Let's define our foreign policy terms, shall we?

After last night's speech on Libya, there's been an orgy of online discourse about whether there is now an Obama Doctrine or not.  All of which is making me feel very, very guilty. 

See, back in early 2009, I wrote one of the earlier posts about whether there was an Obama Doctrine or not.  Glenn Thrush quoted that post in Politico last week, which led to a lot of media inquiries on the matter.   Regardless of what I say on the subject, the topic du jour appears to be whether there is now an Obama Doctrine and how it holds up as a grand strategy.

I don't have the time today to write up my substantive thoughts on the matter, but I do think it would be useful to at least define the terms properly. 

First, on the Obama Doctrine -- unfortunately, foreign policy discourse being what it is, that "XXX Doctrine" has devolved into a meaningless catchphrase coined by news outlets the first time that an administration initiates military or quasi-military force.*  Whenever that happens, the news networks go into paroxysms of speculation about whether such action signals a new doctrine.  Based on Obama's speech last night, it seems pretty clear that the answer to that question on Libya is a clear "no," so I don't think we need to go there. 

Second, even if Libya did lead to an Obama Doctrine, that doesn't equate to a grand strategy.  The Reagan Doctrine, for example, had actual policy content -- it meant the arming and aiding of anti-communist guerillas in peripheral communist countries like Nicaragua or Afghanistan.  Not even the fiercest Reagan acolyte would agree that the Reagan Doctrine was America's grand strategy during the 1980's.  It was rather a policy that was part of the larger strategy of containing Soviet communism. 

Obama did not clearly articulate a grand strategy last night (and just as well, since his delivery was pretty weak).  He has tried to do so in his previous speeches and strategy documents, with variable results.  Far more important that what is said at the beginning of an administration is how Big Decisions are articulated ex post.

In that sense, Dan Nexon is right to say that Obama shouldn't have articulated a grand strategy out of what was clearly an exceptional decision due to exceptional circumstances.  That said, if I were Obama's foreign policy team, I'd start thinking very hard about a speech without the phrase "false choice" in it that clearly prioritizes American interests and values.  Because unless the president defines his grand strategy, pundits will be more than happy to define it -- badly -- for him. 

*Clear exceptions include those doctrines clearly articulated or embraced by Monroe, Teddy Roosevelt, Truman, Nixon, and Reagan.

Daniel W. Drezner

What Obama's foreign policy speechwriter would REALLY like him to say tonight

President Obama is scheduled to address the country this evening on Libya, and the odds are pretty good that Ben Rhodes will be writing the bulk of the speech.  I'm sure the speech will be interesting, full of false choices for the Obama administration to surmount and the like. 

Still, what I'd love to see is Rhodes' first draft -- you know, the one where he just spits out exactly what he thinks Obama is thinking on Libya, warts and all. 

Well, fortunately, due to your humble blogger's vast and imaginary network of sources inside the Beltway, I have secured a copy of that first draft of the speech, reprinted below for your edification:


By Benjamin Rhodes

I'm addressing you, my fellow Americans, because my administration's message on our war limited humanitarian intervention kinetic military action in Libya has truly and totally sucked.  Seriously, I'm gobsmacked at how f***ing incoherent we've been in communicating our rationale to the foreign policy community and the American public.  The bickering within my administration and within the international coalition has not helped -- sweet Jesus, multilateralism can be a royal pain in the butt sometimes.  No wonder public support has been relatively anemic (although there's also the fact that I'm launching another war when all Americans care about right now is the domestic economy). 

How bad is it?  I'm getting hit by the neocons for moving without Congressional permission less than a week after I was getting hit by them for not moving quickly enough!!  Thank God for Newt Gingrich, or I'd look really bad.  Now I'm getting flak from the left on not being consistent with R2P when, in fact, anyone who knows anything about R2P knows that I'm doing the best I can.  Seriously, I'm supposed to intervene militarily in Bahrain and Syria too?  Sure, right after I send the 82nd Airborne to liberate Tibet.  At least I can ignore the criticism from those who went on junkets to Tripoli last year.  Hypocrisy sure is a bitch, huh? 

What kills me, what absolutely kills me, is that in just ten days, without any boots on the ground, we've accomplished one whole hell of a lot.  First off, if we hadn't intervened, the rebels would have been routed in Benghazi, and Khaddafy would be in control of the entire country again.  OK, so maybe the "100,000 dead" figure was a bit exaggerated, but surely the fall of Benghazi would have created hundreds of thousands of Libya refugees flowing into Egypt, which is exactly what that country doesn't need right now.   Anyone who doesn't realize that the situation in Libya and the situation in Egypt are connected is a f***ing moron (which, since we forgot to mention this fact for an awfully long time, apparently includes my messaging shop). 

Now, the situation on the ground looks pretty much like how things looked during the high tide of the Libyan rebellion.  So long as our air support continues, that's now the worst-case scenario -- and you know what, that's actually pretty tolerable.  It would mean that the rebels would control about 70% of Libya's oil reserves and that the regions of the country most hostile to Khaddafy would be free of his grip.  Over time, sanctions will start to hit Khaddafy's resources, the Libya Transitional Council can get its act together, and we can burden-share with NATO a hell of a lot more.  The Libyans don't want our boots on the ground any more than we want to have them there -- so further escalation is not in the cards. 

All the while -- and remember, this is the worst-case scenario -- the United States will have accomplished two direct deliverables and quite a few positive policy externalities.  Directly, we averted a humanitarian disaster and created a buffer in eastern Libya that eases any economic or humanitarian pressure on Egypt (which is where our strategic interest lies). 

In many ways, the policy externalities are even bigger.  The biggest bonus is that, for once, our hard power is actually augmenting our soft power.  Those images on Al Jazeera of Libyans saying thank you to the United States -- that's pure soft power gold.  When you compare how the U.S. government has handled the Arab Revolutions  to Al Qaeda or Iran, the contrast is pretty stark.  What's happened in Libya has helped to obscure our more realpolitik response in, say Bahrain.  Oh, and we managed to find a purpose for NATO.

Is this messy?  Duh, of course!  Could this intervention distract us from The Big Picture?  Maybe for the past week and this week, sure, but it's not like Iran or China is really exploiting what's going on in the Middle East -- they're too busy trying to pretend it's not happening domestically.  As for North Korea learning that it's a mistake to give up their nukes, I'm pretty sure they'd learned that lesson way back in 2003, thank you very much. 

Look, I'd have loved for the messaging to be clearer, and in retrospect it would have been good if we'd had asked Congress for authorization, but this is what happens when you make foreign policy on the fly in a region wracked by revolution.  It's not perfect, but if you think about the counterfactuals real hard, I'm fully confident that the benefits massively outweigh the costs of this intervention.  So there.