Obama's Libya Speech: No 'Doctrine,' but a Peek at Priorities

What drives the President's decisions during the historic convulsions of the 2011 Arab Spring

  • Share
  • Read Later
Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR for TIME

Lybian rebels rest outside of Ajdabiyah.

Back when Barack Obama was a Senator, he had high expectations for a new kind of U.S. foreign policy. The "United States still lacks a coherent national security policy," Obama wrote in his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope. "Instead of guiding principles, we have what appear to be a series of ad hoc decisions... Without a well-articulated strategy that the public supports and the world understands," he wrote, American actions lack "legitimacy" at home and abroad.

Now that Obama is President, he's the one being graded for clarity. "I don't think there is an Obama doctrine," said Newt Gingrich, a likely 2012 presidential contender, on March 21. "His current policy is so incoherent and so confused that it is literally indefensible."

But Obama defended his policy with a March 28 speech explaining his decision to intervene militarily in Libya and offering his criteria for using military force when there's no imminent threat to America. But a full-blown "doctrine" it was not. Obama didn't explain whether any larger principles have guided him through the historic convulsions of the 2011 Arab Spring. Nor does he care to. The word doctrine "suggests a rigidity that you're going to apply in every country," says National Security Council aide Ben Rhodes. And Obama's recent actions have at times seemed to reflect the kind of ad hoc decisions he complained about in 2006. He has vocally denounced crackdowns on protesters in some countries (Libya, Egypt) but been quieter about others (Bahrain, Yemen). He was initially hesitant to intervene in Libya — then acted with surprising force.

Still, three themes stand out as Obama confronts this moment of promise and risk in the Middle East:

Make them like us. Obama has long emphasized the importance of restoring America's tattered image in the Muslim world; hatred of the U.S., after all, is a rich fertilizer for terrorism. That's one reason Obama has tried to close Guantánamo Bay (thus far without success) and made a show of addressing the Muslim world from Cairo in June 2009. It's also why Obama dismissed the advice to support Hosni Mubarak when the Egyptian people revolted. In Libya, the pleas from rebels and other Arab states offered Obama a chance to demonstrate that America can use force on behalf of Muslims, not just against them. (Unfortunately, polls show that Muslims abroad still largely distrust the U.S., perhaps because American troops remain in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

It's not all about America. Obama took office convinced that the U.S. needed to show some humility after the Bush Administration's global swagger. Prior to the Arab Spring, Obama didn't forcefully promote democracy in the region, lest he seem to be imposing a U.S. agenda. He also has kept his distance from the popular uprisings. "The best way for the United States to support change is to not dictate it," Rhodes says. The same goes for the use of force. Obama has always said military action should involve broad coalitions that share both the political and combat burdens — as has been the case in Libya.

Contain Iran. Obama's concern that Iran will exploit the Arab Spring to extend its anti-American influence helps explain why he has, some say, been overly tolerant of crackdowns against Shi'ite protesters in Bahrain. (Obama officials believe Shi'ite Iran is fomenting unrest against Bahrain's Sunni monarchy and fret it might extend to U.S. ally Saudi Arabia.) Bombing Libya shows Tehran that Iraq hasn't exhausted America's will to use force, the threat of which is a lever to make Iran quit its nuclear program. And the sight of an international coalition bombing a repressive regime makes Iran's rulers sweat: One White House official says antiregime Iranian activists report that "Libya is being watched" carefully in Tehran. Meanwhile, a change of regime in Syria could deprive Iran of a key ally — a prospect tempered by the potential for sectarian chaos.

Other important factors drive Obama's decisions, naturally —including oil prices (a reason to tolerate Saudi Arabia's repressive monarchy) and the threat of al-Qaeda (a reason to be wary of sudden political change in the terrorist haven of Yemen). Nor are these principles likely to satisfy demands for clarity from Obama's 2012 rivals. Of course, "no foreign policy grand strategy is ever perfectly implemented," explains Daniel Drezner, a Tufts University professor of international politics. "There are always hypocrisies and inconsistencies."