty good summary of our philosophy," one told HuffPost at the time.
Meanwhile, the debate over whether to intervene in the ugly civil war spilling across Libya played out in public, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton telling The New Yorker in 2011 that no dogma of foreign policy answered every question about what steps to take.
"People are being killed in Côte d'Ivoire, they’re being killed in the Eastern Congo, they’re being oppressed and abused all over the world by dictators and really unsavory characters," Clinton said. "So we could be intervening all over the place. But that is not a -- what is the standard? Is the standard, you know, a leader who won't leave office in Ivory Coast and is killing his own people? Gee, that sounds familiar. So part of it is having to make tough choices and wanting to help the international community accept responsibility."
To critics, the outcome looked messy.
"We haven't been able to get our act together," said Michele Dunne, director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, describing the administration's tentative management of post-revolutionary Egypt. "The administration feels we should be very much in the background, we should not be injecting ourselves into the transition. I think they've just been in confusion."
Some former members of the administration agree that it's time for greater clarity.
"'Keep calm and carry on' or 'Case by case,' all those catchphrases the administration used to describe its approach back then [during the Arab Spring] -- I think that was appropriate given the fast-moving events of the time," said Tamara Wittes, a former top State Department official who is now director of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. "But it's been two years. A lot of events, while they haven't settled, they've slowed down, clarified. You're at a point where the tactical is insufficient."
Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University, says the Obama administration's approach should involve standing up for universal principles of freedom and democracy as well as conditioning the world to understand that America can't always be there in force to back them up.
"It's basically hardwired in the [Middle East] region that we are going to stick our nose into everything, and I think the administration, consciously or unconsciously, is trying to change that," said Lynch, who calls this approach "right-sizing" America's role. "For most people in the foreign policy community or the political class over in the Middle East, this is baffling. They take it as disinterest or sleeping on the job. But I think this is strategy, an intentional lowering of the American profile."
Obama previewed this vision of America's continued yet diminished role in the world in a speech on the Arab Spring in May 2011. "After decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be," he said. "Of course, as we do, we must proceed with a sense of humility. It's not America that put people into the streets of Tunis or Cairo -- it was the people themselves who launched these movements, and it's the people themselves that must ultimately determine their outcome."
But much of that message was muddled amid the frenzy of the following months -- the deteriorating crisis in Syria; the attacks in Benghazi, Libya; the presidential campaign. As the second term commences, the time for reflection has come.
"The administration does want to take some steps back and assess their overall strategy," said Kahl, the former Pentagon official, adding that some of that approach may be articulated in the administration's next National Security Strategy report.
If Obama is truly embracing a middle path, a nuanced vision of American intervention that is not subjugated to the false promises of one policy dogma or the other, he needs to lay that out for the American people -- or risk looking like he has no principles at all.
"In the absence of that long-term strategy, you are going to get buffeted by events and you are going to get caught flat-footed," said Mona Yacoubian, a senior Middle East adviser at the Stimson Center in Washington who has closely followed America's role in the Arab uprisings. "And it has to be articulated -- the American people have to know what it is."
If Obama can do that, he might even make his foreign policy one of the truly transformational aspects of his legacy.
This article is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post that closely examines the most pressing challenges facing President Obama in his second term. To read other posts in the series, click here.