Is There an Obama Doctrine on Foreign Policy?

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US President Barack Obama speaks about US and NATO involvement in military action against Libya during a speech at the National Defense University in Washington, DC, March 28, 2011.

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show, David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times, discussed the latest from Washington, including how the Obama administration is reacting to news from Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan.

The un-Iraq

Minimal U.S. involvement led to the toppling of Moammer Gadhafi's regime. The U.S. presence in Iraq will be minimalized by year's end. And the president recently dispatched a miniature force—100 troops—to central Africa in order to make inroads against the thuggish Lord's Resistance Army.

Between these and other foreign policy developments since 2008, David Sanger has inferred the "Obama Doctrine". It was on display in Libya, where the intention was always to limit our military investment and allow those with the greatest stake to steer: The U.S. committed air power and high technology, but didn't put boots on the ground.

Libya was the test case for the un-Iraq. This was an effort to make the commitment at the beginning that there would be no American ground troops...This was an effort to contribute unique American talents and then say to NATO, look, this is in Europe's central interest, but it's not of strategic vital interest to US. That's one of the reasons the president decided to sort of hang back.

Getting out by never getting in

Neither Libya, nor Iraq, nor central Africa are of "vital strategic interest" to the United States. In these cases, Sanger's Obama Doctrine dictates a certain minimalism. In Iraq, the only forces that are supposed to remain beyond 2011 are embassy security, trainers, and logistical personnel. In central Africa, troops aren't being dispatched to confront the Lord's Resistance Army as much as they're being sent to train local opposition forces. Ostensibly, anyone who's there is there to support, not confront.

Obama is finally untangling the U.S. from Iraq, and treading lightly in Africa lest a similar quagmire emerges. Sanger said this was the lesson of Iraq: Once you're in, you're in. The Libya example shows we might have learned that lesson.

Once you are in, even with a modest number of ground troops, you then own some of the outcome. If ground troops aren't there, the Libyans don't feel occupied the way Iraqis did; and there's no one turning around saying, what are you going to do to rebuild the country?

The president is trying to show that the U.S., even though wrapped up in many problems at home, is still willing to intervene in key ways that it can without committing lots of ground forces.

Untested applications

What happens when an oppressive regime rears its head in an area that is of vital strategic interest to the United States? Does small, targeted involvement go out the window?

Sanger said that the Obama administration is still figuring that out in some cases. Often, the president's been held back from engaging more vital areas because he can't figure out an effective way in.

Syria is perhaps the most important example. That's a place where as much if not more state sanctioned killing is going on than there was in Libya, and there's far more at stake for the United States.

That's where two elements of the president's philosophy begin to tug at each other...On the one hand, he basically talks about an emerging doctrine of responsibility to protect people from their own governments. But the other thing you've seen him attempt to do is keep those American military interventions to those places where there is a vital American strategic interest.