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When Interests Diverge

Author: Stephen D. Biddle, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Defense Policy
March 29, 2011
New York Times


President Obama is a pragmatist who has mostly resisted sweeping doctrinal reconceptualizations in foreign policy. But his response to the Libya crisis has caused many to see a new “Obama Doctrine” emerging with three main elements: humanitarian interests may justify U.S. military action; such military action should be strictly limited, with no commitment of ground forces; and military action must be multilateral, with others sharing the burden and taking the lead when possible.

The president's speech reinforced this impression — especially in his determination to keep American commitments modest and commensurate to what he sees as real, but limited, stakes in Libya. This instinct is natural: shouldn't limited interests be pursued via limited means?

Mr. Obama sees serious humanitarian needs in Libya, and real, if peripheral, U.S. security interests in upholding alliance relationships and avoiding destabilizing refugee flows into Egypt and Tunisia. For these stakes, inactivity seems too little, but invasion would be too much. Some kind of constrained, moderate action thus seems like the right response.

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