Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Obama Wolfowitz Convergence in the Case of Libya?

Tim Hodgson//March 23rd, 2011//FrumForum

In late February, as the Libyan crisis unfolded, former Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz made an impassioned plea for the United States to intervene. Wolfowitz argued that “when there are so many things that could be done to help the unbelievably brave Libyan people — without any risk to American lives — it is shameful to be sitting on our hands.”

The same Barack Obama who once breezily dismissed Wolfowitz as an “arm-chair weekend warrior” has now embraced an only slightly modified version of his doctrine of preemptive intervention to frame his case for U.S. involvement in Libya. And the same Paul Wolfowitz who fretted Obama would walk away from George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” in the Middle East was tenaciously defending the emerging White House Libya policy from sniping by the likes of George Will on Sunday’s talk shows.

Stranger bedfellows are almost impossible to imagine. We would appear to be in Lion-Lies-Down-With-Lamb territory. But this entente très cordiale is simply the latest confirmation of Lord Palmerston’s dictum about the primacy of permanent national interests in foreign relations.

The conventional thinking had been that President Obama’s centrist leanings combined with fears of political blowback from a U.S. electorate fatigued by global nation-building duties (along with the predictable condemnations from implacable foes and fair-weather friends) were staying him from unsheathing the sword in Libya.

Now some unconventional thinking is challenging those assumptions.

In an intriguing and well-sourced piece on Time magazine’s Swampland political blog, it seems Wolfowitz’s thinking didn’t so much anticipate the eventual White House Libyan strategy as provide the actual blueprint.

The National Security Council’s Ben Rhodes is quoted as saying the long-term benefits of saving lives in Libya, protecting democratic change elsewhere in the region and — most tellingly — ensuring “the ability of collective action to be a tool in circumstances like this” eventually outweighed short-term domestic and international concerns. The despised policy of preventive intervention was essentially taken out of mothballs and re-commissioned.

President Obama, who once said he would abandon the Bush Administration’s “idealistic” approach to Middle Eastern affairs in favor of what he called a “realist” policy, at some point discovered realism was an animating principle of his predecessor’s policy all along.

Wolfowitz was never the promiscuous, shoot-first-think-later interventionist he has been caricatured as: it was he himself who famously said the U.S. could never be expected to play the role of global policeman in an unpredictable and increasingly fractious post-Cold War world. What he argued for was selective preemptive intervention — preferably internationally sanctioned — when humanitarian considerations and U.S. national interests converged. Libya presented a case study in the need for precisely such action.

A Libya embroiled in an ongoing, high- or low-intensity civil war — a chaotic situation certain to be exploited by jihadists — would clearly trigger seismic shockwaves throughout the country and the region, imperiling U.S. interests. So would a Libya controlled by a renascent Qaddafi bent on terrorizing his people and likely to once again make terrorism the country’s primary export. Intervention would also send a clear message to other Arab leaders challenged by popular discontent who might be flirting with Qaddafi’s notion that political power re-grows and is reasserted from the barrel of a gun.

The original Wolfowitz Doctrine stressed that vital security, economic and geopolitical factors made it imperative for the U.S. to foster Middle Eastern stability. It also recognized permanent stabilization could only come about by engaging the so-called Arab street rather than just the kleptocratic, sometimes theocratic leaderships and by vigorously promoting the items on what came to be known as the “Freedom Agenda”. This call for the spread of democratic values and institutions in a region where even mild dissent is often punishable by medieval cruelties was seen as the only antidote to ongoing repression: repression which provides radical jihadists with an endless supply of eager volunteers.

Wolfowitz’s initial qualms notwithstanding, President Obama’s realist school of diplomacy has always owed an unacknowledged debt to the supposedly misty-eyed idealism of the “Freedom Agenda”. The President’s unyielding emphasis on the need for comprehensive reform and restructuring in the Middle East is largely a by-any-other-name extension of policies initiated under the Bush Administration.

But what amounted to discredited U.S. unilateralism in Iraq (never mind the participation of more than 40 other countries in military and support roles) made the President pessimistic about the chances of America being able to coordinate multilateral action in response to the worsening Libyan situation. And a genuine exercise in American go-it-alone-ism in a Muslim country was, frankly, unthinkable at this juncture.

His sometimes fuzzy rhetoric notwithstanding, the President is on record as saying persuasive cases can and indeed should be made for humanitarian intervention on both moral and national security grounds. “More and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government, or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region,” he said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. “I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later.”

The President was finally prompted to act last week when a resurgent Qaddafi appeared poised to commit grand-scale atrocities in eastern Libya. In the face of open military skepticism about the prudence of pursuing a Libyan mission, the President — backed by Secretary of State Clinton and key National Security Council personnel — charged his United Nations ambassador Susan Rice with seeking support for a buffed-up version of a Lebanese resolution calling for a no-fly zone.

She succeeded. Last Thursday the U.N. gave broad support to “all measures necessary” to protect Libyan civilians, a move sanctioned by an Arab League traditionally as united by its members’ loathing of Qaddafi as the “Zionist Entity”.

Frankly, Security Council Resolution 1973 reads like a slightly wordier version of Wolfowitz’s robust February 22 critique, one in which he outlined a series of urgent actions the U.S. and the international community should be taking to contain the Libyan crisis.

In the Libyan scenario, by yoking U.S. diplomatic objectives — namely, the removal of Qaddafi and his criminally insane form of despotism — to U.N.-mandated military objectives intended to protect civilians from wholesale slaughter, the President has inaugurated what he must hope will be viewed as a kinder, gentler version of the Wolfowitz Doctrine.

The emerging Obama Doctrine takes much the same Big Picture view of U.S. interests as the Wolfowitz version. And the same U.S. Big Stick will be wielded when necessary — if only in conjunction with international coalitions at this stage. But it’s far more soft-spoken and far less clearly articulated than its predecessor. Detail, clarity and a much-needed sense of urgency still need to be added to make the political case for Libyan intervention to the American people.
But certainly the cerebral President has proved the theoretical case for intervention to his own satisfaction based on both ethical considerations and the overriding national interest. Equally certain is his belief that intervention now will preclude the need for an even costlier Libyan intervention in the not too distant future.

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