The Realist Prism: Reconciling the New Obama Doctrine With the Old

The Realist Prism: Reconciling the New Obama Doctrine With the Old

The run-up to the Libya operation created a great deal of buzz in the foreign policy community about the emergence of a new "Obama Doctrine," one that provides a rationale for the use of U.S. military force to achieve humanitarian ends. But President Barack Obama himself recognizes that he cannot completely dispense with the old Obama Doctrine, which he articulated when he was a candidate for office. The initial view propounded by the then-junior senator from Illinois was one of "restrained engagement" with the rest of the world: liquidating costly overseas military ventures; finding diplomacy-based compromises with other states, rather than insisting on preferential outcomes; and most critically, focusing domestically on the renewal of the economic and technological sources of U.S. power.

Significantly, a temporary "stepping back" was also designed to nudge other countries around the world to consider the benefits they enjoyed from a U.S.-led international system. In many ways, this was in the spirit of Niall Ferguson's 2004 challenge: "If the United States retreats from its hegemonic role, who would supplant it? Not Europe, not China, not the Muslim world -- and certainly not the United Nations. Unfortunately, the alternative to a single superpower is not a multilateral utopia, but the anarchic nightmare of a new Dark Age." Drawing down the scope and intensity of U.S. involvement in the world was therefore intended, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted, "to help the international community accept responsibility."

The original Obama Doctrine was on display in the position that Vice President Joe Biden defended during the 2009 review of strategy in Afghanistan: the downshifting of the mission away from counterinsurgency and nation-building to a much smaller and mobile force designed to strike al-Qaida targets. Biden's preferred approach ultimately lost out to a more muscular troop surge. But the original doctrine's restraint was also apparent in the administration's overall response to the Iranian elections and their immediate aftermath. In particular, the administration was reluctant to use the Green Movement as a tool to potentially topple the Islamic Republic, especially if there was a hope that negotiations might produce a settlement of Iran's nuclear program along the lines of the agreement that got Moamar Gadhafi to shutter his own nuclear weapons program in 2003.

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