WHEN OPERATION Odyssey Dawn commenced in the skies over Libya on March 19, 2011, it represented a major turnaround in U.S. policy. Only nine months earlier, U.S. ambassador Gene Cretz had characterized the regime as a “strategic ally” of the United States due to Libyan cooperation on counterterrorism and nonproliferation issues (and its halting, tentative steps toward greater openness). Now Libya found itself on the receiving end of conventional U.S. military power for repressing a civilian population agitating for governmental change. Considerations that over the past sixty years might have stayed the hand of an earlier president—fears about regime change leading to a hostile government taking power in an oil-rich and geostrategic Middle Eastern state, or concerns about the potential debilitating costs of intervention—were set aside. And while Muammar el-Qaddafi’s distant past as an international renegade and sponsor of terrorism was invoked by Barack Obama, there was little effort to portray twenty-first-century Libya as a looming security threat to the United States. Indeed, given the more recent history of Libyan-American rapprochement, including Qaddafi’s active cooperation with the West in the struggle against al-Qaeda, such an attempt would have rung hollow. Instead, the Obama team embraced Qaddafi’s treatment of his population as the central rationale for the operation.
This marks a fundamental break with past American emphasis on serious threats to U.S. national security as the prime motivation for action, especially armed intervention. In making the case for war against Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Bush administration highlighted the Iraqi tyrant’s abuse of his citizens and his war crimes against Iran and the Kurds. But the case for invading Iraq rested not so much on humanitarian concerns as on displacing a volatile actor who threatened core American security interests. Saddam’s suspected depositories of unconventional weapons and his ties to terrorists became the central rallying cries of the proponents of coercive regime change, while humanitarian impulses to liberate an oppressed population were a secondary justification. In the case of Libya, however, no such national-security arguments were seriously proffered in support of the necessity for military action. The Obama administration never suggested that its intervention was designed to redeem any critical national interests; as a matter of fact, outgoing defense secretary Robert Gates loudly and repeatedly proclaimed that there were no vital interests at stake in Libya.
Moreover, the Libya operation took place against a backdrop of regional ferment that already had claimed the political lives of two close U.S. partners, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and was threatening to depose other American friends from Jordan to Yemen. Saddam Hussein had been an avowed enemy of the United States, which lent a certain geopolitical logic to George W. Bush’s invasion. But now Washington was demonstrating a willingness to side “with the street” against regimes that were pro-American. Six years ago, writing in these pages, Dov Zakheim expressed the prevailing U.S. outlook in dealing with friendly autocrats in the region:
Given their steps, however halting, toward creating freer societies, their willingness to countenance a Middle East peace settlement and the virulent anti-Americanism of much of their opposition, it must be asked whether it is really in America’s interest to distance itself from such regimes. Constructive engagement with friends who are slow to respond but respond nonetheless is one thing; rejection is quite another.
The gap between that philosophy and recent U.S. actions poses some questions: Are we witnessing a subtle paradigm shift, where governments’ treatment of their citizens, as opposed to their geopolitical conduct, is more important as a factor for U.S. policy? Does the Libya operation provide a model for low-cost, no-consequence interventions that Obama and other presidents may seek to employ elsewhere in the region and around the world? In short, has America entered a postrealist phase in its foreign policy, where it believes that it is possible to promote U.S. values at minimal cost to U.S. interests?
If these questions can be answered in the affirmative, then America could stand at the threshold of a new foreign-policy era dominated by a twenty-first-century iteration of Wilsonism—the widespread application of American power on behalf of humanitarian ideals even when it risks compromising key interests. What this would mean for America and the world remains an open question of profound dimension.
FOR DECADES, the specter of an Iran “lost” after the overthrow of the shah has hung over America’s Middle East policy. Washington saw how a revolution initially defined by calls for democracy and liberalization ended up ushering in an Islamic Republic bitterly hostile to U.S. interests. As Jeane Kirkpatrick concluded in November 1979:
The American effort to impose liberalization and democratization on a government confronted with violent internal opposition not only failed, but actually assisted the coming to power of new regimes in which ordinary people enjoy fewer freedoms and less personal security than under the previous autocracy—regimes, moreover, hostile to American interests and policies.