Triumph of the New Wilsonism

Triumph of the New Wilsonism

Mini Teaser: No national interest was cited as a rationale for America's Libya campaign; the action was justified solely on humanitarian grounds. This marks a fundamental break with past U.S. policy prescriptions for such military interventions.

by Author(s): Nikolas K. GvosdevRay Takeyh

The U.S.-Libya relationship became the incubator of this approach after Qaddafi renounced state support for terror activities, ended Libya’s embryonic mass-destruction weapons program and aligned Libya with Western interests. This laid the basis for Tripoli’s rapprochement with Washington, a policy that enjoyed strong bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress. In 2007, the late Tom Lantos, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, concluded:

I am very proud of America’s success in convincing Qadhafi to become a decent citizen of the global community. . . . Our engagement with Qadhafi and the prosperity it has brought Libya serves as a model to countries currently sponsoring terror or compiling weapons of mass destruction. They should know that they, too, can come in from the cold.

In dealing with hereditary politics in the Middle East, the United States held out hope that the Taiwan scenario (the passage of power from an autocratic father to a more liberalizing son) might be duplicated in the region—especially when it came to two sons, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi and Gamal Mubarak, who were seen as liberalizing “heirs-in-waiting” to take over Libya and Egypt from their elderly fathers. Having younger, Western-educated sons take control from aging parents seemed the best way to encourage democratization in the Middle East.

For its first two years, the Obama administration continued to adhere to this script. Then a university-educated fruit seller in Tunisia immolated himself, and everything changed.

The Arab Spring was bound to present the United States with stark choices. Suddenly a regional revolt in the name of democracy and accountability confronted pliable American allies who sought to cloak their repressive tendencies in the name of resisting Islamic radicalism. Mubarak, Qaddafi and others threatened by revolts from below had assumed that close cooperation with America’s security agenda for the Middle East would buy their regimes a certain degree of immunity from U.S. criticism and pressure. They were wrong.

Initially, many expected the Obama team to embrace the two-track approach undertaken by earlier administrations in other parts of the world, particularly in East Asia during the 1980s: up-front backing for an embattled leader to take whatever steps were needed to secure his regime and restore order with a promise to initiate reforms over the long term. Indeed, the initial responses of the Obama administration to unrest in Egypt seemed to indicate that Washington might follow the script that Ronald Reagan and his team crafted to deal with Chun Doo Hwan of South Korea: getting a leader to first accept term limits for office, then slowly laying the groundwork for the transition that culminated in the 1987 elections. But when Obama’s special envoy to Egypt, Frank Wisner, expressed support for the old approach, his remarks were repudiated in Washington, and Obama abruptly changed course to push for Mubarak’s complete and immediate removal.

Realist voices in the administration raised all the traditional cautionary flags. But they were brushed aside. In Egypt, the notion that any post-Mubarak government would be less sensitive to core U.S. interests was seen as a condition that Washington would have to live with; in earlier times it was considered an eventuality to be crushed. The concerns that Libya might disintegrate as a nation-state, facilitating the rise of Islamist militants in ungoverned spaces, were set aside for the benefit of preventing a feared humanitarian crisis. Certainly, by the end of 2011, political figures and movements that the United States worked hard for decades to keep away from the levers of power—the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Libyan Islamists, Rachid al-Ghannouchi in Tunisia—were all playing roles in the postdictator political arena.

Undoubtedly the death of Osama bin Laden, the successful elimination of other key al-Qaeda leaders and operatives, and the belief that al-Qaeda was “losing its struggle for relevance” in the region, to quote from Obama’s May 2011 address at the State Department, contributed to the assessment that backing revolutionary ferment in the Arab world would not automatically hand power over to an implacable foe of the United States. Obama has expressed his optimism that successor regimes will not seek to alter fundamentally their countries’ ongoing cooperation with the United States, particularly in continuing efforts to combat terrorism and broker a lasting Middle East peace settlement. He has declared that “America’s interests are not hostile to peoples’ hopes; they’re essential to them.” But it remains a big question whether Islamists will undergo a democratic transformation and eventually create moderate governments.

