Sussing Out An Emerging Obama Doctrine

President Obama has gradually reduced the U.S. military presence in Iraq, expanded that presence in Afghanistan and decided to intervene in Libya. More than halfway through his presidency, Bob Woodward, associate editor for The Washington Post, talks about the emerging Obama Doctrine.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Since he took office, President Obama has conducted the gradual withdrawal of American forces from Iraq on the timetable established by President George W. Bush. And after sometimes heated debate among his advisors, he tripled the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

Now, in contrast to his predecessor, he waited for the Arab League to call for a no-fly zone in Libya and followed the lead of France and Britain to get approval from the United Nations Security Council.

Some critics say he dithered and should have taken decisive action earlier. Others argue that the military steps he's taken don't match his actual goal of regime change. Still others wonder how he can justify war to support protestors in Libya and not in Bahrain or Yemen.

Later in the program, Japan's struggle to bury its dead with appropriate respect. But first, the Obama doctrine. What should the president's priorities be when it comes to decisions of war and peace? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

No one has followed presidents and their decisions on war more closely over the past decade than Bob Woodward, associate editor of The Washington Post, the author of several books on the subject, most recently "Obama's Wars." He joins us here in Studio 3A.

Bob Woodward, nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. BOB WOODWARD (Associate Editor, Washington Post; Author, "Obama's Wars"): Thank you.

CONAN: And is there an Obama doctrine?

Mr. WOODWARD: Well, first of all, you have to kind of step back and say there are two strategic cultures in American foreign policy. And the first one is a kind of crusading, moralistic - this is the George Bush approach: We have a duty to free people.

CONAN: Woodrow Wilson's approach.

Mr. WOODWARD: Yes, certainly, very idealistic, projecting democratic values onto the world.

The second strain is a kind of isolationist, we're going to stick to our business at home, we've got all kinds of problems. In Obama, the two converge. And I think you can say this: The two are roommates in his head and in his approach.

So it's not doctrinaire in any sense of the word. Sometimes it's crusading, moralistic. Sometimes it's now we're stepping back, we're trying to get out of these wars and focus on our domestic problems.

At the same time, I think his approach now, after several years, you can determine what some of the features are.

CONAN: And that would include?

Mr. WOODWARD: Well, I think first that he likes coalitions, other countries involved, even likes the idea, as in the case of Libya, of at least announcing or making it appear as if other countries are leading.

The second feature is probably, like in Libya, an assertion: No ground forces. Third would be no preemption, like George Bush in Iraq. In other words, we're not going to start a war to - just kind of out of the blue because we've decided it's time to get rid of somebody like Saddam Hussein.

CONAN: Or, he said that if there are forces gathering that might threaten the United States with weapons of mass destruction or terrorism, we will act first.

Mr. WOODWARD: Yes, but, you know, Obama's much more restrained in that. I think another element of - he likes negotiations, calls it engagement, economic sanctions if necessary, sometimes tough ones, like in Iran.

I guess the fifth part or feature of this would be time limits, like they've said in Libya: Oh, it's going to be a matter of days that this military operation is going to go on. Now that's...

CONAN: No, he said it was a matter of days before the United States turned over command of the operation to another organization as yet to be determined.

Mr. WOODWARD: Right, but some of his national security team have said, well, this will just take days and maybe weeks. That's risky. War is so - it's the land of the unknowable, and to put kind of time lines - I mean, if you go back to the Iraq War, Rumsfeld, who was Defense secretary, met with his closest advisors before the war. So this is, what, eight years ago, March, 2003.

And he asked: How long do you think the war will last? Well, they said 30 days, 21 days. Paul Wolfowitz, his deputy, said seven days. It's now, you know, eight years.

In terms of the other part of the Obama - and I wouldn't call it a doctrine because he's not doctrinaire - is humanitarian intervention is OK. In fact, he said that in the campaign.

CONAN: And he said that specifically in his speech when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, that this might be a justification for war. It was interesting to recall, you reported in "Obama's Wars," that vigorous debate over Afghanistan policy.

We're told again there was vigorous debate in the White House this time, that Susan Rice and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were on one side and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates opposed to intervention. Is this the sign of real dissention, or is this the sign of a president who wants to hear good arguments?

Mr. WOODWARD: Well, I think we have yet to see the full dimensions of what happened. What comes out on a daily basis is not generally that complete. The White House has pushed back on this idea that it was a group of women who kind of were crusading for this. I think they believed in it firmly.

