WASHINGTON — Every few months, commentators find a new grand strategy that animates Barack Obama. First he was the anti-war candidate, because his rise in the Democratic primaries had much to do with his early and consistent opposition to the Iraq War. But even some on the right, including Robert Kagan, pointed out that he was interventionist on other issues, such as Afghanistan. Some criticized his multilateralism, pointing to his offers of engagement to all comers, from Iran to Russia to China. More recently, watching his vigorous outreach to Asian countries threatened by China, the scholar Daniel Drezner concluded that the new grand strategy
So what is the Obama Doctrine?
In fact, the search itself is misguided. The doctrinal approach to foreign policy doesn't make much sense anymore. Every American foreign policy "doctrine" but one was formulated during the Cold War, for a bipolar world, when American policy toward one country — the Soviet Union — dominated all U.S. strategy and was the defining aspect of global affairs. (The Monroe Doctrine is the exception.) In today's multipolar, multilayered world, there is no central hinge upon which all American foreign policy rests. Policymaking looks more varied, and inconsistent, as regions require approaches that don't necessarily apply elsewhere.
Obama does, however, have a worldview, a well-considered approach to international affairs. His views have been straightforward and consistent. From the earliest days of his presidential campaign, he said that he sees the basic argument in American foreign policy as "between ideology and realism" and placed himself squarely on one side. "I have enormous sympathy for the foreign policy of George H.W. Bush," he explained in a May 2008 interview with David Brooks. In a 2008 interview with me on CNN, he reiterated this admiration but also praised Harry Truman, Dean Acheson and George Kennan for their tough-minded internationalism. Then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told The New York Times in April 2010, "If you had to put him in a category, he's probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41."
Commentators have made much of Obama's response to the Arab Spring, especially the May 19 speech in which he outlined a broad policy of American support for democracy in the region. All American presidents have supported and should support the spread of democracy. The real question is: Should that support involve active measures to topple undemocratic regimes, especially military force? On this point, beneath the rhetoric you can see a pragmatism at work again. After being caught unawares by events in Tunisia and Egypt — as was almost everyone, including the leaders of those countries — the Obama administration saw that the protests in Egypt were going to succeed and acquiesced to the inevitable. It took Ronald Reagan two years to turn on Ferdinand Marcos. It took Obama two weeks to urge Hosni Mubarak to resign.
The fashionable criticism is that Obama does not have a consistent policy toward the Arab Spring. But should he? There are vast differences between the circumstances in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Saudi Arabia, and our capacity to influence events in those countries. Take the case where American interests and values most starkly collide, Saudi Arabia. Were the administration to start clamoring for regime change in Riyadh, and were that to encourage large-scale protests (and thus instability) in the kingdom, the price of oil would skyrocket. The United States and much of the developed world would almost certainly drop into a second recession. Meanwhile, the Saudi regime, which has legitimacy, power and lots of cash that it is spending, would likely endure — but it would be enraged at Washington. What exactly would a more "consistent" Middle Eastern policy achieve?
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