By Geoffrey Garrett
Obama spelt it out: the US can't afford to go it alone any longer.
WITH yesterday's prime-time address on Libya by Barack Obama, the President's doctrine is clear. The US can no longer afford to go it alone with military interventions in far flung places where American national interests are not clear. American leadership means building international coalitions behind collective global interests, not acting as the world's policeman.
Obama talked down America's role in Libya in unprecedented ways. In handing over the mission to NATO, he said, ''the United States will play a supporting role''. Obama did not talk of more US military strikes, saying as a result ''the risk and cost of this operation - to our military and to American taxpayers - will be reduced significantly''.
Obama was also upfront about the cost if not the folly of regime change, and why it cannot and will not be the US objective in Libya. ''We went down that road in Iraq,'' the President said, noting grimly that ''regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat.''
The contrast could not be more stark with the post-9/11 in-your-face unilateralism of the Bush years, with its jaw jutting and triumphant ''mission accomplished'' regarding the Iraq war.
But Obama's approach to Libya is also a long way from Bill Clinton's 1990s America. Clinton's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, famously justified the US's 1998 bombing to stop the killing of civilians in Iraq by calling her country ''the indispensable nation'' because ''we see further than other countries into the future''.
Critics of the Bush years around the world will no doubt feel vindicated by the Obama doctrine. Realists in America will cheer Obama's hard-nosed assessment of US national interests. Liberal internationalists on the left and neo-conservatives on the right will decry Obama's unwillingness to dive more deeply into Libya's nascent civil war, but everyone should have seen the Obama doctrine coming.
Three years ago, then senator Barack Obama rode to the Democratic nomination for president on the back on his long-standing and trenchant criticism that the Iraq war was not in America's national interests.
When things got tough in his general election battle against John McCain later that year, Obama committed to more American troops in Afghanistan, the right war, to shore up his national security bona fides. But he quickly pivoted to say that the reason to send in more troops was so that the US could withdraw from Afghanistan as soon as possible.
For the first two years of his presidency, Obama has combined lofty rhetoric regarding improving America's relationship with the Muslim world with an on-the-ground foreign policy of reducing the US's entanglements in the Middle East. He delivered on the withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq ahead of schedule. He supported his generals by doubling the US troop presence in Afghanistan, but refused to budge from his commitment that beginning the drawdown of American troops in the middle of 2011 was non-negotiable.
Obama's strategic intent was twofold. First, he wanted to rebalance the focus of US foreign policy away from the Middle East and towards areas of equal or more geopolitical significance, notably the Asia-Pacific.
Second, he hoped to make US foreign policy, and his government's budget, more solvent by reversing the past decade's massive increases in defence spending.
Obama rarely was explicit about these twin goals; opposition to what he was doing was relatively muted. Then came the remarkable events of the past few months in North Africa.
After a decade of US-led wars to create democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq, the spectre of bottom up, social-networking people power throwing out decrepit and illegitimate leaders in Tunisia and Egypt was intoxicating. Notions of a cascading spiral of peaceful revolutions, an improbable Middle Eastern 2011 to match Europe's incredible 1989, were irresistible.
The remarkable North African winter was also wholly consistent with Obama's foreign policy, even if it was not quite a vindication of it.
Then Muammar Gaddafi threw a spanner in the works by turning on the protesters-cum-rebels. The American public was sick and tired after a decade of war. The US military was already stretched to near breaking point. The US budget is drowning in red ink.
But Obama could not afford to stand by and allow an otherwise irrelevant madman in Libya to ruin the party. Support for a UN-sanctioned no-fly zone with an explicit rejection of using US ground troops was the delicate balancing act Obama chose.
Now the balance has been tipped further away from US-led intervention and the Obama doctrine has come out of the shadows and into the spotlight. The US President no doubt desperately wants Libya to go the way of Tunisia and Egypt. But he isn't willing to bet the ranch on it.
Professor Geoffrey Garrett is chief executive of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.