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A New Fight

Defining Obama's foreign policy doctrine.

Obama would have been called every name in that book: "feckless," "weak," "naive," "powerless," "irresolute," "supine" and "spineless." We know this because all those words had already been hurled at the president even before the Somali pirates grabbed Phillips.

This rote argument that conservatives have been using against liberals since Sept. 11, 2001, just happened not to be true. Obama didn't say much. He just relied on the skill and bravery of our Navy SEALs.

His doctrine departs from the previous administration's approach by embracing a longer tradition of American foreign policy. Obama insists that the United States can't achieve great objectives on its own, even though it is "always harder to forge true partnerships and sturdy alliances than to act alone," as he put it in Strasbourg, France.

And the Obama Doctrine seeks to regain the world's sympathy by acknowledging that while the United States is a great nation built on worthy principles, we are not perfect.


That Obama would run down his country for his personal benefit is a serious charge. It also ignores what Obama actually said and did.

In his Strasbourg speech, Obama spoke of times "where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive." Is he wrong about that? Has everyone forgotten about "freedom fries" and "cheese-eating surrender monkeys"?

If I have qualms about the Obama Doctrine, they have to do with the relatively short shrift it has so far given to concerns over human rights and democracy. The United States cannot impose democracy everywhere, but we should stand up forcefully for democrats, political prisoners and human rights activists anywhere.

The Obama Doctrine is a form of realism unafraid to deploy American power, but mindful that its use must be tempered by practical limits and a dose of self-awareness. Those are the limits that defenders of the recent past have trouble accepting.

E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.

By E.J. Dionne, Jr.