Indeed, there has been a real shift in American attitudes, a willingness to take the risks of losing short-term security advantages in favor of encouraging long-term societal change. To be sure, such a paradigm shift is not categorical or complete. America’s foreign policy is never without its inconsistencies and contradictions. Washington continues to cater to Saudi sensibilities, and it looked askance as Riyadh marched into Bahrain to buttress its Sunni satrap through continued repression of the majority Shia population. The fact that the Gulf monarchies demonstrated limited appetite for viable political reforms has not elicited loud American objections. The need for Gulf oil and military bases and the common cause of containing a recalcitrant Iran continue to overwhelm Washington’s democratic penchants. Nonetheless, a new tendency has fractured America’s long-held realism in the Middle East. How these states conduct their internal affairs and treat their citizens will be taken into account as the United States determines its alliances, shifts its loyalties and considers its interests. No country has ever conducted its policy solely on the basis of humanitarian considerations, but, given the events of the past year, they are poised to exercise more influence over decision making than ever before.

A FOREIGN-POLICY doctrine must be suited for its times, tailored to exploit available opportunities, and flexible enough to take advantage of sudden and subtle shifts in the international system. Many critics allege that realism is hardly suitable for the changing regional landscape confronting Washington today, that America needs a foreign policy based on values, and that embracing and encouraging rapid political change throughout the Middle East is both necessary and desirable.

But what is to be done if change must be nudged or forced? The 2003 Iraq War vindicated many realist objections, but the apparent success of the 2011 Libya operation—which ended up deposing Qaddafi from power without the loss of a single American life and without any serious rupture in U.S. relations with other powers—begs the question as to whether the Obama administration wants to enter a postrealist era where the old trade-offs between pursuing American ideals and securing U.S. interests are no longer relevant.

In the past, debates over the advisability of intervention were driven by two considerations: the potential cost of the proposed action and the likelihood that it would precipitate a clash with another major power. Obama acknowledged as much in March 2011 when he observed: “Given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right.” The Arab Spring could offer the United States a template for future limited interventions that could uphold American values without exacting much cost in return.

One of the factors that may be driving the administration’s confidence that a new era of interventionism is warranted comes from the reality that so-called “rogue regimes” around the world are under a new set of pressures. In the 1990s, regimes from Iran to Cuba found relief from unilateral U.S. sanctions and pressure by turning to European states that were willing to continue engagement. The Europeans embraced a policy of critical dialogue, which stressed that through diplomatic discussions and economic incentives rogue regimes could be persuaded to modify their behavior. The proponents of such an outlook argued that even rogue states contain factions of moderates and pragmatists that serve as potential interlocutors. From this perspective, an inclusive approach was designed to empower the pragmatists and diminish the standing of the hard-liners. Clever despots could exploit the divergence between the United States and Europe, as punitive U.S. measures were frequently undermined by a European policy of commerce and dialogue. Meanwhile, U.S. pressure on Europe, manifested primarily through the imposition of secondary sanctions on European firms doing business in places such as Tehran and Havana, often backfired.

During the first years of the Bush administration, transatlantic ties were aggravated over a whole host of issues, ranging from climate change to the Iraq invasion. In particular, the United States and several of its key allies in Europe, especially Germany and France, saw the Middle East from vastly different perspectives. Yet during the latter part of the Bush presidency, the first signs of convergence began to emerge. Once the allies put the divisive issue of Iraq behind them, they found much common ground. Washington accepted the need for international coalitions to deal with regional problems, and a new generation of European leaders such as France’s Nicolas Sarkozy began to see that financial incentives and soothing words were unlikely to temper hardened ideologues.

Image: Pullquote: Mubarak, Qaddafi and others threatened by revolts from below had assumed that close cooperation with America’s security agenda for the Middle East would buy their regimes a certain degree of immunity from U.S. criticism and pressure. They were wrong.Essay Types: Essay