The Washington Post

The Obama Doctrine’s outlines are clear, but the details are hard to make out

The Obama Doctrine, it turns out, is not for the meek.

Tonight, a president portrayed by his critics as professorial and bloodless expounded a theory of U.S. military power that was muscular and unapologetic. President Obama vowed to use force not only in situations where vital U.S. interests are at stake, but also to defend our most deeply held values.

He took personal responsibility for ordering the intervention in Libya. Dictator Moammar Gaddafi’s heavily armed forces were poised to roll into Benghazi and commit “violence on a horrific scale,” Obama said.

“To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader — and more importantly, our responsibility to our fellow human beings — under those circumstances would be a betrayal of who we are,” he said. “As president, I refuse to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”

Note the “I.” We know where the buck stops.

Obama was less than charitable to previous administrations. In a subtle swipe at Bill Clinton, he noted that it took a year to mount an intervention to halt the carnage in Bosnia, while in Libya it took just 31 days. In a not-at-all-subtle dig at George W. Bush, he explained his refusal to expand the Libya mission to include regime change by saying that “to be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq.”

The Obama Doctrine calls for humanitarian military intervention when it is both necessary and feasible. This does not include every situation in which civilians are in great peril.

“It is true that America cannot use our military wherever oppression occurs,” he said. “But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right.”

What he didn’t do, though, was explain exactly how “what’s right” differs from what isn’t. He didn’t explain how factors such as politics or oil should figure in decisions on whether to intervene. He didn’t explain which conflicts are worthy of ground troops and which are not. The Obama Doctrine’s outlines are clear, but the details are hard to make out.

Eugene Robinson writes a twice-a-week column on politics and culture, contributes to the PostPartisan blog, and hosts a weekly online chat with readers. In a three-decade career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper’s Style section.


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