The Real Obama Doctrine

How the president’s grand talk about American interests conflicts with his military strategy in Libya.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the  Libya conflict.

President Obama

Immediately after President Obama spoke Monday night about the American mission in Libya, NBC aired a tribute to George Herbert Walker Bush. It was fitting, since Obama’s speech had been a kind of tribute, too. Though the sweeping claims for American action at times made Obama sound like the more recent Bush president, the central message was the one associated with his father: prudence.

Obama started with a clear mission statement. He promised to explain “what we have done, what we plan to do, and why this matters to us.” He was very strong on Items 1  and 3 but got fuzzy on Item No. 2.

The president had a pile of reasons the United States had to get involved: Muammar Qaddafi was about to slaughter the residents of Benghazi; the international community was asking for U.S. assistance, as were the anti-Qaddafi forces within Libya; allowing Qaddafi to crack down would have weakened the pro-freedom movements in other Middle Eastern and North African countries; the authority of the United Nations was in question. 

Above all else, though, the president said that American values were at stake. “There will be times … when our safety is not directly threatened but our interests and values are,” Obama said. He talked about “our responsibilities to our fellow human beings,” universal rights and the core principles Americans share with those fighting Qaddafi. He cited America’s unique (and exceptional!) history—”born, as we are, out of a revolution by those who longed to be free.”

You could almost see and hear the Marine band coming on stage. It was stirring stuff, the same mood music John F. Kennedy had sounded when he said: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

But while Obama was aiming for the skies with his rhetoric, he was anxious to show just how earthbound and limited the actual mission was. We won’t go farther than the international coalition will allow. The military mission was limited and largely over. Our values don’t compel the United States to intervene wherever humanity is threatened—in, say, the Ivory Coast, Darfur, Bahrain, Yemen, or Syria.

The statement that had sounded like a bold doctrine—that what guides a U.S. decision to intervene is not just threats to our safety, but threats to “our interests and values”—came with an asterisk that led to some fine print at the bottom of the speech: Offer valid only if it’s a relatively easy military mission and we have a lot of allies and we only share a limited amount of the burden. Then we’ll get in the fight for a bit and hope for the best.

This isn’t the Obama Doctrine. It’s Obama’s Libya Doctrine.

The president has been accused of staying in the background during the Libya operation. That was a tactical decision during the early stages to downplay the American role and highlight the international coalition. He rhetorically came on stage tonight. Explaining the story so far, he made liberal use of the first-person singular. “At my direction … I refused to let that happen … I ordered warships into the Mediterranean … The pledge that I made … I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action … The task that I assigned our forces … And tonight, I can report that we have stopped Qaddafi’s deadly advance.”

Most important, the president was able to declare the mission accomplished and promises kept. “So for those who doubted our capacity to carry out this operation, I want to be clear: the United States of America has done what we said we would do. … I said that America’s role would be limited; that we would not put ground troops into Libya; that we would focus our unique capabilities on the front end of the operation, and that we would transfer responsibility to our allies and partners. Tonight, we are fulfilling that pledge.”

Obama also made the case for a different kind of leadership. “American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone and bearing all of the burden ourselves,” he said. “Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well.”

The speech was mostly backward-looking. Questions about the future—the questions members of Congress want answered—were left largely unaddressed. What does the mission look like in the future? When does the United States leave? What happens if Qaddafi holds on?

The tension in the U.S. position rests between the president’s constant assertions that the military mission is strictly limited to humanitarian assistance and the fact that the military mission is aiding those trying to remove Qaddafi from power. The U.N. resolution calls for protecting the citizens of Libya, but NATO isn’t simply protecting civilians huddled in their homes. The attacks, including U.S. airpower, are aiding those civilians marching on Tripoli to change the regime. That’s not something the president can admit, however. It wouldn’t be prudent.

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