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'Obama Doctrine' Edges Toward High Concept

After two big recent speeches, the president is teasing toward elucidating his administration's foreign policy parameters.

In President Obama's two major speeches of late — first at West Point to announce the escalation in Afghanistan, then in Oslo to accept the Nobel peace prize — the media have begun to sniff out what looks almost like a cohesive worldview, a vision about America's place in the world, a — cue headlines — Obama Doctrine.

Although, as David Sanger wrote in The New York Times, the fledgling philosophy is vexingly short on that key kernel that could be condensed onto a bumper sticker. (Honk if you love "containment," or "pre-emption" or "anticipatory self defense!")

Obama's mixed signals complicate the search: He is ramping up involvement in Afghanistan but cutting down on American aims there. He was given a peace prize for promoting multilateralism but showed up in Oslo to say the U.S. has the right to fight "just wars" on our own.

And most curiously, he has been lauded as the anti-Bush, even though some of his strategy (even his language in announcing the new Afghan surge) mimics his predecessor's.

And so Sarah Palin will be forgiven if she can't define this doctrine, either. Still, plucking at the common threads is a worthy exercise for pundits, journalists and just about anyone who'd like to think the president moves American interests and soldiers about the world with something more than an ad hoc game plan.

One theme is apparent — the president who ran on hope is first and foremost a realist, which sometimes also means a downer.

"We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth," he said in Oslo. "We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes."

That truth, combined with the increasingly apparent financial and military limits of American power, underscores Obama's attempt at scaling back U.S. ambition abroad.

"You can start to understand Obama foreign policy if you understand that he takes office at a time when American foreign policy is more insolvent than it's been certainly since the 1970s," said Peter Beinart, a fellow at the New America Foundation who spoke there this week on a panel addressing "The Obama Doctrine?" (emphasis on the question mark).

Walter Lippmann in 1943 reasoned that foreign policy, like bank accounts, must be solvent. America must have more power in store than commitments abroad, for the reverse situation is unsustainable. Obama has improved American popularity, Beinart said, but that's not the same as power, which the president has little ability to increase. The alternate strategy is to downsize U.S. commitments, as Obama has done in rewriting the terms for victory in Afghanistan.

"What was so striking about Bush's foreign policy was how broadly he defined the war on terror," Beinart said. "It was not just a struggle against al-Qaeda. It was a struggle against al-Qaeda, and Iraq, and Iran, and Syria, and the Taliban, and Hezbollah and Hamas. It was really basically a struggle of the United States against all anti-American movements and regimes in the greater Middle East."

Obama has simultaneously broadened the circle of countries that should be invited to shoulder global economic decisions. The announcement this fall that the G-7 will largely be replaced now by the G-20 was a nod to China, just as Obama's decision to halt a planned missile defense shield in Poland was an investment in future cooperation with Russia. This idea of investments, said Washington Post diplomatic correspondent Glenn Kessler on the panel, is emerging as another Obama hallmark.

"It's interesting," Kessler said, "because the Bush administration in particular, when they made gestures like that, they always wanted to have a return right away. They wanted to know what the exchange was going to be: 'If we do this for you, what are you going to do for us?' And President Obama seems quite willing to just make a gesture and see if it will pay off over time."

The risk, of course, is that it may not. That's one of the particular perils of a world of American limits and any "doctrine" Obama may use to navigate it.

"What Obama is dealing with now is in some ways the most difficult kind of presidency you can have: a presidency where you have to essentially try to communicate to the American people that, actually, America can't do everything that we would like to do," Beinart said. "We have a political culture in which you're supposed to say officially the path of least resistance: 'We're the United States, we're optimistic, if we put our shoulder to the wheel, we should be able to fundamentally transform the world.'"

Perhaps over the next three years, an Obama Doctrine will come to sum up less how he faces the rest of the world and more how he articulates that posture to Americans back home.

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