Obama's decision to intervene has led to speculation over the dawning of an Obama doctrine. Was Libya setting a precedent for future military actions under this president when other despots turned their guns on their own people?
The answer would seem to be a clear "no." In explaining his decision on Libya, Obama has emphasized how "unique" the Libyan case is as much as he has made the case for international action.
But what Obama has revealed – both in his response to Libya and to the turmoil across the Middle East more broadly – is, if not a doctrine, then a set of principles that guide his foreign-policy and national-security decisionmaking. Multilateralism figures at the top of the list, but it includes a new emphasis on the duties of other powers (and a growing array of powers) in the world as well as a hesitance to use military power – positions that some critics portray as an abdication of American leadership.
Obama's lofty images of an America that intervenes on the side of good aside, it was probably the private White House deliberations on Libya that gave a truer picture of this president's approach to foreign policy. As the debate proceeded at that March 15 meeting, Obama homed in on one overriding question: Can this work, and what would it take from the US for an international intervention to be successful? In particular, he focused on the need for a strong enough United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to virtually guarantee that any international intervention could achieve its goals.
Still a cautious realist
His focus then on the practical limitations that would determine whether the use of force could be successful – rather than on the idealistic impulses for intervention – suggests that Obama remains what he was when he took office two years ago: a cautious realist in his worldview and in his conception of the uses of American power.