Ignoring the President's self-aggrandizement and bravery after the fact (can we ignore this?), I must say that the Obama Doctrine he enunciated in his speech is arguably Christian in character. So I argue in "Finding Neighbor-love in the Obama Doctrine" (March 30, 2011).
Presidents have enunciated foreign policy doctrines in the past, and the need for a "doctrine" has become synonymous with the need for a foreign policy. Consider this summary from Michael Hirsh in the National Journal:
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.
Taking policy to the point of doctrine isn't necessarily a good thing in a complicated world. But neither is incoherence.
Given that, as the Scripture says, "righteousness exalts a nation," a foreign policy should also be righteous, i.e. godly, biblical. If we are making war on Libya (don't tell Congress) for humanitarian reasons, not reasons of national self defense, then is it a legitimate use of the civil magistrate's sword?
The Lord invested civil government with the power of the sword, the divinely sanctioned power to take life justly in the defense of those under its care (Romans 13, I Peter 2). Domestically, this is the power to execute those whose crimes deserve death. Internationally, it is the power of war. It is an awesome power that ought to be used with restraint but, when it is used, wisely and decisively.
At first, it seems obviously good to intervene militarily on behalf of suffering people around the world to save them from everything from persecution and denial of the human rights to genocide.
The Book of Proverbs tells us, "If thou forbear to deliver them that are drawn unto death, and those that are ready to be slain; If thou sayest, Behold we knew it not; doth not He that pondereth the heart consider it? and He that keepeth thy soul, doth not He know it? and shall not He render to every man according to his works?" (Proverbs 24:11-12)
But in a world that is awash with tyranny, oppression, and bloodshed, that can very quickly overwhelm the resources of even a mammoth nation like the United States.
In addition to the economic limitations, there are also political complications of which John Quincy Adams warning us in his 1821 Independence Day speech to the House of Representatives when he was James Madison's Secretary of State. He cautioned his and future generations against assuming the role of universal policeman.
Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.... She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.
Though President Obama proclaimed, “wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States,” he did not promise them military support. He echoed Adams himself who said of America, “Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be.”
The Obama Doctrine as stated in this speech (it could change in a week) is not neo-Wilsonianism, the worldwide crusade for democracy that is the opposite of Adams and traces back to that pest of a Presbyterian priest, Woodrow Wilson. Bush was our neo-Wilsonian. Obama is giving us something far more limited and more Christian. In my column, I argue that the Christian basis for such interventon is international neighbor-love tempered by prudence, not political Messianism.
But prudence is no small matter. Running around saving people on every continent would draw us into foreign conflicts "beyond the power of extrication," as Adams put it. As in Iraq, a conflict that President Bush eventually justified as a cause for liberty we were morally obliged to support, we could find ourselves committed to long-term nation building on several fronts while suppressing civil war and dodging factional crossfire. After Libya, why should we not head next for Syria and the next Middle Eastern abattoir after that? We take up this and that fight for liberty, but we end up "in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom." We start off as friend of liberty for oppressed, but by indiscernible stages we end up "the dictatress of the world."
George Kateb, Emeritus professor at Princeton, offers some helpful guidelines. He says there are only three types of regimes: unjust regimes, oppressive regimes, and evil regimes. Unjust regimes, recurrently miscarry justice but nonetheless preserve human rights on the whole: “political injustice is the denial of one or a few personal or political rights.” Oppressive regimes follow a pattern of abusing rights, preserving only a few of them. “Oppression is thus the denial of many or most personal and political rights, but some rights are still respected.” Evil regimes are characterized by genocide. Life in essence is a commodity. This regime not only strips people of their natural rights but also of their lives on a large scale. “Evil is the obliteration of personhood and hence the deprivation of all the personal and political rights of one, few, some, or many.” (George Kateb. The Inner Ocean: Individualism and Democratic Culture. Cornell University Press, 1994; pg. 201)
Within this framework, humanitarian intervention would be justified only against an evil regime.
Also keep in mind Augustine's criteria for a just war: a just cause, proper authority, right intention, last resort, proportionality, and probability of success.