Again, the interesting thing about Obama is the roommates in his head, and they're just - you know, there aren't just the two, there are many. And he's quite comfortable with the Chinese menu approach to foreign policy, domestic policy, economic policy: I'll choose from this side, I'll choose from that side. It is very flexible. Now, the problem is: What's going to be the outcome?

CONAN: And the problem is what next? What if the Gadhafi regime does not crumble? What if his allies stay loyal to him?

Mr. WOODWARD: And there are - there's some inconsistencies in the announced policy. Namely, we're not trying to overthrow Gadhafi. This isn't - the goal is not regime change, when obviously it is. And you can't have a situation where you conduct this kind of military operation - I mean, let's call it what it is: It's a war. If you're on the ground in Libya, and planes are bombing, it is a war - and not have some fundamental change.

Now one of the questions is: Do we understand Gadhafi? He's been in power more than 40 years. Very formidable, somewhat loony leader but somebody who has clung to his position.

Back in the '80s, you recall, the CIA was trying to overthrow him. We bombed Libya. There were - one of the interesting little footnotes is in the '80s, the CIA determined he had seven residences. And they put this list out and tried to circulate it, hoping someone would attack them or overthrow him. And he's still there.

And there's a lot of resilience there. There's a lot of money. Obviously, the -Libya is - he's not the only thug in Libya. So where does this go? And this expectation of we're going to do it in a limited way, in a limited time may just not be met.

CONAN: Yet presumably, people at the White House have thought that through. They didn't rush into this completely blind and think that the house of cards was all going to collapse within the matter of a week.

Mr. WOODWARD: I think that's true. But I - you're going into - when I interviewed Obama for "Obama's Wars," we talked about war, and the issue of what is war, well, it's - as he said, it's chaos. And the job of the commander in chief is to manage this chaos. Well, managing chaos is really difficult, and there's no way to connect all of this with the future. You just don't know what you're getting into.

CONAN: Bob Woodward, the author of "Obama's Wars," and we're talking about, well, for lack of a better term, the Obama doctrine. 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And let's go to Tim(ph). Tim with us from Greenwood in Missouri.

KEN (Caller): Hi, this is Ken from Greenwood, Missouri.

CONAN: Oh, I'm sorry.

KEN: Yeah, good afternoon, Neal, pleasure to listen to your show again. I'm not sure about the idea of us doing the no-fly zone in Libya. Believe me, I'm 100 percent patriotic, and I love the fact that we're in some ways trying to eventually get rid of this Gadhafi, crazy idiot.

But what happens if the no-fly zone doesn't work, and Gadhafi's forces take Misurata, take Benghazi, take Tobruk and take the whole country over again, and our no-fly zone didn't work? Isn't that going to make us look awful weak and stupid in the world?

Also, what's that going to do for all the people that are thinking about revolution right now if this fails?

CONAN: Well that was - to some degree - those all good questions, but Bob Woodward, that was to some degree the question that people asked: If you do not intervene, what message do you send? Was it that Hosni Mubarak was wrong not to massacre the protestors in Tahrir Square?

Mr. WOODWARD: Well, I think that's part of the discussion. But repeat his question again because I thought it really was an important one. I'm sorry, I was...

CONAN: Ken, if you could go...

KEN: Yeah, I'm just wondering if this no-fly zone doesn't work, and...

CONAN: Right, and if Gadhafi takes over the country, presumably with infantry rather than armored troops.

Mr. WOODWARD: And what's the lesson of World War II bombing? What's the lesson of what's going in Pakistan?

CONAN: Worked in Kosovo. Worked in Kosovo.

Mr. WOODWARD: It worked in Kosovo, but that was a very unique set of circumstances. And this is not to say this won't work, but you learn, you learn in Vietnam, you can't do it from there. You can't take...

KEN: I'm just wondering what the people in the other countries that are thinking about revolution, you know, what will happen to them if this doesn't work, you know, if it's going to - if it fails in Libya, and the rebels get pushed back and Gadhafi takes over, then what's going to happen to the people in Yemen, the people in the rest of the Middle East that are thinking about this? I think it's going to, like, take a lot of steam out of them, you know...

Mr. WOODWARD: It could. The psychological impact could be large. At the same time, like in Yemen and lots of these other countries, I mean, we are facing a totally new world in that swath of territory from the Middle East, moving west, all through the northern half of Africa.

But I think this is kind of taking hold in the countries, and they're listening to what will happen in Libya, but I don't see them saying: Oh, that didn't work, so I'm going to give up.

CONAN: Ken, thanks very much for the call. We're talking about the Obama doctrine with the author of "Obama's Wars," Bob Woodward. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Im Neal Conan.

