Exploring the Obama Doctrine
Doctrines often guide chief executive’s foreign policy decision-making. The Bush Doctrine assumed the right of anticipatory self-defense and that preventive war was justified when a perceived threat to the United States existed. The Iraq War was a result of the Bush Doctrine. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was viewed as a threat and preemptive war was necessary. Therefore, the U.S. military overthrew the regime and replaced it with another.
The most widely cited doctrine, the Monroe Doctrine, posited that the Americas were in the American sphere of influence and force would be used to keep it free of external actors. Both the Monroe and Bush Doctrines rationalized when it was prudent to use hard power to achieve objectives. While the Monroe and Bush Doctrines relied on projections of force that depended largely on realist assumptions, the Obama Doctrine, as it evolves, uses realism but also relies on pragmatic assessments and humanitarian criteria to determine when the United States can and should intervene.
Essentially, under Obama, the U.S. will rely on soft power and other tools to avoid direct American intervention into troubled regions of the world. These efforts will be aided by an assessment of situations on the ground as they evolve. However, when situations reach the point that American intervention might be necessary the U.S. will intervene multilaterally.
The Libyan intervention illustrates this approach. As the Arab region undergoes significant structural changes the U.S. has decided to intervene in Libya but not in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen or Iran. Intervention in those states would have proved to be tremendous undertakings that would have damaged America’s relative power.
Also, the amount of manpower and material needed to effect domestic changes in those states relative to Libya would have far exceeded what the Obama administration felt comfortable with due to American financial and material commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Intervention in Libya was feasible and manageable because of its limited objectives.
By applying very nuanced standards about when to intervene, Obama faced the fewest political risks and by intervening within a multilateral coalition it is likely that few if any American personal will be killed. By acting within a multilateral coalition the U.S. is also able to share the financial cost of the exercise with NATO now that that organization has assumed command. During Obama’s Libyan address he stressed, “Our most effective alliance, NATO, has taken command of the enforcement of the arms embargo and the no-fly zone. Last night, NATO decided to take on the additional responsibility of protecting Libyan civilians. This transfer from the United States to NATO will take place on Wednesday. Going forward, the lead in enforcing the no-fly zone and protecting civilians on the ground will transition to our allies and partners, and I am fully confident that our coalition will keep the pressure on Qaddafi’s remaining forces. ”
Counterfactually, without U.S. and coalition intervention, Libya would have faced a calamitous humanitarian crisis. There was every reason to suspect that had coalition airstrikes not halted the advance of pro-Qaddafi ground units on Benghazi, countless anti-government rebels and civilians would have been killed. The Obama administration is largely guided by pragmatism. Under Obama, the U.S. will intervene when it is possible to achieve limited objectives. Obama’s criteria also insures that the U.S. will not intervene in other regions or states unless conditions like those that prevailed before the Libyan intervention exist.
In keeping with the Obama Doctrine as it is understood, the administration has authorized covert action inside of Libya. The administration’s decision to authorize covert support for rebel groups is also in keeping with the goals of the administration to insure that U.S. intervention is limited. Obama signed what is known as a presidential “finding” two or three weeks ago which is essentially an executive decree. By signing the presidential “finding” the president authorized covert operations, which consist of Central Intelligence Agency operatives operating within Libya to assist the rebels fighting against the Qaddafi regime.
The CIA operatives in Libya will provide logistical support for the rebels and perhaps funnel arms to them. It has been widely reported that the rebels are poorly armed and in many cases are fighting pro-Qaddafi forces with Ak-47s and rocket propelled grenades. They lack sophisticated weaponry that could help turn the tide of the conflict towards the rebels. Most importantly, they lack training and are poorly organized. Cognizant of this, the administration has taken measured steps to insure that the rebels are able to make progress against the Qaddafi regime. The presidential “finding” also affords the opportunity for CIA operatives to gather intelligence on who the rebels are. The rebel movement’s structure and leadership is still largely unknown to the international community. The CIA operatives will be able to ascertain whom the international community should align itself with and who should be avoided.
Of particular concern for the administration is that if the U.S. and others are going to funnel weapons to the rebels they want to avoid arming groups that could prove to be toxic in the future. Former Middle East expert at the CIA, Bruce Riedel, suggests, “The whole issue on (providing rebels with) training and equipment requires knowing who the rebels are.”
