The Obama and Bush Doctrine

On March 19, 2011, President Obama ordered the U.S. Air force, in cooperation with Western partners and the Arab League to bomb targets in Libya. According to the President, the intervention was necessary in order to prevent Libyan dictator Muammar Quadaffi from massacring his own people. Quadaffi was attacking his own citizens through his Air force. The President says that the ultimate goal is Quadaffi’s removal.

Foreign policy analysts are trying to understand what they call the “Obama Doctrine.” In a sense, under what conditions will the President militarily intervene? Since the bombing began ten days ago, academics and members of the media have been drawing comparisons to the Bush administration’s intervention in Iraq. What is clear is that President Obama and Former President Bush have different approaches to military intervention.

On the one hand, both Obama and Bush utilized military intervention in situations where the U.S. is not facing an imminent attack. Neither the 2003 Iraq invasion nor the current Libyan intervention were made necessary by an immediate military threat to the United States. Nevertheless, it appears that President Obama will only intervene under certain additional conditions which President Bush did not require. President Bush believed that unilateral action could be used to prevent possible threats in the future. Hence, the idea in Iraq was that Saddam Hussein’s potential weapons of mass destruction could eventually form a more imminent threat. Furthermore, Bush fervently believed in the expansion of democracy and that Iraq would be more stable under a democratic regime.

On the other hand, President Obama is less interested in unilateral action. President Obama appears to be more concerned that the U.S. only preemptively acts with international cooperation and for humanitarian purposes if there is no imminent threat to the U.S. In his speech Obama stated that: “For generations, the United States of America has played a unique role as an anchor of global security and as an advocate for human freedom. Mindful of the risks and costs of military action, we are naturally reluctant to use force to solve the world’s many challenges. But when our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act.” This statement summarizes the President’s reluctance to act, but he admits he will do so when values such as human rights are imminently at stake.


  1. Sean, another spin on President Obama’s strategy may be classified as that of “multilateralism,” as Obama has been quoted saying that in todays world there is no room for unilateralism, and there must be a multilateral consensus before taking action. While it is evident that former President Bush followed a much more unilateral approach, i.e. his highly criticized actions in Iraq, that is not to say that Obama’s multilateralism (in Iran for example), is not heavily scrutinized as well. In order to achieve this concept of multilateralism that Obama so desires before taking action, the international community must come to a consensus. In the case of Iran, this has prohibited Obama from taking firm actions due to a lack of international consensus. What can be made of this? Is it better to follow a policy respecting multilateralism before taking action abroad, or is this simply an example of what many people classify as Obama not stepping up to the plate, and not taking hard action when it is necessary?

  2. Some may argue that Obama is not stepping up to the plate by waiting for an imminent attack that places the country at risk. Others would argue that he is maintaining global peace and humanitarianism. He is reluctant to solve world problems with force, which is admirable, but there is a fine line between keeping the peace and finding ourselves in a weakened position. Has he dabbled on one side of the line or the other? Will we really even know until something happens or has he already prevented an attack on the country? Obama says that the military intervention to remove Quadaffi was necessary, so maybe the “Obama Doctrine” of waiting for an imminent threat is a more humanitarian way to intervene.

  3. I find President Obama’s words interesting as they raise several questions. For instance, how great of an interest has to be at stake before the responsibility to act exists? What values must be at stake? Whose values? Questions of degree and perspective should always be seriously considered before international action is taken as the ramifications impact international tranquility. I am not convinced, however, that the United States’ values will always align with the values and interests of other countries and their citizens. There are instances in which humanitarian values and interests are at stake and there is evidence indicating that humanitarian concerns existed when the United States took military action in Libya. As the situation in Iraq illustrates, humanitarian intervention can lead to an extended state of turmoil for the indigenous population. Disputes over different political and governmental models potentially lead to more violence, and the humanitarian interests that were initially sought to be protected can once again be placed at risk.

  4. As I mentioned in a previous post, when considering the question of whether or not to act one of the important things to consider is time. On one side, if you intervene quickly before more injustices occur, you run the risk of hostility towards the intervention despite the fact that lives may very well have been saved. On the other hand, if you wait, in addition to having time to make plans, you also have the time to let people consider the intervention on their own and gather support for that intervention. In addition, this extra time may to some degree help prevent retaliation as the enemy may realize that time was taken to consider the intervention and to use the least destructive means possible. Hence, there is something to be said by using caution before intervening in such matters and picking one’s battles.
    In addition, there is also the concern over domestic issues as well. Considering the amount of debt that the United States is in, utilizing caution and good judgment before starting a costly intervention is not inconsiderate; it is smart. Granted, human freedoms and civil liberties are extremely important, but if by providing aid the United States stretches itself too thin to be of any real use, then the long term losses could be even worse.

  5. In the post, President Obama is quoted as saying, “For generations, the United States of America has played a unique role as an anchor of global security and as an advocate for human freedom.” While this statement may be true, my question is: Is the world really any safer with Libya in the hands of a revolutionary government than we were when Quadaffi was in power? I think not. If anything we are in more peril now than we were before. We do not yet truly know who these rebels are. Do they have ties to terrorist groups? Will they be receptive to foreign influence? These questions have not been adequately answered, and in my opinion should have been before the U.S. agreed to help the rebels.
    While Libya was named among one of the countries in the “Axis of Evil” that President Bush would speak of, Libya took real steps to conform to U.S. and international standards to lose this title. Does supporting a revolution there send the wrong message to other oppressive regimes that may be contemplating real reforms?
    Whichever President’s doctrine one agrees with, both expounded the need to keep the U.S. safe. I am just not sure if intervening in Libya really furthers this goal.

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