There are certain patterns emerging from President Obama’s response to the Arab uprisings that may form the foundation of a broader foreign policy doctrine. His speech tonight on Libya will give us some more clues, but here are some of his positions so far:
National security interests and philosophical values alone do not legitimize U.S. military action. Approval from multilateral institutions is key, and the U.S. can’t justly go to war without it. The intervention in Libya was a prime example – President Obama bypassed the Congressional authorization process and instead devoted his energy to amassing support from the UN Security Council and the Arab League. Whether this was due to time constraints or Obama’s unwillingness to defend the moral or strategic necessity of the war to Congress, it indicates that approval from the international community is a non-negotiable prerequisite for going to war.
And even though national interest plays a role in Obama’s decision-making, it seems to be given far less weight than in previous administrations. When asked on Sunday if the U.S. would consider taking military action in Syria, Hillary Clinton said the only way this would happen was “if there were a coalition of the international community, if there was the passage of a Security Council resolution, if there were a call by the Arab League, [and] if there was a condemnation that was universal.” Noticeably absent from this string of “if’s” were any mentions of our own national security interests or humanitarian values.
The U.S. should be an active participant, not an active leader.
As domestic pressure increased for Obama to take a stance on Libya, the president filibustered until France and Britain finally took the lead and called for an intervention. The U.S. controlled the Libya mission by necessity at the beginning, but its role was reluctant leader – the Obama administration repeatedly made it clear that America was acting as part of a “coalition” and that it would hand over the reins to NATO as soon as possible.
This unwillingness to take the lead has been a characteristic of Obama’s response to the Arab uprisings. He was slow to take a position on Mubarak, slower to call on Qaddafi to step down, and he has yet to condemn Assad. Obama is not a non-interventionist, but he’s not a hawk either. He seems comfortable with actively participating in internationally-approved interventions, but has avoided taking an active or aggressive leadership role.
Covert warfare is preferable to overt warfare.
Obama isn’t opposed to American military power, he’s opposed to what he perceives as chauvinistic displays of that power. He realizes the importance of Bush’s counterterrorism policies and continues to use most of them.
In fact, in some regards he’s even increased the use of covert intelligence operations, in order to make up for his reduction of overt military operations. Under his administration, the U.S. has increasingly used drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan, may have used cyber warfare against the Iranian nuclear program, and sent Special Forces on clandestine military operations across the Middle East and Africa.