Fighter planes continue to enforce the no-fly zone over Libya, at times launching attacks on pro-Gadhafi troops and equipment and destroying anti-aircraft systems.

A U.S. F-15E crashed yesterday near Benghazi. The military says it was a mechanical problem with the jet. Both airmen were recovered.

Moammar Gadhafi is still on the offensive in at least two cities now held by anti-government rebels. Artillery attacks pounded Ajdabiya, and government tanks rolled into Misurata.

We continue to monitor the ongoing operations in Libya. We'll bring you updates as they arrive.

The weeks leading up to President Obama's decision to intervene in Libya gave us some insight into his priorities on issues of war and peace. We're talking today about what's emerging as the Obama doctrine. What should the president's priorities be when it comes to war and peace? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Bob Woodward, associate editor of The Washington Post and the author of several books on war and peace and presidents, most recently "Obama's Wars."

Now let's see if we can go next to - this is Jacquelyn(ph), Jacquelyn with us from Atlanta.

JACQUELYN (Caller): Yes, hi. Thank you for taking my call. I'm a little nervous now, so bear with me.

CONAN: Oh, that's all right.

JACQUELYN: I want to say good afternoon to all of you all. I love this show. I don't miss - there's not a day that I miss it. And I appreciate the approach this president uses when handling tough issues, such as Libya.

Moreover, and he - and I like the fact that he encourages his decision-makers to be honest with him. He want to hear facts of all sizes. And more importantly - and even more importantly, and I like the fact that Susan Rice said that we do not want this to become another Rwanda.

The Libya people were calling on America to intervene. There were many reports that was played on NPR where American - that the rebels asked: Where are the Americans?

And I think the president's approach is what good leaders do. They sit back, and they analyze what is going on and take a position on what our role should be. And I'm getting confused now. So I'm going to stop.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That's all right. OK, Jacquelyn. Well, I get confused often. So don't worry about that. But I wanted to put her point to you and reframe it to some degree.

Some critics say the president has been dithering. Do you think he's been dithering or, as Jacquelyn suggested, waiting to gather facts and opinions?

Mr. WOODWARD: Oh, well, I think there's some truth to that. I think dithering is the wrong word. We don't know all of the background and all of the intelligence on this, to say the least. And so there's a level of knowledge that they have.

I don't think it's, you know, that exponentially different from what is public, but there is information here. And there are some people who have hypothesized by waiting, he kind of forced the hand of the Arab League, the British, the French, who then took the lead. And then he said: Oh, OK, we'll join in this so it doesn't look like another American war. I think that's probably important.

But remember what - it was Karl Rove, Bush's political advisor, once said: All these things get measured by outcomes. And the outcome is so unknown. This could -remember again, Iraq was going to be easy, was going to be a matter of months, weeks, days. And we're still there. So war takes the unexpected turn.

What is not known in all of this is what pushed Obama over the line. In my research and discussion with him and documentation and looking at notes of NSC meetings and so forth, he doesn't like war. He wants to get out of Afghanistan. He wants us to get out of Iraq, obviously, as we're heading there.

And when I talked to him about this, he said: Well, go back and look at my Nobel Prize acceptance speech. And so I did, and in it, he says: War may be necessary, but it's never glorious, not something to ever get up and say wow, is this great.

And he said: In the end, it's a manifestation of human folly. So he doesn't like war. So there was information. There was pressures from others, the international community, that caused him to say: OK, I'm going to start a war, which is what he's done.

CONAN: Jacquelyn, thanks very much for the call, and thanks for the kind words, too.

JACQUELYN: Thank you.

CONAN: I wanted to - you mentioned Karl Rove, the - President Bush's political advisor. This is from Michael Gerson in today's edition of The Washington Post, and he was a speechwriter for George W. Bush.

America, he wrote, did not orchestrate the international response. Instead, America was dragged toward responsibility by the clarity and persistence of Britain and France. Even then, it was only the prospect that Benghazi would become another Srebrenica that forced the administration's hand.

Obama's response to the Libyan revolution fits the pattern of his foreign policy established during the Green Revolution in Iran and the recent Egyptian uprising: the reaction hesitant, the process chaotic, the outcome late.

Mr. WOODWARD: Well, this is the view from the Republican side and from the right, and it may turn out, when the facts are known, the chronology of what happened, that he was pushed.

There is another possibility, and I think there is some evidence of that, that, you know, Mr. Cool, Barack Obama, sat back and said: OK, let's not hurry. Let's see what the others are going to do.

