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Are we better off without an 'Obama Doctrine'?

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May 24, 2012: President Obama speaks during a campaign rally in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP)

Question: Why is there no “Obama Doctrine,” some bold assertion of American military power in defense of our national interests? Other presidents, facing extraordinary challenges, have adopted “doctrines” that warned potential aggressors that they could go this far and no further.

For example, the Truman Doctrine in 1947: The US, President Truman stated, would protect Greece and Turkey against possible communist subversion or assault.

The Eisenhower Doctrine in 1957: The US, President Eisenhower proclaimed, would defend its friends in the Middle East who are threatened by Soviet expansionism.

The Carter Doctrine in 1980: The US, President Carter warned, would take military action to protect its oil supply lines through the Persian Gulf, should those supply lines be jeopardized, presumably by aggressive Soviet maneuvers.

These presidents all drew clear lines in the sand to warn potential aggressors that they would pay a heavy price for subverting or threatening America’s national interests. These warnings had clout, because American military power at the time was dominant—and everyone knew it.

Today President Obama faces a different world, which may explain why there is no “Obama Doctrine.” 

The fact is, it would be foolhardy in the extreme for him to come out trumpeting a new doctrine of American military prowess, when he knows, and the world knows, that the last thing on his mind at this time would be to involve the US in yet another war. Not when the Afghan War is still unresolved, not when the Pentagon faces more drastic budget cuts that will directly affect its military capabilities, not when Syria hangs on the edge of a destabilizing civil war, not when Yemen drops more deeply into another anti-terrorism pit, and, finally, not when he is in the midst of a presidential re-election campaign.

“Doctrines” sound impressive, and they have always been good for a headline-grabbing speech, they suggest that the president is a man of history, an all-powerful figure in charge of an all-powerful military, capable of imposing his will, America’s will, anywhere in the world. But if the president ever was such an imposing Goliath, astride the globe, he surely is not that today. 

America has become a smaller, more vulnerable nation, not just because of its severe economic problems, which are likely to remain severe even if a Republican assumes power next January, but also because other nations, such as China, India and Brazil, have risen to challenge its former prominence.

The days of the presidential doctrine have now passed into history. What kind of “Obama Doctrine” would now define American policy toward the tragic mess in Syria, for example? 

Let’s say that, like Eisenhower in 1957, Obama had promised, in solemn doctrinal form, to defend those in the Middle East seeking to overthrow tyranny and embrace democracy. Would he not be obliged at least to arm the insurgents, perhaps to begin a limited bombing campaign and, who knows, maybe even consider sending advance teams of specially trained troops into Syria? Wouldn't he at least have to think seriously about this especially when his Republican opponent is accusing him of running a “weak” and “feckless” foreign policy, even though, deep down, he believes the militarization of the Syrian upheaval would only make matters worse?

An Obama without a doctrine is better for the nation now than an Obama with a doctrine, impressive though a doctrine may appear in headlines. Without a doctrine Obama can be smarter and more flexible, more able to adjust American policy to meet the military, political and diplomatic contours of today’s Syria or other potential global spots. 

Of course, it does not make the tortured problem of Syria any easier to solve. It does not provide the flash of insight that can persuade Russian President Putin to force his strongman client, Basher al-Assad, to resign and then open the doors to a possible reconciliation of opposing forces in Syria.

But here's the truth: in today’s world we need less bravado in a president’s rhetoric and a lot more patience and, hopefully, wisdom.

Marvin Kalb is a Fox News contributor and Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice (Emeritus) at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Marvin Kalb is a Fox News contributor and Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice (Emeritus) at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.