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, they give it a name.
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?
Complicating classification, of course, is that President Barack Obama is literally all over the map when it comes to foreign policy. U.S. forces are still fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, although the president has called for drawing down troops in both conflicts. While Obama formally retired the phrase “global war on terrorism,” CIA drone attacks continue to rain down on Pakistan. Aggressive counter-terrorism operations still take place in dozens of other 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.”
Even before Obama made it to the White House, the race was on to classify his foreign policy.
During the campaign, foreign policy hawks suggested that Obama embraced a kind of Chamberlain Doctrine, portraying him as naively promising to sit down and talk with any adversary of the United States. For liberals, meanwhile, Obama offered up the I’m-Not-Bush Doctrine, promising to replace hollow “democracy promotion” with “dignity promotion.”
It turned out, of course, that Obama was neither an appeaser nor a dignity promoter. He uses force when he deems it necessary, but unmanned drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen do nothing to promote dignity. In Oslo, the president deliberately mixed his messages by accepting the Nobel Peace Prize with a speech about the necessity of war. It’s difficult to put a single name on this ambidextrous foreign policy.
The Libya War, however, has revived the search for a doctrine. The pundits have tried to identify a middle ground for Obama’s foreign policy: “more of a hawk than Bill Clinton and more of a dove than President Bush,” opines The Washington Post. Or, as Politico put it, the Obama Doctrine consists of stopping massacres, getting in and out quickly, and getting other countries to take the lead. Foreign Policy sees the Obama Doctrine as focusing on the essentials and letting the rest slide.
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. The president has no big doctrine.
Obama hasn’t articulated a corollary to the Carter Doctrine, with the United States applying force to ensure access to Persian Gulf oil. Nor has he favored the Bush Doctrine of preventive war and establishing full-spectrum dominance. And, unlike Kennedy, Obama has hardly committed the United States to the spread of liberty.
The intervention in Libya, unlike those in Iraq or Afghanistan, didn’t flow from an organic plan for preserving or expanding U.S. power in the world. The Libya War is about hesitation, failure to anticipate, and reluctance to take major risks. As such, Libya reveals the lack of a doctrine about the use of U.S. power — a circumstance that reflects America’s vexed position in the world as much as Obama’s uncertainty about use of force. Ultimately, the administration is unlikely to treat Libya as a precedent for intervention anywhere else.
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, 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.