Obama’s interview with NBC’s Brian Williams did touch on the steps that the U.S. would take to insure a positive outcome in Libya. While specifically not laying out the concrete steps that he might pursue as far as arming rebels or signing a presidential “finding,” the interview can be interpreted to mean that the U.S. is prepared to take extraordinary steps in the days ahead. In the interview, Williams asked, “What it appears the rebels need is military equipment. Some of their equipment dates back to World War II. Are you ruling out U.S. military hardware assistance?” Obama responded, “I’m not ruling it out. But I’m also not ruling it in. We’re still making an assessment partly about what Khadaffy’s forces are going to be doing…And so one of the questions that we want to answer is: do we start getting to a stage where Khadaffy’s forces are sufficiently degraded, where it may not be necessary to arm opposition groups. But we’re not taking anything off the table at this point. Our primary military goal is to protect civilian populations and to set up the no-fly zone. Our primary strategic goal is for Khadaffy to step down so that the Libyan people have an opportunity to live a decent life.”
What has dampened opposition in the U.S. Senate towards the steps taken by the administration was S. Res. 85. In S. Res. 85, the U.S. Senate “urges the United Nations Security Council to take such further action as may be necessary to protect civilians in Libya from attack, including the possible imposition of a no-fly zone over Libyan territory.” The resolution continues, “[the U.S. Senate] welcomes the outreach that has begun by the United States Government to Libyan opposition figures and supports an orderly, irreversible transition to a legitimate democratic government in Libya.”
The fact that S. Res. 85 was passed by unanimous consent and essentially urges all necessary steps currently taken by the Obama administration did not stop Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) from arguing on the Senate floor, “While the President is the commander of our armed forces, he is not a king. He may involve those forces in military conflict only when authorized by Congress or in response to an imminent threat.”
Sen. Paul could have demanded a roll call vote but chose not to. Concerns voiced by the U.S. Senate and House are legitimate ones. Costs and the timeline of the U.S. commitment are still largely unknown and the administration has been vague about providing answers to these questions. It is doubtful that S. Res. 85 was submitted for consideration to undercut future arguments against U.S. involvement. However, the fact that S. Res. 85 was passed by unanimous consent effectively undercuts the arguments that the Senate was not informed nor was denied an opportunity to voice its opinions either in support or in opposition to U.S. involvement.
The muted response to Obama’s initiative to authorize covert action in Libya also alludes to the fact that several policymakers view American intervention as limited. There has been manufactured indignation that Congress was not notified before the air strikes began. But overall, members of Congress are still willing to cede the power of commander-in-chief to the president.
The authorization of covert action in Libya gives the appearance of Obama’s attempts to keep U.S. involvement limited and in line with his doctrinarian approach to foreign policy initiatives. While Libya is for all intents and purposes a war, it is a limited war that was initially led by the United States. Following NATO’s decision to assume command of the operation the president can make the case that Libyan intervention is multilateral and in-line with Obama’s philosophy about when and how foreign wars should be fought. While the president was eager to hand off leadership of the mission to NATO, the president concedes that the U.S. will still be engaged in the mission.
According to Obama, “the United States will play a supporting role — including intelligence, logistical support, search and rescue assistance, and capabilities to jam regime communications.” Despite being NATO led the Obama administration has an interest to insure that the mission succeeds and Qaddafi fall. Obama has invested too much political capital at this point to see Qaddafi remain in power. The National Journal’s Michael Hirsh argues, “Above all, now that Obama has openly staked his credibility on Qaddafi’s departure, the president may have little choice but to arm and aid a badly outgunned and undertrained opposition, lest a long stalemate and a possible slaughter result.”
In the months ahead, and perhaps into Obama’s second term, if reelected, his approach to Libya will mirror other foreign policy initiatives. The president is by his very nature a deliberative person and Libya reflected this law school philosophy. Obama committed the U.S. to Libya after several opportunities presented themselves. Arab League support for a no-fly zone certainly provided the U.S. with an opportunity to claim that the Arab world was demanding action. Support from the U.S. Senate evidenced by S. Res. 85 afforded the president support from half of the legislative branch. Public support was relatively high for U.S. action. The mechanics of the operation permitted U.S. intervention.
Essentially, the mission was feasible and Qaddafi’s military was third rate compared to the U.S. and NATO. The potential for a humanitarian crisis ran high which afforded the president the opportunity to argue that U.S. intervention was on the behalf of the Libyan people. Finally, the administration itself is staffed with several women who had failed to act to halt the genocide in Rwanda and they prodded Obama to intervene. Resulting from their lessons over Rwanda, the National Security Council’s Samantha Powers, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton convinced the president that U.S. intervention was necessary.
The New York Times Maureen Dowd points out in her column, “They are called the Amazon Warriors, the Lady Hawks, the Valkyries, the Durgas… It is not yet clear if the Valkyries will get the credit or the blame on Libya…the reluctant men — the generals, the secretary of defense, top male White House national security advisers — outmuscled by the fierce women around President Obama urging him to man up against the crazy Qaddafi.”