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The Obama Doctrine

On the eve of the 12th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, yet again another president was addressing the nation in prime time about a serious conflict that could draw the United States into yet another war.

This time, President Obama took to the podium from the East Wing of the White House for a primetime address, to talk about why the U.S. should launch a military strike against Syria over the use of chemical weapons.

As he’s done in the past few weeks, Obama made his case for taking Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to task for crossing an international red line. But in as many ways as Obama was explaining his case for action against Syria, the president seemed to lay out his plan for U.S. foreign policy and the nation’s responsibilities to global security in a post-9/11 , and post-Iraq and Afghanistan, world.

These are the five tenets:

1.       There will be no “slippery slope to war.” After getting embroiled in Iraq, a campaign that was meant to be all about “shock and awe” but instead turned out to be a seven-year war that left thousands of U.S. troops dead, Obama and his military leaders (see: Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey) are mindful of “what next?”

2.       The United States doesn’t do “pinpricks.” To borrow a phrase from President Reagan: “Peace through strength.” Obama may be a Democrat, but he knows the value of this posture.

3.       Obama dismissed the “dangers of retaliation” from a strike against Syria. This, again, is a reminder — especially against another round of budget battles over sequestration and defense spending — that the U.S. will always do what is necessary to protect itself.

4.       How do we make sense of the Middle East? It’s a major factor in the nation’s war-weariness. Americans and members of Congress are confused over who we’re supporting and what the outcome will be (See tenet #1. What next?), which leads to the next question.

5.       Why are we the world’s police? This cuts to the heart of the foreign policy debate between isolationism and American exceptionalism. After more than a decade of large-scale ground wars and a weak economy, Americans want Washington to do more at home. Obama is listening, but hardly withdrawing. Few leaders in Washington have proven willing or able to answer the question.

After more than a week of press conferences, congressional hearings and debate about the war in Syria, Obama has laid out his clearest reasoning yet for Syria. Yet, his speech was full of contradiction, reflective of the dueling goals of a nation still reeling from 9/11.

Obama argued that the use of chemical weapons in Syria threatens national security, but also said that “the Assad regime does not have the ability to seriously threaten our military. Any other retaliation they might seek is in line with threats that we face every day. Neither Assad nor his allies have any interest in escalation that would lead to his demise. And our ally, Israel, can defend itself with overwhelming force, as well as the unshakeable support of the United States of America.”

Obama agreed, in his speech, that the U.S. should not be the “world’s policeman.” And yet he said that “for nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security. This has meant doing more than forging international agreements — it has meant enforcing them. The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world is a better place because we have borne them.”

Perhaps the most telling part of Obama’s speech is this:

“Franklin Roosevelt once said, ‘Our national determination to keep free of foreign wars and foreign entanglements cannot prevent us from feeling deep concern when ideals and principles that we have cherished are challenged.’” 

It other words, nothing is black and white. Not the question of when to use military force abroad. And  despite Obama’s effort Tuesday night, certainly not Syria.