Is Libya Policy Cornerstone of an Obama Doctrine?

Recent developments in Libya promise to help the Libyan people a good deal, even as the potential for protracted and deadly urban combat cannot yet be dismissed. There’s another beneficiary, though: President Obama, who can now point to Libya as a signature example of how to lead multilaterally, encourage others to do more, and avoid the Hobson’s choice of doing it all alone or retreating into defeatism or isolationism.

Some might even call this an Obama Doctrine — an accomplishment that the president can use (or that others can use for or against him) to explain his overall approach to foreign policy. This works up to a point, but Libya is a somewhat special case, as the stakes were modest.

So what does Obama’s foreign policy really add up to and what if anything is this president’s grand strategy? While one should not obsess on this question, grand strategy does matter at some level. It is incumbent on strategists — and presidents as well as their foreign policy aides — to establish priority objectives as well as plans for pursuing those goals. Only by doing so can policymakers effectively use their own time as well as their nation’s resources and leverage to achieve outcomes on the most important issues of the day.

Reacting is Not a Strategy

Several proposals have been offered about what an Obama grand strategy might be. One scholar, Tufts University’s Daniel Drezner, depicts an administration focused on counterpunching. But while there is something to this, counterpunching by definition is not a strategy because it is reactive.

Another prominent writer, Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria, suggests that we abandon the search for an Obama Doctrine because the world has become too complicated for any president to have the luxury of such a simple, clear and consistent guide to most decision-making. While Zakaria, a brilliant analyst, is surely right for 80% of foreign policy scenarios, the world is far too complicated to manage simply by handling one’s inbox issue by issue.

Priorities are Necessary as a Guide

A third notion, suggested recently by an anonymous White House aide in a New Yorker article, is that this administration has been trying to “lead from behind” — at least on matters such as the Libya conflict and the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. While this approach might work for second-order issues, or in cases where U.S. influence is inherently limited, it is hardly a viable way for a country that remains far and away the world’s dominant power to play its leadership role. It’s also lousy politics, inviting ridicule while making the president appear weak.

A Few Kudos for Obama

So the White House needs to do better, and in fact Obama has done better than the above bumper stickers would imply:

  • He has tried to prioritize some issues— Afghanistan, Pakistan and nuclear weapons proliferation — because they are inherently more important than many others.
  • He has made America’s economic security and recovery paramount on his own short list of priorities. 
  • He has hired good people such as secretaries Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Leon Panetta and incoming CIA Director David Petraeus, and the team has worked competently and diligently.
  • And he is trying to get allies such as Britain, France and some Arab states to carry more of the load, as in Libya, but also to some extent in Afghanistan.

Taken together, these efforts don’t fit neatly into a precise doctrine, such as GeorgeKennan’s containment, John Kennedy’s “bear any burden,” Richard Nixon’s “China card,” Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” or George W. Bush’s pre-emption paradigms. But it is perhaps as concise as can be for this president at the moment.

In the months ahead, however, Obama will have to find a more coherent way to explain his foreign policy vision — and more generally, his presidency — to the American people as he asks them for another term. Here, the health of the economy will be infinitely more important than Libya, however the latter turns out.

Indeed, our major economic woes raise some big questions: Is America in decline? Can she regroup? Is the U.S. economy headed in a significantly worse direction than ever before in modern times, and with it our national power and influence?

Obama’s real place in U.S. foreign policy ultimately will be evaluated on these questions, given the global anxieties and challenges of the time.