04/12/2011 05:26 pm ET Updated Jun 12, 2011

No-Drama Obama Is Also No-Doctrine Obama

Zoologists get pretty excited when they discover an unusual animal. They happily devote many hours to the task of classifying the beast and, if it qualifies as a new species, giving it a name. A great deal of money and prestige rides on these scientific endeavors.

The same applies to the political sphere, where new and unusual creatures frequently turn up. When it comes to Barack Obama, however, political zoologists remain undecided whether he is a new kind of political animal and if his foreign policy represents a unique departure from the same old, same old.

Complicating classification, of course, is that President Obama is literally all over the map when it comes to foreign policy. U.S. forces are still fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the president has called for drawing down troops in both conflicts according to established time tables. Although Obama formally retired the phrase "global war on terrorism," CIA drone attacks continue to rain down on Pakistan and aggressive counter-terrorism operations are taking place in dozens of countries. The United States, along with NATO, has bombed Muammar Gaddafi's forces in Libya even as the Obama administration assures the American public that this isn't a war but a "kinetic military action."

For the political zoologist, the equivalent of finding a new species is identifying a new Doctrine. Do all the zigs and zags in U.S. foreign policy in the last two years add up to a coherent Obama Doctrine?

Even before Obama made it to the White House, he stood accused of possessing such a Doctrine.

Rival Hillary Clinton suggested during the presidential debates that Obama embraced a kind of Chamberlain Doctrine by naively promising to sit down and talk with any adversary of the United States. James Kirchick of the The New Republic upped the appeasement ante by predicting that the president-to-be would "remain impassive in the face of genocide." For liberals, meanwhile, Obama offered up the I'm Not Bush Doctrine: Obama's campaign brain trust told Spencer Ackerman in The American Prospect that "they envision a doctrine that first ends the politics of fear and then moves beyond a hollow, sloganeering 'democracy promotion' agenda in favor of 'dignity promotion,' to fix the conditions of misery that breed anti-Americanism and prevent liberty, justice, and prosperity from taking root." 

It turned out, of course, that Obama was neither appeaser nor dignity promoter. He used force (in Afghanistan, in Pakistan) when he deemed it necessary, and those aerial attacks did nothing to promote dignity. The debate over doctrine, in Obama's first couple years, boiled down to either "multilateralism with teeth" (The Atlantic) or "multilateralism without teeth" (The Heritage Foundation). In Oslo, the president deliberately mixed his messages by accepting the Nobel Peace Prize with a speech about the necessity of war. This modest baring of teeth did not, however, satisfy a right wing that suspected Obama of rejecting exceptionalist tradition of the United States: the right to do whatever we need to do whenever we need to do it.

The Libya War has revived this search for a doctrine. The pundits have tried to identify a middle ground for Obama's foreign policy: "more of a hawk than BillClinton and more of a dove than President Bush," according to Aaron Blake and Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post. In other words, as Politico put it, the Obama Doctrine consists of stopping massacres, getting in and out quickly, ensuring effective military action, and getting other countries to take the lead. In Foreign Policy, Daniel Drezner sees the Obama Doctrine as focusing on the essentials (the global economy, China, Afghanistan, Israel/Palestine, nuclear nonproliferation) and letting the rest slide: "the United States suffers from an overextension of its foreign policy obligations. With a weakened economy and a drop in U.S. standing, it is both costly and fruitless for the administration to continue policy conflicts that yield little beyond pleasing those invested in the policy status quo."

Thus have the political zoologists spoken. Obama has a Doctrine, but they can't quite agree on what it is. The president hasn't helped matters by refusing to boil down his foreign policy positions to a pithy or precise slogan.

But here's another possibility. The pundits are wrong, and the president has no big doctrine.

Administrations proclaim doctrines as a way to frame U.S. power in the world. The United States can’t intervene everywhere. It can’t declare everything to be a national interest. Doctrines are essentially formulas for determining how, when, and where the United States throws its weight around. Obama's failure to articulate a formal doctrine is characteristic both of the president’s political psychology and the vexed position of the United States in the world today. Obama is fundamentally unsure about the use of military force — he will back its use, in some cases more often than his predecessor, but not in a programmatic way. This ambivalence coincides with a relative decline in U.S. power overall.

So, for instance, Obama has not articulated a corollary to the Carter Doctrine, with the United States applying force to insure access to energy in the Persian Gulf. The war in Libya is not really about oil. It’s more about sending a message to leaders who defy their own people, the international community, and the United States. Nor has Obama favored the Bush Doctrine of preventive war and establishing full-spectrum dominance. The Obama administration was initially reluctant to intervene in Libya, and the Pentagon was perhaps the most reluctant of the parties to the decision. And, unlike Kennedy, Obama has not committed the United States to the spread of liberty. His administration was actually quite slow in endorsing the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and has crafted a much more ambiguous message about uprisings in Bahrain and Yemen.

If there is a Doctrine lurking somewhere in the president's brain, it's probably the Gorbachev Doctrine. The Soviet leader did whatever he could to minimize Soviet involvement in overseas entanglements — withdrawing from Afghanistan, cutting loose East European liabilities, negotiating arms control treaties — in order to focus on domestic concerns. So, too, has Obama tried to reduce U.S. exposure abroad to repair the damage that the Bush years inflicted on the American economy. Gorbachev took a look at the Soviet Union's relative strength and decided that a cooperative foreign policy was not a matter of choice but of necessity. So, too, has Obama applied the same calculus. The United States simply doesn't have the resources to change facts on the ground through military force (even where Washington has applied very serious resources, as in Iraq, we have also largely failed.

Libya, unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, was not an intervention that flowed from an organic plan for preserving or expanding U.S. power in the world. The Libya War is about hesitation, failure to anticipate, reluctance to take major risks. As such, Libya reveals the lack of a doctrine about the use of U.S. power. The Obama administration is not likely to use Libya as a precedent for intervention anywhere else — not Ivory Coast where a bloody standoff just ended with former President Laurent Gbagbo's capture, not Syria where Bashar Assad continues to crack down on demonstrators, not Zimbabwe where Robert Mugabe clings to the presidency. A single case does not a Doctrine make.

No Drama Obama, then, turns out to be No Doctrine Obama. If he manages to win a second term, he could turn that around. Imagine a president that took concrete steps toward nuclear abolition, actually reined in the military-industrial complex instead of waiting until a farewell speech to bemoan its influence, and helped build authentic international institutions that could, for instance, address the threat of climate change.

If he did all that, the president would prove a rare bird indeed, and worthy of his own Doctrine.

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