President Barack Obama's March 28 speech about Libyan intervention had pundits quickly debating whether it included an "Obama Doctrine." The answer is yes . . . and no.
Obama deftly outlined the immediate reasons the United States led the NATO effort to establish a no-fly zone over Libya. Essentially, he said the measure was to prevent Libya's leader/despot of 40 years from massacring Libyans in rebellion against him. "Qaddafi declared he would show 'no mercy' to his own people," said Obama. "We knew that if we . . . waited one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world."
He also carefully avoided saying the word "war" in his speech and guaranteed that American involvement would be limited, front-loaded, and done without inserting "ground troops." All of that was to calm the fears of Americans weary of a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. This also is the "American Way of War" -- do it long distance and limit danger to your own men -- which historian Russell Weigley first wrote about in the 1970s.
A Break From Predecessors
Obama distanced himself from his predecessors Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and even George H.W. Bush. Bush the First failed to limit Saddam Hussein's ability to fly helicopters into the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq after the United States won the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Kurds there, thinking the U.S. would support them, rose against Saddam. The U.S. left, Saddam's people flew in, and the result was another round of genocide against the Kurds.
Clinton, in the 1990s, took more than a year to put together an international coalition to protect civilians during the Bosnian wars. Obama clearly drew the contrast. "When people were being brutalized in Bosnia in the 1990s, it took the international community more than a year to intervene with air power to protect civilians. It took us 31 days," he said.
And Obama made sure to let Americans -- and the world -- know that he certainly wasn't Bush the Second. There would be no attempt at regime change in Libya, no attempt to forcibly plant democracy in a place with not heritage of westernized Enlightenment thought. "To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq. Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our troops and the determination of our diplomats, we are hopeful about Iraq's future. But regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya," he said.
So Where's the Doctrine?
OK, so Obama is not a Bush and he's not Clinton. But do those statements mark out a doctrine? Not really. They are to some degree an apology and a promise not to make the same mistakes again.
The doctrinaire part of Obama's speech came near the end when he said, "I've 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." (Although he'd also made it clear several times during the speech that he wants the U.S. to move "multilaterally" as much as possible, again distancing himself from Bush II.)
"There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and our values are," Obama continued. "Sometimes, the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and our common security -- responding to natural disasters, for example; or preventing genocide and keeping the peace; ensuring regional security, and maintaining the flow of commerce. These may not be America's problems alone, but they are important to us. They're problems worth solving. And in these circumstances, we know that the United States, as the world's most powerful nation, will often be called upon to help."
What doctrine is here, you have to piece together. The United States will move -- preferably multilaterally, but unilaterally if it has too -- to prevent genocide, ensure regional security, and maintain commerce. We'll move responsibly fast, we'll do it with limited risk to our own people, and we're not in the business of regime change.
But the doctrine begs some questions. Do we prevent genocide wherever it begins, or just in places where we have a regional interest? That is, is the U.S. just interested in places where it wants to maintain the flow of oil . . . er, commerce? If genocide erupted again in Rwanda, would the United States intervene?
Doctrine doesn't just happen with a speech. It truly becomes doctrine when actions give clarity and form to the words. For now, there is a skeleton of doctrine in Obama's speech; time will -- or won't -- add muscle to it.
Photo: President Obama delivers March 28 speech about Libya. Photo by Pete Souza/White House