The National Defense University at Fort McNair was a favorite backdrop of President George W. Bush as he laid out his Bush doctrine of preemptive war.
Five times during his presidency, Bush visited the military installation in Southwest D.C., serving up such memorable soundbites as “we’re at war with cold-blooded killers who despise freedom,” and “we will keep the terrorists on the run until they have nowhere left to hide,” and “our immediate strategy is to eliminate terrorist threats abroad so we do not have to face them here at home.”
So it was noteworthy that Obama chose the same location for his speech to the nation justifying the U.S. military action in Libya. After ten days of confusion about America’s role in Libya – and in the world – Obama finally was prepared to articulate his “doctrine.”
But those who were hoping for a rejoinder to “bring it on” will be disappointed: The Obama doctrine he presented Wednesday night was frustratingly nondoctrinal. Where Bush was all bright lines and absolute morality, Obama dwelled in the gray area, outlining a foreign policy that is ad hoc and situational.
“In this particular country – Libya; at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale,” he argued, in a 28-minute speech marked by occasional trouble with the teleprompter. “We had a unique ability to stop that violence.... We also had the ability to stop Gaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.”
The policy Obama outlined was a cost-benefit analysis between the burdens of war and the need to defend American values across the globe. In the Obama doctrine, there is a tension between bear-any-burden aspirations and the constraints of an overstretched superpower.
“I have made it clear that I will never hesitate to use our military swiftly, decisively and unilaterally when necessary to defend our people, our homeland, our allies, and our core interests,” he said. But, he added: “There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and values are. . . . In such cases, we should not be afraid to act — but the burden of action should not be America’s alone.”
This is what Republicans such as Mitt Romney deride as Obama’s “nuanced” foreign policy. And it’s true that after the good vs. evil, binary logic of the Bush years — you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists — Obama’s answer is vague and unsatisfying.
On the other hand, maybe the lack of a fixed doctrine isn’t such a bad thing. Being doctrinaire, after all, got the last guy into quite a bit of trouble. Everybody knew what the Bush doctrine was — at least, everybody but Sarah Palin (“in what respect, Charlie?”). Yet that crisp clarity led us into war in Iraq based on false presumptions, draining resources from the war in Afghanistan and antagonizing allies.
Obama, by contrast, has been so subtle in his doctrine that he’s baffling Americans. By waiting to make his case to the nation for the action in Libya, he created a vacuum and invited confusion. A new Pew Research Center poll finds that while a plurality supports the attack in Libya, 17 percent of Americans have no opinion on the question. Meanwhile, 50 percent don’t think the United States and its allies have a clear goal.
At NDU on Monday night, Obama gave the assembled brass some Bush-like rhetoric, calling Gaddafi a “tyrant” who murdered opponents, terrorized innocents and killed Americans. But Obama tempered that with reminders that the military action against Gaddafi was “limited,” and “narrowly focused on saving lives,” and that responsibility had been transferred to reduce “the risk and cost.”
He outlined his policy as a sensible middle ground between those who opposed any intervention and those who favored an all-out effort to oust Gaddafi. “Given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action,” he said. The United States has an “important strategic interest,” he said — although he didn’t claim it is a vital one.
“Failure to act in Libya would have carried a far greater price for America,” Obama said. Likewise, if he attempted to remove Gaddafi by force, “the dangers faced by our men and women in uniform would be far greater.”
As a doctrine, Obama’s is maddeningly subtle. Cost-weighting can’t compete with “smoke ‘em out” and “dead or alive.” But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.