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Obama steers clear of doctrine for Arab region

U.S. administration’s policy faces difficulty in framing consistent message


WASHINGTON (AFP) ― As a wildfire of revolt whips through the Middle East and North Africa, the White House is embracing pragmatism and shying away from embroidering a grand “Obama doctrine” for a region in turmoil.

For a politician as fond of the grand gesture as President Barack Obama, the idea of an eponymous school of foreign policy thought might seem tempting.

After all, presidents have long etched their names in history with monumental doctrines, or clear prescriptions of principles rationalizing America’s posture to a treacherous world.

President James Monroe’s 1823 doctrine, for instance, warned Europe’s meddling colonial powers out of the new American backyard in the Western hemisphere.

Harry Truman’s doctrine meanwhile committed the United States to a generational battle with Communism.

But analysts and officials say that while Obama has laid out general principles to deal with the “Arab spring,” he is eschewing a rigid U.S. philosophy for a region in tumult.

His actions towards each turmoil-wracked nation are different and do not adhere to a laid-down system of rules.

“The closest we have to a policy is to allow the different revolutions to take place at their own pace, based on the timing of the people involved and intervening only through general statements of support,” said Julian Zelizer of Princeton University.

“Other than that I don’t think there is any consistent principle.”

Asked for his Middle East “doctrine,” Obama replied on Thursday: “number one, no violence against citizens; number two, that we stand for freedom and democracy.”

While not ruling out military action, he argued the United States must not become a player in the Libyan ― or any other ― revolt, to avoid a backlash in a region that reviles the U.S. invasion of Iraq and is stained by colonialism.

“One of the extraordinary successes of Egypt was the full ownership that the Egyptian people felt for that transformation,” Obama said.

“We did not see anti-American sentiment arising out of that movement in Egypt precisely because they felt that we hadn’t tried to engineer or impose a particular outcome.”

The administration has often seemed to be making policy on the hoof during the Arab revolts, a factor reflected in its difficulty in framing a consistent message.

While Obama called for Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi to go, and eventually sought to push Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak out, U.S. pressure has been more subtle on allies like Bahrain and Yemen, stopping short of regime change.
Indian workers rush to get aboard a ship leaving for Alexandria, Egypt, at the port in the eastern city of Benghazi, Libya. (AP-Yonhap News)
Indian workers rush to get aboard a ship leaving for Alexandria, Egypt, at the port in the eastern city of Benghazi, Libya. (AP-Yonhap News)

At the same time, however, the White House has openly taunted its foe Iran over demonstrations.

Obama aides argue that a “one size fits all” doctrine is inappropriate.

“Each country is different. Each situation that we have encountered in the region in the past number of weeks has been different,” Obama spokesman Jay Carney said.

Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Obama’s approach was rooted more in pragmatism than political dogma.

“You have a doctrine when you have an enduring policy that you’re constantly applying or you state,” Cordesman said, adding that Obama had not acted in such a way.

Obama’s insistence that America can not engineer outcomes has exposed him to domestic political attacks.

Critics charge he was too slow to support uprisings in Iran following President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection in 2009.

As Egypt erupted, Obama was accused of being “on the wrong side of history” as the masses demanded Mubarak’s ouster.

Now, with an apparent terror raging in Tripoli, Obama is again under pressure ― as calls mount for a U.S.-policed no-fly zone.

And while operating without a doctrine and keeping America out of internal politics may turn out to be a good long-term bet, it gives an opening to critics who say Obama lacks coherence and foreign policy leadership skills.

The closest Obama has come to a “doctrine” for the Middle East came in his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in 2009 which appears to explain his actions toward the Arab revolts.

“Let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other,” Obama said, breaking with George W. Bush-era regime change policies.

“That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people.”

While doctrines offer a place in history for presidents, they sometimes take them down dangerous paths.

“It can push you into wars where you should not be because you want to follow the logic of the doctrine,” said Zelizer.

“Vietnam is a great example of where presidents from (Dwight) Eisenhower to (Lyndon) Johnson were following the logic of the ideas set out by Truman but in a war that really wasn’t that necessary and many realized they shouldn’t be in.”

And the Iraq war emerged from Bush’s doctrine of “pre-emptive” action to take on perceived threats following the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.
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