Obama doctrine
Friday, 01 April 2011 03:13


International peace and security are global public goods which must be provided by the international community.  Even though everyone likes to criticize the global policeman, the United States, we have all benefited for generations from its international military and security operations.  And although the French wanted to lead the recent actions in Libya, only the US had the missile capabilities to make the first assaults.


For many reasons, the US can no longer police the whole world.  But what will be the future scope of US military and security interventions?  In his 28 March speech defending his government’s actions in Libya, President Obama gave some broad outlines of what could be thought of as the “Obama Doctrine”.


What did Obama say?


“For generations, the United States of America has played a unique role as an anchor of global security and as an advocate for human freedom.  Mindful of the risks and costs of military action, we are naturally reluctant to use force to solve the world’s many challenges.  But when our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act.  That’s what happened in Libya over the course of these last six weeks.”


“…America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs.  And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action.  But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right.  In this particular country -– Libya -- at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale.  We had a unique ability to stop that violence:  an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves.  We also had the ability to stop Qaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.”


“America has an important strategic interest in preventing Qaddafi from overrunning those who oppose him.  A massacre would have driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya’s borders, putting enormous strains on the peaceful –- yet fragile -– transitions in Egypt and Tunisia.  The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power.”


“In just one month, the United States has worked with our international partners to mobilize a broad coalition, secure an international mandate to protect civilians, stop an advancing army, prevent a massacre, and establish a no-fly zone with our allies and partners.”


What does this mean?


Quite clearly, this means that under Obama’s leadership the US will be much more careful, measured and selective concerning its military interventions abroad.  George Bush’s adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have provided powerful lessons to the US.  Obama was clear, no more Iraqs please (see further excerpts from Obama’s speech below). 


Bush’s reckless fiscal policy has also imposed financial limits on what the US will do.  Further, the US will insist on other countries sharing the burden of military intervention.  George Bush had of course a “coalition of the willing” in Iraq, but much of that was for show.  Very few countries were substantially involved, and the mission did not have UN approval.


It seems that what is most at stake in Libya is not so much Libya itself.  It is more the risks that it could pose to the fragile transitions in Egypt and Tunisia, and the threatening message it sends to other rogue leaders who may wish to shoot on their own people.


Notwithstanding President Obama’s new doctrine, we cannot escape the fact that the US has unique military capabilities, and that any military action of this nature would not be possible without US involvement.  Bytheway, coping with natural disaster and nuclear crises like Japan is doing right would also not be possible without the US.  Its famous drone planes are now being used to look into the Fukushima nuclear reactors.


Where are all the other world powers?


For so long now, we have been hearing about how powerful the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) have become.  China in particular has sailed through the global financial crisis, and in the eyes of some is now rivaling the US.


As the old saying goes, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”.  Most disappointingly, our BRIC friends were all caught “missing-in-action” as they all (along with Germany) abstained from the vote for the UN Security Council Resolution on the no-fly zone over Libya.  They all expressed a preference for a peaceful resolution of the Libyan situation.  Sure, we all do.  But, hey folks, this is Gaddafi.  It is not a rational human being like you and me.    


The BRIC abstentions are an interesting indicator of how powerful our BRIC friends really are.  Some of them like China are frightened of dissent or uprisings in their own countries.  Others are trying to protect their own relations with shady Middle East and other countries.  None of them are yet in the position of occupying international moral high-ground.


Initially, it seemed that Germany was most concerned about its business relations with Germany, rather than supporting the country’s democratic revolution and protecting its citizens.  Libya is Germany’s third-largest supplier of oil.  After Italy, Germany is the second-largest purchaser of Libyan oil and the second-most important exporter to Libya. In the tourism sector, there are a number of successful German companies offering trips to Libya’s archaeological sites and desert.  Fortunately, Chancellor Angel Merkel has now decided to support the actions in Libya. 


In conclusion, for better or for worse, the US remains the world’s indispensable power – notwithstanding all the emerging folklore of American decline.  This status means necessarily that everyone will continue to criticize the US.  It can’t avoid being a lightening rod.


But the emerging Obama doctrine will hopefully make us all realize how much we need our American friends.  One day they may not come to our rescue when we need them. 





Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on Libya, National Defense University, Washington, D.C., March 28, 2011




Website of Federal Foreign Office, Germany



More excerpts from Obama’s speech:


“… we’ve accomplished these objectives consistent with the pledge that I made to the American people at the outset of our military operations.  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. … NATO, has taken command of the enforcement of the arms embargo and the no-fly zone.”


“ … Qaddafi has not yet stepped down from power, and until he does, Libya will remain dangerous. …The transition to a legitimate government that is responsive to the Libyan people will be a difficult task …it will be a task for the international community and –- more importantly –- a task for the Libyan people themselves.”


“ If we tried to overthrow Qaddafi by force, our coalition would splinter.  We would likely have to put U.S. troops on the ground to accomplish that mission, or risk killing many civilians from the air …To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq.”


“ We will deny the regime arms, cut off its supplies of cash, assist the opposition, and work with other nations to hasten the day when Qaddafi leaves power.  It may not happen overnight …”


“There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and our values are.  Sometimes, the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and our common security -– responding to natural disasters, for example; or preventing genocide and keeping the peace; ensuring regional security, and maintaining the flow of commerce … In such cases, we should not be afraid to act -– but the burden of action should not be America’s alone.  As we have in Libya, our task is instead to mobilize the international community for collective action … Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well; to work with allies and partners so that they bear their share of the burden and pay their share of the costs; and to see that the principles of justice and human dignity are upheld by all.”


“The United States will not be able to dictate the pace and scope of this change.  Only the people of the region can do that. But we can make a difference.” 




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