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An Obama Doctrine?

Or: Why the president's speech reminded me of Donald Rumsfeld.

When it came to foreign policy and national security, George W. Bush was a "big idea" president. Whether one agreed or disagreed with them, overarching concepts and a defined perspective on history drove his decisions. So far, Barack Obama has not been a big idea president, at least in foreign and national security policy. His instincts have been more those of a lawyer, charting a careful course through specific challenges and gravitating to a middle path which minimized risk. It has been serial problem-solving rather than big ideas.

This shaped President Obama's initial approach to the Arab Spring as it began in Tunisia, swept away Hosni Mubarak, and spread to Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and Jordan. But the cautious avoidance of grand theory may have ended in the bloody sand of Libya. His Monday speech on the Libyan conflict introduced two big ideas about the nature of world affairs that, if developed further, could eventually develop into something known as the Obama Doctrine.

Granted, much of the speech remained more that of a lawyer than a strategist or an engineer of history. The address began with a careful recounting of the beginning and evolution of the Libyan conflict, Qaddafi's crimes, and the American response. It offered an equally careful explanation of why President Obama rejected both calls for the United States to avoid engagement and to undertake armed regime change on its own, instead choosing a middle path. But the meat came toward the end of the speech—the lawyer's closing argument. There, the two major themes emerged, one explicit, one implicit.

The explicit theme was the belief that the net effect of the Arab Spring is positive—that the operations of history are taking the Middle East toward better governance, greater respect for human rights, and, presumably, increased security and stability. This belief in organic progress for the region contrasts with the worldview of the Bush administration, as expressed most powerfully by Vice President Cheney, which assumed that absent American initiative, trends in the global security environment were not only negative, but dire. Without vigorous U.S. action, violent extremism would grow in power and the United States would face mounting danger. While Americans might not want to engineer history, they were compelled to.

President Obama's worldview is decidedly more upbeat. This has profound implications for American policy. It means that the United States does not need to re-engineer the world, but only to prod, channel, and support transformation that is already underway. The people of the Arab world will themselves lead the way rather than being led. Ironically, this optimism resonates more of Reagan than of Bush.

The international community, according to President Obama, shares this perspective and thus will lead efforts to consolidate democracy in the Arab world. In another strange twist, this mirrors Donald Rumsfeld's belief that too much American involvement in resolving crises and fixing problems limits the incentive of other states to do so. Drawing lessons from the Balkan conflict of the 1990s, Rumsfeld believed that if the United States minimized its role in the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq, other nations would step up. Only when they did not was the United States forced to shoulder the burden. Whether because the international community learned from Iraq or because the Arab Spring was born within the Arab world rather than being imposed on it by the United States, Obama expects this to be a collective endeavor.

The flipside of this view is the second, implicit theme in Obama's speech, which is that if the United States embraces the Arab Spring too tightly and attempts to dominate it, the results would be negative, perhaps even disastrous. Better to tolerate some things that the United States might not prefer than to attempt top control the revolution.

These two themes do not constitute a fully-formed theory of foreign policy. Many crucial questions remain. Obama has not, for instance, defined America's red lines. What sort of developments that the United States does not like will it tolerate and which are intolerable? Eventually questions like this must be answered. But every foreign policy doctrine in American history, from the Monroe to the Bush, began limited and specific. Monroe was responding to Russian expansion in the Pacific Northwest, not framing a doctrine. Initially Bush was only addressing the September 11 attacks. The big ideas and the doctrines came later. Only time will tell whether an Obama Doctrine will emerge following this pattern.

We must remember, though, that not all big ideas are good ones. Obama’s foreign policy worldview, like all others, is no stronger than its assumptions: that the Arab Spring will prove positive for both the Arab world and the United States, and that the international community will play a major role in nurturing it. If these assumptions hold, then Obama’s scaled-back approach to American leadership will enable the world to become a better and safer place. If not, dark days lay ahead.

Steven Metz is the author of Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.