IN THE cover story of the previous issue of The National Interest, “Triumph of the New Wilsonism,” Nikolas K. Gvosdev and Ray Takeyh explore the question:
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?
They go on to propose:
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.
Now, undeniably, how governments “treat their populations is gaining traction as a point which must be given equal consideration” with other interests. And surely the Libya operation, which supported a rebellion against a repellent tyrant at zero cost in U.S. lives, can be seen by the White House as a “model” for future interventions.
But that post–Cold War model was invented by Bill Clinton when seventy-eight days of bombing forced Slobodan Milosevic to yield Serbia’s cradle province of Kosovo to its Muslim Albanian majority.
However, to contend that Libya represents a “template for future limited interventions,” a “paradigm shift” or a “doctrine” that may reduce realists to political irrelevance goes more than a bridge too far.
For Libya seems less a rule than an aberration.
Muammar el-Qaddafi, the author of Lockerbie, was a repulsive dictator and virtually friendless. His country of six million was defenseless against air and missile strikes. And the United States had no stake in his survival and took little risk with his removal.
In addition, if Libya is to be the model for “low-cost, no-consequence intervention,” why has there been such reticence in applying this model to Syria?
After all, Bashar al-Assad has been ruthlessly crushing an Arab Spring revolt for nearly a year. Syria’s death toll is estimated at over five thousand, far higher than Qaddafi’s before the NATO attack. Yet, a no-fly zone has not been mandated, and there have been no air strikes.
Unlike Libya, Syria is not friendless and can fight back. It is four times as populous as Libya, and its missiles can reach every neighboring nation. Moscow has sent warships to Syrian waters and antiship missiles to its army. Damascus has allies in Hezbollah and Iran whose actions in the event of a U.S. attack are not predictable.
Equally unpredictable is: Who rises if Assad and the Alawites fall?
Does the United States wish to risk an ethnosectarian civil war or a Sunni Islamist republic in Syria? Do we want to see the cleansing of its two million Christians, as in Iraq? Would a post-Assad Syria honor the truce on the Golan, as Assad and his father have done since 1973?
In Syria, U.S. interests appear to be trumping American values and, except for secret operations, staying America’s hand.
Moreover, as the authors note, we have not intervened on the side of the dissidents in Bahrain or Yemen. Would we side with the Facebook-Twitter crowd if it rose up against the emirate in Kuwait, where thousands of U.S. troops are stationed, or Saudi Arabia, whose fall could trigger Islamic revolutions across the Persian Gulf?
If the Palestinians rose up against the king of Jordan or began a third intifada to demand a nation of their own, would the Americans side with the Palestinian marchers or the Jordanian and Israeli soldiers?
What is the relevance of the “Libyan model” to relations with such antagonistic or adversarial states as China, Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Cuba and Venezuela?
The answer would seem to be none.
Obama is indispensable to the new doctrine. But will he even be around in 2013? Would President Romney back the ouster of a pro-American autocrat facing mass demonstrations if the successor regime might be Islamist? Has any Republican candidate offered Libya as a model?
Since the Cold War, America’s color-coded street revolutions have failed in Belarus and backfired in Kiev and Beirut. Nation building left us with ashes in our mouths in Afghanistan and Iraq. Democratic revolutions gave us elections, but the victors were the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hezbollah.
Consider the harvest of twelve years of interventionism to advance the “world democratic revolution”: the unleashing of Islamism; the isolation of Israel; the rise of Hezbollah and Hamas; recurring sectarian war in Iraq; the possible return of the Taliban to Kabul; and rampant anti-Americanism in lands lately looked upon as allies—Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan.
Is Libya really a conclusive argument for using U.S. power to knock over even friendly Middle Eastern autocrats? Are those who urge America not to intervene going to be ignored in the future?
Obama may embrace Libya “as a useful example in these times of budget austerity for facilitating U.S. values and interests around the world,” but only, it appears, if the regime we attack is friendless and cannot fight back, like Haiti, Serbia or Libya.
No. When the great issues are decided, like war with Iran, perceived or real strategic interests will be paramount, not whether Iranian women must wear burkas or can drive cars. Neither realists nor anti-interventionists are out of this game yet.
Patrick J. Buchanan is an author and political commentator. He was formerly an adviser to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan and a presidential candidate.Pullquote: Unlike Libya, Syria is not friendless and can fight back. It is four times as populous as Libya, and its missiles can reach every neighboring nation.