There is no surefire recipe for the making of a presidential doctrine.
Having seen a few of them prepared, garnished with good intentions and then dished to us by presidents, I know it’s never really clear just when a doctrine actually becomes, well, indoctrinated.
But I know presidential pronouncements become doctrines well before the historians get around to candling them like egg inspectors in a henhouse. I’ve seen it done by presidents themselves and even by those of us who cover them.
The main point here is that I think President Barack Obama just served up a doctrine in his Monday speech at the National Defense University. Indeed, I think Obama was well-aware that — even while aides were saying this was not something that we should call a doctrine because it doesn’t apply to all conflicts all the time. (They never do.)
Obama seemed ill at ease at first. He began by pausing after every third or fourth word even when there was no natural phrase break there — like George W. Bush did on his best days, but unlike Obama on any day. Speaking in front of a somber and silent military audience, which was there only as political wallpaper, Obama knew his larger audience of concerned Americans had heard Democrats and Republicans complaining he’d owed us an explanation nine days earlier, when the U.S. airstrikes on Libya began.
But Obama regained his oratorical form when he got to the stuff cable TV pundits would label the “Obama Doctrine.” He began by detailing how Moammar Gadhafi had made clear his intention of massacring Libyans who wanted his iron rule to end. Obama then defined America’s “unique role as an anchor of global security and as an advocate for human freedom,” adding: “But when our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act.”
By the time he’d recounted his efforts to lead the United Nations Security Council toward its resolution to prevent a bloodbath in Libya, it seemed as though America’s national interests and values were no longer two separate things but entwined as one. Obama recounted Gadhafi’s intention to slaughter Libyans. He said: “It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen.”
The Obama Doctrine, it seems, is that America will consider it as a national interest when humanitarian values are being brutally ignored. It is a feel-good doctrine when it is being enforced. But it will never feel good when the doctrine is being overlooked — while people are being slaughtered, as happened in Rwanda and Sudan, and may yet happen elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa.
Meanwhile, Obama also made clear the initial U.S. military role was done, and allies from Europe and elsewhere can take over enforcing the no-fly zone in Libya. Now it was clear why he had waited — to be able to declare his version of a mission accomplished.
As if anticipating comparisons with President George W. Bush’s doctrine on unilateral action to combat terrorism, Obama bluntly noted that his was not a mission about enforcing regime change in the way America did in Iraq.
All but forgotten in his speech was the fact that Obama reportedly didn’t settle upon his own intention until the Arab League asked the world to intervene. Obama mentioned the Arab League just once — linked to the anti-Gadhafi rebels: “The Libyan opposition and the Arab League appealed to the world to save lives in Libya.”
Yet, the Arab League’s call for action gave cover to the U.N. Security Council and Obama to act. Indeed, it brought to mind another presidential doctrine from another era: When Richard Nixon stopped in Guam on his way to Vietnam in 1969 and in an informal press conference, surprised his national security adviser Henry Kissinger by laying out a rambling policy that meant “no more Vietnams.” We journalists labeled it the “Guam Doctrine.”
Nixon, who hadn’t intended to lay out any doctrine at all, soon began calling it the “Nixon Doctrine.”
Obama may not want this doctrine bearing his name if — by the time historians start candling it — Gadhafi is still maniacally running Libya.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.