White House Press Secretary Jay Carney would not bite on reporters' questions Thursday about whether the U.S. role in the Libyan intervention constitutes an "Obama doctrine." The White House doesn't want to box itself into a "doctrine," and Carney repeated that the "prism" through which Obama views national security and foreign policy is the safety of the U.S. and the American people -- not an ideological or political one.
Even in that context, Libya was a special case, Carney said: The lives of thousands of civilians were in jeopardy earlier this year when then-strongman, now-deceased Col. Moammar Qaddafi's forces were poised outside the breakway rebel capital. The Libyan rebel alliance was appealing to the West for help. And the United Nations authorized the U.S. and its allies to go in and take care of business. Obama ordered American forces into action on the strength of those and other unique factors, Carney said, and he'll treat future crises on a crisis by crisis basis.
The specific implication was clear: Libya does not necessarily establish a pattern for U.S. actions in Syria, Yemen or anywhere else.
Maybe you think that's a sensible policy, or maybe you think the president should follow hard-and-fast rules to maintain a steady American role in the world. But whichever way you lean, Obama's case-by-case viewpoint is antithetical to the major narrative that's been building up this year inside the Beltway like steam in a boiler: The U.S. needs a capital-S Strategy to assist the military build-down everyone believes is around the corner. It needs to make capital-C Choices about where it will stick its neck out and where it won't -- because it will not have the unlimited budget and military that for so long has exempted it from making such choices, the narrative goes.
Presidents Bush and Obama were "lucky," for lack of a better term: They commanded naval and air forces still living on their inheritance. But the legacy platforms that enabled the U.S. to come to Libya's aid are decades old and getting older. The Air Force's B-1s, B-2s and F-15Es all were built for the Cold War, as were the Navy submarines that went into action. In fact, the sub that fired the most Tomahawk cruise missiles, the converted ballistic missile sub USS Florida, was originally commissioned in 1983. As the Air Force and Navy fleets age and shrink, Obama and his successors may not be able to maintain no-policy policies, for the simple reason that they may not be able to use force any time they choose.
Unless, that is, Obama, DoD and lawmakers agree that keeping all their options open is worth the ever-growing cost.