And this will be a footnote in history if it's quick and there's some sort of success. It could turn out to be a mega-disaster, also, that there still could be slaughtering, there could be a new leader in Libya. You know, the people who are lining up and would like the job are not Thomas Jeffersons. And they're raised in this four-decade culture of Gadhafi, which is brutal. And so, you know, we may wind up with, as the cliche goes: Sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don't know.

CONAN: Here's an email from Xavier, who writes: President Obama understands something a lot of people don't: Anything America touches is perceived by the rest of the world as being tainted and corrupt.

The only thing people in the Middle East despise more than their totalitarian dictators is us. After all, we bear primary responsibility for keeping those dictators in power by doing business with them.

When there's a popular uprising of people yearning for freedom, the best thing we can do for them is stay out of it and let them fight. As soon as we intervene, it becomes about us, and the freedom fighters are undermined by association with us.

Mr. WOODWARD: That may turn out to be the case, and it may not. If you -there's so much we don't know. If you asked who are the rebels in Libya? What are their names? I mean, there's vague data on it.

You know, apparently six of them are known; 24 or something like that are not known. You know, maybe these are wonderful people and great leaders. Maybe they're not.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Keith(ph), Keith with us from Gainesville.

KEITH (Caller): Yeah, hi. I think Obama has got it right, and I agree with the previous caller. What I think is - the way I see it as more is like a referee in a boxing match: He's just trying to keep both sides equal.

If rebels want to fight with their pitchforks and shovels, then he's going to say: OK, Gadhafi, you - you're going to be limited to pitchforks and shovels, also.

So in a way, he's being a referee, saying: You two go at it. As long as it's a fair fight, go at it. And whoever wins, wins. He seems to be taking a stance of: Let's just stand back and let you two guys go at it. And we should respect it.

CONAN: So you think, Keith, it's acceptable for the president of the United States, after having said Mr. Gadhafi must go, for him to say: Well, it's a level playing field; if he wins, that's OK?

KEITH: Well, if - I think it actually is. He said - if he wants to stand back and say it's not our fight, which I don't - it's not our fight. It's their fight. And as long as he makes it a fair fight, I think it's OK. It's like, well, OK, I made a mistake.

There's not - like everyone says, you know, war is war, and there's no - it's chaos. And I don't think if he says Gadhafi must go - I mean, I thought Gadhafi would've gone, you know, a few weeks ago, like everybody else, but...

CONAN: But he's got some staying power. Bob Woodward?

Mr. WOODWARD: OK, the idea that we're playing the role of a referee here I don't think bears scrutiny. When you send the American military and more than 100 Tomahawk missiles you - aimed at one side...

KEITH: You're making the fight fair. You're saying: OK, the rebels don't have...

Mr. WOODWARD: Well, the referee in a boxing match doesn't say: Oh, this side's winning, so I'm going to throw a few punches myself.

CONAN: Or Sonny Liston's got a tremendous right, so I'm going to tie that hand behind his back.

KEITH: If he's going against some sixth-grader, sure, which is what we've got here. We've got rebels who are fighting with little more than AK-47s, and occasionally, they get something big; whereas Gadhafi's got all these other things. It's like: Look. Sure, you can pound everybody if that's what you want to do, but that's not in the interest of who's going to win the fight...

Mr. WOODWARD: Okay. We - Obama has made it clear, and the turning point in this is the decision to participate in a military action. But the first real level of clear decision-making was when he said Gadhafi has to go. And so this is not - this is an anti-Gadhafi war.

CONAN: Here's an email from Jose in Fort Walton Beach in Florida. Are we not at risk of appearing like hypocrites for supporting the popular uprising of an unfriendly regime versus others that are friendly - i.e., Saudi Arabia, Bahrain - but likewise oppressive? How can we reconcile these things if we espouse freedom and democracy everywhere?

Eugene Robinson's point on the op-ed page of your paper this morning.

Mr. WOODWARD: Yes. And it's a potent one, and this is a circumstance where, you know, our dictator, one we're friendly with, is okay, and, you know, there may be some pressure. There may be lots of talking, but there certainly isn't the Fifth Fleet. There certainly are not Tomahawk missiles. So it's...

CONAN: The Fifth Fleet, of course, is based in Bahrain.

Mr. WOODWARD: Yes. It is. And it's small but potent. And so this is one of these things where when you put - I've found out over the years you think you know what happened, and then you get humbled repeatedly when you dig in to what happened at 10 o'clock on Wednesday, at 2 o'clock on Thursday. What was this meeting? What was that discussion? What was the intelligence coming in? What were the emotions?

