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Obama's foreign policy approach: Act cautiously, and not alone

The president fashions a use-of-force doctrine that supporters say is prudent but critics deem too timid.

September 16, 2012|By Paul Richter
  • President Obama is briefed in the Oval Office before a March 2011 meeting with congressional leaders on the conflict in Libya.
President Obama is briefed in the Oval Office before a March 2011 meeting… (Pete Souza, White House )

This is the first in a series of articles on the record of the Obama administration.

WASHINGTON — On the afternoon of March 15 last year, President Obama and top advisors sat in the White House Situation Room poring over grainy satellite photos of an armored column thundering down on a largely unprotected Libyan city. Their choices appeared to be stark: Plunge the United States into a new war in the Arab world, or risk the slaughter of thousands.

Obama decided to split the difference — committing the American military for part of the job. That decision has come to exemplify the Obama doctrine: Because Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi's assault on insurgents and civilians didn't directly endanger U.S. security, there was no justification for a major U.S.-led ground assault, the president decided. But, he said, the U.S. could take a role in protecting civilians if allies shared the burden, regional and international groups blessed the effort, and the mission was limited.

"The burden of action should not be America's alone," Obama said in a speech that announced the United States would be one participant in a NATO mission led by France and Britain.

Obama's approach to the use of force, as seen most clearly in Libya, is the cornerstone of a foreign policy that differs sharply from that of his predecessor, George W. Bush, but also from the paths pursued by recent Democratic presidents.

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Leading a nation confronting the limits of its power after two draining wars — and with budget strain at home — Obama shies from the type of ambitious and high-risk missions with which Bush aimed to reshape other countries. Under Obama, the United States has been more picky about missions aimed at humanitarian relief, peacekeeping and maintaining world order.

Yet more than other Democrats of the recent past, Obama has been willing to wield military power. As he nears four years in office, Obama has sent U.S. forces into at least eight countries, from Pakistan to West Africa, often covertly and with little public debate.

Supporters of the administration point to the military intervention in Libya as an example of success for the Obama doctrine, despite the storming of the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi last week. While agreeing that the deaths there of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans show that Libya is still threatened by Islamist radicals and other armed groups, they say the radicals remain weak and that Libya has made a promising start after decades of dictatorship.

Obama's critics, however, say that by putting the U.S. more often in a supporting role, he has abandoned America's commitment, as President Kennedy put it, to "pay any price, bear any burden" to assure the "survival and the success of liberty." In the presidential campaign, Republicans have cast Obama as feckless and reactive, too willing to be shaped by events, rather than taking charge and clearly leading the nation and its allies.

Obama's record of incremental steps is seen by supporters as patient determination and by critics as timidity.

He has had no grand foreign policy triumphs, but neither has he had any major disasters. He has made no breakthroughs in trouble spots such as Iran, North Korea and Cuba. But the covert war against militants from Pakistan to North Africa succeeded in killing Osama bin Laden and dismantling much of Al Qaeda's leadership.

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As a candidate in 2008, Obama promised to engage with regimes that Bush had shunned, rekindle the Israeli-Palestinian peace effort and intensify the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan that he believed Bush had neglected.

By his third year, he had been forced to adjust his approach on almost every front.

Obama's approach to the Middle East shows the clearest shift from the idealism of his 2008 campaign to the incremental realpolitik that has characterized much of the last two years.

When Iran's leaders refused his outstretched hand, Obama helped organize a campaign of unprecedented international sanctions that has battered the Iranian economy. Officials remain hopeful that the sanctions — backed by the threat of force — may prod Tehran into agreeing to limits on its disputed nuclear program.

On Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Obama tried to restart the process by pressing Israel for concessions on settlements. That plan quickly collapsed, forcing him to backtrack and essentially give up for now on substantive progress. The experience soured relations between the president and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but overall cooperation between the two countries has continued.

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