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Waiting for the Obama Doctrine, Intervallum: The Revolutions in North Africa and Middle East

02/03/2011 03:04 pm 15:04:49 | Updated May 25, 2011

In the first part of this series, I tried to make the case that doctrines do matter: that they shape, guide, inform and inspire our decisions, particularly in a crisis. More importantly, doctrines communicate what we stand for as a nation -- what we will fight and risk for. As I've been working on the second installment, my attention has been drawn to the events unfolding in Tunisia, Jordan, and especially Egypt. This, I thought, shows dramatically what American foreign policy looks like without one.

The image of the Obama administration during this crucial transformation has been that of cautious accommodation to whatever outcome seemed immanent: whether the dissipation of the protesters, or Mubarak's ouster. To put it another way, we were hedging -- in part, it seemed, because we hadn't really thought through what we valued most. Whatever the internal deliberation, publicly our responses came across as timid daily calculations of how to avoid alienating our longtime ally while still not ending up on the "wrong side of history."

This is not to downplay the complexities of our relationship with Mubarak, or the potentially serious implications of a sudden shift in the security environment of the Middle East. Some caution is certainly warranted. And the President is right to err on the side of keeping a light touch with American involvement, given our history in similar disputes in the past. (When El-Baradei told protesters in Tahrir Square that "You are the owners of this revolution," he could say it honestly--they were.) But that still leaves the question of what stand America is prepared to take for the ideals that inspired its own revolution.

Ideally, the declaration of a new doctrine emerges from a deliberative process of reflection and consideration. More often, though, it's spurred by a crisis in which the status quo is suddenly found lacking.

Could this be that moment?