The birth of an Obama doctrine

Published on The Economist, by Lexington, March 28, 2011.

Born, as we are, out of a revolution by those who longed to be free, we welcome the fact that history is on the move in the Middle East and North Africa, and that young people are leading the way. Because wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States. Ultimately, it is that faith – those ideals – that are the true measure of American leadership.

THUS President Barack Obama tonight, speaking to the American people directly for the first time since launching Operation Odyssey Dawn and unleashing American missiles in Libya. He had received a great deal of criticism—for “dithering”, for failing to consult Congress, for going too far and doing too little. Now he has answered back—and provided, at the same time, the clearest explanation so far of an “Obama doctrine” of humanitarian military intervention.

Far from “dithering”, goes the White House line, pushed subtly in the speech and explicitly in briefings by senior officials, Mr Obama’s handling of the Libyan crisis has been “relatively extraordinary”. He has in a mere 31 days since the protests started imposed powerful sanctions, frozen Colonel Qaddafi’s assets, secured a robust Security Council resolution, organised an international coalition, executed a near-flawless military campaign, rolled Colonel Qaddafi’s forces back to the west, taken out the colonel’s air defences and knocked out a good deal of his ground forces. All this has been done without having to put American boots on the ground, without American military casualties and with precious few Libyan civilian casualties. Better still, with all this now done, America’s own contribution can decline, NATO can assume command (under an American general but with a Canadian deputy) and the European allies will take on more of the burden. Compare that, say senior administration officials, to the years it took to intervene in Bosnia in the 1990s … //

… It is a good case—and it was a good speech. If Colonel Qaddafi is swept quickly from power, or reduced to impotence in some bunker, nobody will care very much about the manner in which Mr Obama put together his alliance and campaign. It might indeed be remembered as an extraordinary foreign-policy success. After the rescue of Kuwait in 1991, however, the first President George Bush also expected Saddam Hussein’s regime to collapse in short order. Mr Obama’s team says the circumstances this time are entirely different. They had better be right. (full text).

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