You're the president of a world superpower. Unrest has erupted across an unstable region where you've enjoyed alliances and enmities, with diplomacy strained by the dread of Iranian nukes, stated ambitions of destroying Israel, and potentially psychopathic autocrats who are sometimes bent on destroying you.
What do you do?
President Obama has walked the line steadfastly since Middle East unrest first unfolded, balancing contradictory impulses: to support pro-democracy uprisings against autocracy, and to avoid meddling in the affairs of other countries and their citizens (and risking even more negative impressions in the Muslim world) when doing so has previously yielded long-term disaster.
At a press conference today with Mexican President Felipe Calderon, Obama was asked to elaborate his broader "doctrine" of engagement with Middle East unrest. Here was his answer, woven into an explanation of his approach to Libya and Col. Muammar Qaddafi:
Number one, no violence against citizens. Number two, that we stand for freedom and democracy.
And in the situation in Libya, what you've seen is, number one, violence against citizens, and the act of urging of violence against unarmed citizens by Qaddafi, and, number two, you have seen with great clarity that he has lost legitimacy with his people. And so let me just be very unambiguous about this: Col. Qaddafi needs to step down from power and leave. That is good for his country, it is good for his people, it is the right thing to do. Those around him have to understand that violence that they perpetrate against innocent civilians will be monitored and they will be held accountable for hit, and so to the extent that they are making calculations in their own minds about which way history is moving, they should know history is moving against Col. Qaddafi ...
...a stalemate that could be bloody, that is obviously something we are considering. What I want to make sure of is that the U.S. has full capacity to act rapidly if the situation deteriorates in such a way that you had a humanitarian crisis on our hands, or a situation in which defenseless civilians were finding themselves trapped and in great danger.
I think it's very important for us to do this in consultation with the international community. One of the extremely successful elements of Egypt is the ... ownership that the Egyptian people felt for that transformation. That served the Egyptian people well, and it served American interests well. We did not see anti-American sentiment arising out of that situation in Egypt because they did not feel we had tried to impose any particular outcome ... the world will be watching to make sure we are on the right side of history, but also to make certain we are doing so as a member of the world community, and ... willing to act on these values by doing so in a way that takes all these various equities into account ...
We are looking at every action that's out there. In addition to the non-military actions we're taking, i want to make sure that the full range of options are available to me.
To translate (or reduce), Obama's doctrine seems to be: 1) oppose violence against citizens; 2) support democracy in public statements; 3) be ready to confront humanitarian crises; 4) where an enemy like Qaddafi has fired on citizens, entertain the possibility of military action if defenseless citizens are being brutalized; and 5) take any such action in concord with the international community, i.e. a supranational entity like NATO or the UN.
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