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President Obama, delivering his speech about Libya Monday night. credit: Larry Downing/Reuters

After two years of searching for something resembling a grand global strategy, some pundits tentatively decided they had heard the outlines of an "Obama Doctrine" on Monday night. In a speech to the nation that lasted less than 30 minutes, the president delivered a cogent argument in favor of humanitarian intervention in Libya and sketched out a policy supporting the political ouster of its bloody dictator, Muammar el-Qaddafi.

But the idea that the actions in Libya amount to any kind of a new strategic overlay for the Obama administration is wishful hearing. The real Obama doctrine is to have no doctrine at all. And that's the way it's likely to remain.

American history is replete with leaders and senior policymakers who have sought to be identified with a grand strategic policy--such as the Monroe Doctrine, the Truman Doctrine, and the Bush Doctrine--and others who have tried hard and failed. Tony Lake, Bill Clinton's first national security adviser, sought to define post-Cold War doctrine by calling for the "enlargement of democracy," which was promptly forgotten. Madeleine Albright, Clinton's second-term secretary of State, later hinted at something called "assertive multilateralism" as a doctrine. She was laughed at and it too disappeared.

This president seems determined to do the exact opposite abroad. In contrast to James Monroe, Harry Truman, and George W. Bush, Obama wants to be the no-doctrine president. Especially when it comes to the Mideast. Since the protests began in Tunisia three months ago, it has been nearly impossible to discern a coherent strategy of any kind from the White House. At first the Obama team seemed to support Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Then they deserted the Egyptian autocrat and began talking of the imperative of democratic change. Yet when protests in Bahrain, home to the 5th Fleet, grew serious and the Saudis marched in, the administration turned mealy-mouthed again, merely imploring against violence. On Libya, the Obama team followed the lead of Britain and France and deferred to a U.N. Security Council resolution that steers clear of regime change, though Obama has said Qaddafi must go.

In his speech, Obama directly addressed his legions of second-guessers in Washington--both those who decried any intervention at all in Libya and those who called for a more aggressive policy of regime change. He said they put forward a "false choice." But in the end Obama's own principles for intervention eluded definition. "Our task is to mobilize the international community for collective action," Obama declared, citing the unilateral Iraq invasion as an example of what not to do. ("That is not something we can afford to repeat," he said.) But at another point the president said he would not hesitate to use American force "unilaterally" if needed. We just don't know when it will be needed.

The unifying principle of his speech? "We can make a difference," he said.

If that's a doctrine, give me "assertive multilateralism" any day.

And so Obama seems to have the opposite problem from, say, George W. Bush. Obama's predecessor was always being accused of hypocrisy by critics--for example when he traveled to the Arab world in January of 2008 and delivered a big democracy speech in Abu Dhabi, but failed to meet with a single dissident or political activist. Obama's biggest problem is not that he is seen as a hypocrite or that he has lost credibility. It's that he hasn't taken enough of a clear stand on any foreign issue to stake his credibility in the first place.

Partly this seems a matter of personal predilection. We're talking about "No-Drama Obama," after all. This is a president who, despite his soaring rhetoric during the 2008 campaign and his reputation as a crusading liberal since then, has been consumed with caution during his two years in office, especially in foreign policy. On nearly every front, Obama has sought to take a strategic scalpel to the United States' presence abroad. That was even arguably true in Afghanistan, where he expanded the troop presence but only after an agonizing four-month debate over it, and only by forcing his hawks to accept an early withdrawal date.

Partly the Obama approach is a matter of an excruciatingly complex foreign-policy problem that doesn't lend itself to a clear doctrine. Libya is mainly a humanitarian problem, as Obama said on Monday, and no one wants to deal with the daffy Qaddafi much longer. But when it comes to other Arab countries roiled by protest, such as Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen, the regimes have been friendly and usually cooperative. So two contradictory American interests are in play. Sure, Americans favor democratization--the United States will always be the "well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all," as John Quincy Adams once said--but there are also powerful arguments in favor of a preservation of the status quo, which has helped in counter-terrorism, creating a united front against Iran's nuclear program, preserving Israel's security, and maintaining the flow of oil critical to America's economic health.

I mean, do we really want to listen to the neocons, who are out there keening for democracy promotion as if they hadn't just trashed that idea over the previous decade by launching the disaster in Iraq?

But more than anything else, Obama's no-doctrine approach is a measure of these budget-straitened times. The real question is, can the United States afford a grand, strategic doctrine any longer, for the Middle East or any place else? Or is Obama simply forced to speak, as he seemed to on Monday, in the fainter voice of an economically fading superpower?

Grand doctrines go with the notion of American exceptionalism, but they are also invariably expensive. The Monroe Doctrine, which warned Europe to stay out of the Western Hemisphere, led to wars in Latin America. The Truman Doctrine, which sought to identify U.S. interests with movements aligned against the Soviet Union, and its successor, containment, arguably cost a lot more in American military commitments during the Cold War than some prominent critics believed was necessary (Walter Lippman called the policy a "strategic monstrosity"). It may have even drawn us into Vietnam.

And the Bush Doctrine, a squishy and evolving concept that was last defined in the 43rd president's second inaugural address, when he declared: "It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture," also led to serious overextension. It was no surprise that Bush spent much of his second term retreating from aggressive democracy promotion as his experiment in Iraq foundered in blood, and America under his leadership foundered in debt.

Judging from Obama's approach so far, he won't have to retreat from much. But will much that he does be remembered?

Drop-down thumbnail credit: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

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