Ever since President Obama's speech last week explaining his Libya policy, there has been much talk among pundits about a supposed "Obama Doctrine." The president, however, has steadfastly resisted such a characterization. There is no Obama Doctrine, he says. While I have many doubts about the wisdom of Obama's actions in Libya, he undoubtedly is right to resist attempts to straightjacket him with a doctrine.
Ever since Secretary of State John Quincy Adams in 1823 developed what became known as the Monroe Doctrine, Americans have become accustomed to foreign policy doctrines. In the years since World War II, we've seen a veritable explosion of such doctrines—the Truman Doctrine, the Eisenhower Doctrine, the Carter Doctrine, the Reagan Doctrine—and those are just the ones that caught on.
In each case, a specific foreign policy situation gave rise to general statement of policy meant to guide American diplomacy in other cases as well. Today, numerous voices are trying to do the same thing. But the problem with doctrines is that they tend to encourage doctrinaire behavior.
The Monroe Doctrine, for example, was prompted by American concern that the states of Latin America, which had recently become independent of Spain, might fall once again under control of European powers. The first of the American doctrines was meant to deter any such attempt by expressing American opposition:
“the American continents … are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.”
While it was Britain's opposition (and the ability of its navy to make good on that policy) that was the more effective deterrent, the statement also proclaimed an American sphere of influence in the western hemisphere. Eighty years later, Teddy Roosevelt transformed that doctrine into a justification for American intervention in the same states the original doctrine was designed to protect from European intervention.
More recently, the Truman Doctrine had similar unintended consequences. His speech to Congress in March 1947 was prompted by specific circumstances—the need to bolster Greece and Turkey in the face of pressure from communist forces. But the administration took the opportunity to proclaim what became known as containment:
“I am fully aware of the broad implications involved if the United States extends assistance to Greece and Turkey … I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”
The universalism of that statement went well beyond the immediate needs of the moment, and was meant to send a general message that the U.S. would resist further communist expansion in Europe.
But it did not specify Europe. It did not distinguish between vital and peripheral interests. Years later, as communists made gains in Vietnam, the existence of this "doctrine" helped to constrain the actions of future administrations. The father of containment, State Department official George F. Kennan, never intended the policy to apply to a far-off state in southeast Asia. Twenty years after Truman's speech, 500,000 American soldiers were in Vietnam.
These are the kinds of unintended consequences that doctrines can produce, and that's exactly what Obama was trying to avoid by so carefully resisting any implication that his actions in Libya are some kind of precedent for future policy.
One of the voices calling for a doctrine is former Democratic senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart: "now would be a good time President Obama to announce an 'Obama Doctrine' similar to the Truman Doctrine … We cannot simply respond in ad hoc fashion to these local and regional crises." Ironically, Hart cut his political teeth as a campaign official in George McGovern's anti-Vietnam war presidential campaign in 1972, and is now calling for a new doctrine that could well create pressure for another Vietnam.
Obama has learned this particular historical lesson better than that. He may well yet be proven wrong in Libya, but he has been right to resist a doctrinaire foreign policy that might wrongly restrict his future options and those of his successors.