BARACK Obama spent his first term undoing what he saw as the excesses of U.S. post-Cold War foreign policy, from land wars in the Middle East to insufficient attention to Asia. By his own account, he largely succeeded.
But chances are he will spend his second term grappling with the flaws in his cure.
Contrary to the usual Republican narrative, Obama did not lead a U.S. retreat from the world. Instead he sought to pursue the same interests without the same means. He has tried to preserve America's place as the "indispensable nation" while withdrawing ground troops from war zones, cutting the defense budget, scaling back "nation-building" projects and forswearing U.S.-led interventions.
Is "leading from behind" an unfair moniker for this? Then call it the light footprint doctrine. It's a strategy that supposes that patient multilateral diplomacy can solve problems like Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability; that drone strikes can do as well at preventing another terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland as do ground forces in Afghanistan; that crises like that of Syria can be left to the U.N. Security Council.
For the last couple of years, the light footprint worked well enough to allow Obama to turn foreign policy into a talking point for his re-election. But the terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11 should have been a red flag to all who believe this president has invented a successful new model for U.S. leadership.
Far from being an aberration, Benghazi was a toxic byproduct of the light footprint approach - and very likely the first in a series of boomerangs.
Why were Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans murdered by Libyan jihadists?
The preliminary round of official investigations may focus on decisions by mid-level officials at the State Department that deprived the Benghazi mission of adequate security, and a failure by the large CIA team in the city to detect the imminent threat from extremist groups.
But ultimately the disaster in Libya derived from Obama's doctrine. Having been reluctantly dragged by France and Britain into intervening in Libya's revolution, Obama withdrew U.S. planes from the fight as quickly as possible; when the war ended, the White House insisted that no U.S. forces stay behind. Requests by Libya's fragile transition government for NATO's security assistance were answered with an ill-conceived and ultimately failed program to train a few people in Jordan.