I’M WITH Gvosdev and Takeyh if they are warning Washington against military intervention for humanitarian reasons or to promote democracy—without due regard for the costs and effects or chances of success. Too often American leaders get carried away by emotions or politics without a decent sense of what they’re getting the nation into. Such warnings are always in order, especially when encased in good scholarship. Gvosdev and Takeyh score on all those counts, but I have some questions about exactly where their analysis leads.
First, I wonder about their worries that Libya will set a potent and bad policy precedent. The Obama administration, liberals and even Republicans are all crowing about having overthrown Muammar el-Qaddafi, a vicious dictator, without the loss of one American life and all with the participation of our NATO allies and some key Arab friends. Gvosdev and Takeyh are rightly dubious about that joy. After all, Qaddafi was a rather important intelligence source for the United States in the war against al-Qaeda and terrorism. Al-Qaeda is far from finished, and the loss of Qaddafi’s information will hurt. Further, Qaddafi’s successors might be much worse than he was in terms of mistreating Libyans and threatening American interests. So, for these and other reasons, warning flags about Libya becoming a precedent for American policy are quite in order.
But, frankly, while I approve of the warnings, I’m not too worried about the precedent. “Success” in Libya has not prompted the Obama administration to intervene militarily in Egypt or Syria, for example. Indeed, Obama tried to save President Mubarak, if only for a transition period, because he was an important American ally in the Middle East. In the end, he let Mubarak go because he couldn’t do anything about it. Besides, Obama and many foreign-policy experts were carried away by the Arab Spring, which they saw as the tide of history moving toward the “street democrats.” Obama felt he had to get on top of that tide. So, in the end he “intervened” politically in Egypt to support “the democratic revolution.” But Obama had no thought of U.S. military intervention in Egypt or anywhere else in the region. It has to be noted as well that Obama has stayed his hand, despite considerable pressure, in Syria, where many were calling for him to help overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. Nor did he do much about the civil war that raged in Sudan or troubles in Bahrain. To be sure, U.S. teams of one hundred men or so are now operating in two or three African countries to deal with humanitarian crises, but that is no big deal. So, thus far, Libya is not proving to be a model for future U.S. policy.
To push the point further, one could argue that Obama’s policies elsewhere in the Middle East have been “business as usual,” caution squared, even as he was trampling on Qaddafi. There is no talk of democratizing Saudi Arabia or any of its autocratic neighbors friendly to the United States. Indeed, the administration is on an arms-selling spree in the region. Obama is well aware that these states are almost all oil producers and not anti-American. And he is doing nothing to pressure them to make democratic reforms or do anything to endanger their internal control. Gvosdev and Takeyh acknowledge this but say that the Middle East is the “exception.” In fact, it is the rule.
Military intervention has not, all of a sudden, become easy. A number of factors cast doubt on the authors’ contention that Obama is basically living in a restraint-free world that makes U.S. military intervention easier or even more likely. First, I think the Obama team is wising up about who really benefits from U.S. intervention. China, for example, is the nation profiting from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We do the fighting there, and Beijing buys the oil and other resources. Second, Gvosdev and Takeyh argue that drones have now made the costs of intervention much lower and thus more acceptable. But that really depends on where the battles are fought. Populous areas or trees and mountains with moving targets may be much harder terrain for drones. In theory, drones could spy out targets and strike them anywhere. But drones have been more effective in northwest Pakistan than southern Afghanistan. The authors also seem to suggest that intervention is easier because Washington has forgotten that it might pave the way for bad guys to be succeeded by even worse guys. That is a real concern. But I think Libya was a special case. There, our key allies, who have been helping us in Afghanistan, plus the Arab interventionists made it quite difficult for the Obama team to be sensible. Good sense got shoved aside by unusual allied pressure. Surely, these allies will be less eager to repeat Libya if and when that country falls into hands more unfriendly and murderous than Qaddafi’s.
In sum, I think a good case can be made that we are not entering a period where the floodgates to intervention are opening but a period where floodgates are probably closing. I see increasing caution and opposition to intervention worldwide, and especially in the United States. Strictly humanitarian interventions such as Haiti will remain the exceptions. It might even be hard to duplicate good humanitarian interventions such as Bosnia. Costs also will militate against intervention. In today’s world, a billion here and a billion there is too expensive. The authors are right to call our attention to all of the problems and issues regarding military intervention, but methinks they might worry a little too much.
Realists like Gvosdev and Takeyh are forever and rightly worried about America doing dumb things that are not grounded in clear national interests. And heaven knows, history is too often on their side. I would share their worries today if it looked as though neoconservatives were regaining power. When they control the politics and the machinery of national security, military intervention is only a breath away.
Remember how easy it was to get into Iraq and Afghanistan—and how hard to get out. Never count the neocons out. But, for the time being at least, the Republican front-runner Mitt Romney seems to rely more on realists than neocons. Nor should it be forgotten that certain liberals hearken to humanitarian intervention and democracy promotion. And when they band together with neocons, it’s a strong alliance. For all these reasons, realists like Gvosdev and Takeyh are right not to wait for groundswells for intervention to begin; they have to move swiftly to counter ill-considered agitations for humanitarian and democratic intervention. But for the time being, circumstances at home and abroad favor those with hard-headed caution.
Leslie H. Gelb is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, a former senior official in the State and Defense Departments, and a former New York Times columnist. He is also a member of The National Interest ’s advisory council.Pullquote: We are not entering a period where the floodgates to intervention are opening but a period where floodgates are probably closing.