Foreign Policy: Why Libya? Because Yes, We Could

Originally published on March 29, 2011 10:34 am

David Rothkopf is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and President and CEO of Garten Rothkopf.

That was the message of Barack Obama's speech from the National Defense University tonight. His remarks were earnest, well-delivered, and framed in the uplifting rhetoric that usually surrounds America's international interventions. He spoke of national interests and our revolution-born spirit. He spoke with passion and made lawyerly arguments dismantling the position of both those who said we should not have acted, and those who said we were not going far enough.

But, at its heart, the president's speech was so committed to avoiding the articulation of a doctrine that it inadvertently created one. At the speech's core, when the president was trying to answer the question of "why Libya?" he framed it with the words, "in this particular country at this particular moment..." and then he went on to say we faced a grave threat and that we had "a unique opportunity" to stop that violence "without putting U.S. troops on the ground." He was trying to say why Libya was special and why he made the choice to act. But in effect, what he was saying was we will intervene to advance our eternal American values ... when circumstances permit.

For all the talk about our responsibilities to the international community and to humanitarian ideals, the message was: Libya, yes ... Congo, no ... Darfur, no ... Syria, probably not ... Yemen, unlikely ... Bahrain, heck no. Not to act in Libya would be a "betrayal of who we are." Not to act in these other places? That was not so clear.

Perhaps a non-doctrine doctrine should not be a surprise given that this is a non-war war in which we are leading without leading and in which our goal is not regime change except to the extent that it is. The administration that came into office decrying pre-emptive military action justified by unsubstantiated threats and inviting uncertain outcomes is now basing its foreign-policy reputation on a pre-emptive military action justified by unsubstantiated threats while inviting uncertain outcomes.

Who is advising the president on this? Lewis Carroll?

On the plus side, the president did announce that NATO would take the lead on both the no-fly zone management and on protecting the Libyan civilian population starting Wednesday. He was articulating a more wisely multilateralist American stance that is welcome and utterly appropriate. But while he noted the sweeping changes taking place across the region, he offered only platitudes about the degree to which our sympathies lay with reformers. There was no better sense of how America's Middle Eastern policies were changing as a result of the region's many upheavals, a chain of events that is potentially the most significant geopolitical shift since the end of the Cold War — certainly a shift that far exceeds 9/11 in the changes it portends for the world.

It is the significance of this shift and the importance of sending a clear message to regimes that are coming under pressure to change that makes answering the question "why Libya?" so important. And it is what makes the "we did it because we could" answer both so maddening and so dangerous. Because it suggests just how unlikely it is that we will actually intervene to stop anyone else from the abuses we feared from Gadhafi. That's because the conditions we have found "in this particular country in this particular moment" are so unlikely to be duplicated.

I'll acknowledge it's a pragmatic answer. And it doesn't box in the president or the United States. But it also says, "read nothing into this, it may or may not mean something." In the town that gave us the non-denial denial, I suppose that's to be expected. I am certain realists will hail it as being wise while idealists will cling to the president's rhetoric and ignore the clear implications that for all our values we have no principles. Perhaps I should be more flexible but frankly I came away from the speech knowing little more than I knew going in.

The president, I felt, held up a mirror to recent events and tried to persuade us it was a window to the future ... recounting in as sympathetic a way as possible what had happened as if that might give us some clue as to what would happen next.

For me as a result, wondering where we go from here in the Middle East, it all therefore just gets, as Carroll's Alice would say, curiouser and curiouser. But then, perhaps I should just relax, take a big sip from the bottle marked "drink me" and go with the flow. After all, as Carroll wrote (presciently if inadvertently describing America's apparent foreign policy in the new Middle East): "If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there."

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