Because going to war inevitably involves some emotions. Obama tries to push back from that, and I don't think this was an emotional decision. But I'm sure lots of people expressed some pretty strongly felt emotions, and that had an impact on him.

CONAN: You said the right has largely criticized the president for acting too slowly and waiting for international support. It's not the entire right. Here's from The Weekly Standard, Gary Schmitt and Thomas Donnelly: To get it right, first recognize the primacy of military power in international politics. In the present crisis, the Obama administration, though slow off the mark, did in fact achieve about as much as diplomacy could be expected to achieve. Getting a useful U.N. resolution at all beat the odds. The administration has also created a credible international coalition. The proof of the effort, however, will be in the willingness and ability to use force to remove Moammar Gadhafi from power.

Mr. WOODWARD: But Obama would not agree that the main instrument of American foreign policy is the military. That's what his Cairo speech is about - saying that's not the way it is. That's what his whole foreign policy persona is about, that, yes, we will use the military in exceptional circumstances, but it's not the instrument of first, second or third choice. It's the instrument of last choice.

CONAN: Bob Woodward, the author of "Obama's Wars." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can go next to - this is Michael. Michael with us from Minneapolis.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hello. Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: Sure. Go ahead, please.

MICHAEL: I got two quick comments. One, I appreciated - I appreciate your guest making the point that Iraq was supposed to be easy, but you know, and Libya is supposed to be easy, but it may not be. I'm a little worried about the constitutionality of pushing into war without any kind of congregational debate or national debate of any kind. I think it sets a dangerous precedent.

And then secondly, I wanted to take quick issue with an earlier comment your guest made in which he implied that Obama is not a fan of war. It's hard to say when he's made no concrete steps towards getting out of Iraq or Afghanistan.

And I know they're supposedly drawing down in Iraq, but with, you know, 50,000 troops or whatever are still going to be there, that's not really backing out.

And now we're pushing into another war. Are we going to occupy the entire Middle East? At what point does Obama have to back up his, you know, fair-minded and sort of, you know - and his peaceful rhetoric with actually promoting peace? Thank you.

Mr. WOODWARD: Okay. Well, first, about congressional involvement, there -ever since the Cold War there's been this debate about, gee, the Constitution says Congress should declare war, but as commander in chief the president employs the force. And you know, the president can decide to invade Mexico or Canada tomorrow, and all Congress can do is pull out the funding. So the reality in the modern era is the president does these things...

CONAN: Yet...

Mr. WOODWARD: ...and makes this decision.

CONAN: ...there have been proxy votes before Iraq, before Afghanistan, before the First Gulf War. In this case, the president briefed some congressional -the congregational leadership that happened to be in town. Those that were out of town were out of luck.

Mr. WOODWARD: Yeah. And Congress is not particularly happy about being sidelined here. And you're right, in Iraq there were resolutions passed, which actually passed three to one before the Iraq War, but there was no declaration of war. So this is an issue where presidents are going to kind of do it. I think it's always a mistake, and one of the lessons of all of these wars is bring the Congress in, bring the public in, have some sort of debate.

In this case, they felt they had to intervene and act quite quickly. So, you know, we're going to see. But the second point about the timelines here, you know, it's, you know, where - are we going to be talking - if you asked somebody eight years ago, we'll still be in Iraq, they would have said, oh, come on, that's not possible.

CONAN: But...

Mr. WOODWARD: We'll still be in Afghanistan...couldn't be.

CONAN: The broader point, though, about the president's appetite for war. Yes, 50,000 soldiers still in Iraq, a hundred thousand now in Afghanistan. And yes, a new war in Libya.

Mr. WOODWARD: But he said - and I think quite rightly - there's going to be a timeline in both of those cases for withdrawal. And you know, he signed up for this when he ran for office. It includes commander-in-chief, and he said he was going to devote the resources necessary to the Afghan War, and he has done that, as you point out, tripling the force, making quite a commitment.

But as General Petraeus, the commander there, just testified recently, there are gains, but it's fragile and reversible. Now, when something is fragile and reversible, that is not a solid win. That is not a stable situation. So it's difficult, but this is Obama facing the reality of being commander-in-chief when you're in two wars.

CONAN: Bob Woodward, thanks as always very much for your time today. Got a -working on a new one?

Mr. WOODWARD: Trying.

CONAN: Bob Woodward's most recent book is "Obama's Wars." He might have to pluralize his plurals for his next one. He joined us here in Studio 3-A.

When we come back, we're going to be focusing on the disaster in Japan and the importance of ritual there. So many people died in the quake and the tsunami. The country is now struggling to bury its dead with appropriate respect. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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