Over the past several weeks, Iran has not received quite as much attention as usual in Washington because of the extraordinary developments across the Arab world. But Iran and its place in the region have been constant points of reference in the Obama Administration’s reactive responses to the developments.
U.S. officials, speaking on background to various media outlets, have said that, since the beginning of the “Arab awakening” or “Arab spring”, President Obama has wanted to use the wave of popular agitation for political change in a growing number of Arab countries as the basis for an alternative “narrative” and America’s role in it, which could be used against both Al-Qa’ida and the Islamic Republic (what a parallel!). What, exactly, is the role that such Iran-related calculations played in the President’s decision to order U.S. forces to attack targets in Libya?
The explanations offered by the President and senior members of his Administration for this decision have been (to be generous) strategically incoherent. Looking behind the presidential speeches and talking points, we would identify three distinct arguments for the Libya intervention, each championed by a different faction within the Obama Administration. Each of these arguments has Iran-related dimensions.
One is the “liberal imperialist” argument (to borrow John Mearsheimer’s excellent phrase). Those espousing this argument believe there is a genuine moral imperative to violate traditional norms of sovereignty and nonintervention to rescue populations deemed by the international community as threatened by their own governments. A number of those who champion this cause within the Obama Administration—e.g., Susan Rice, Samantha Power, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—believe that the biggest foreign policy failure of the Clinton Administration was its decision not to support humanitarian intervention in Rwanda. They are determined that President Obama will not repeat this mistake. Above all, they want to establish a robust, international mechanism for humanitarian intervention, and saw the Administration’s response to the Libyan case as critical to this end.
By effectively endorsing this argument, though, President Obama has set a truly dangerous precedent that blatantly disregards a sober evaluation of on-the-ground conditions. To this day, the Obama Administration cannot tell the American people how many Libyans were killed by Qaddafi’s forces prior to the NATO intervention. Obama’s reference to what might have happened in Benghazi if the United States and its partners did not intervene militarily ignores the record of past uprisings in Libya—when Qaddafi’s responses to those uprisings did not result in the deaths of thousands or spur massive refugee flows to Egypt.
Make no mistake—Obama has supplemented the George W. Bush doctrine of “preventive” war with his own doctrine of “preventive” humanitarian intervention. And there are clearly forces in the American body politic—if not within the Obama Administration itself—who would ultimately like to use this as a precedent for eventual action against Iran.
Second, there is the “leader of the free world” argument. Those espousing this argument believe that, even if U.S. vital interests were not directly threatened by events in Libya (as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates candidly acknowledged), America’s broader foreign policy equities mandated some form of U.S. intervention.
For this camp—including a number of senior officials at the State Department—the enthusiasm of key European allies (well, France and Britain) and the “unprecedented” endorsement of the Arab League put pressure on the Obama Administration to do something. How could the United States claim to be the world’s leader—and call on other states to support it when Washington’s own enthusiasm for military action was higher, as might ultimately come to be regarding Iran—if it blew off the Europeans and Arabs in this case?
Obama took this argument a step further, in his public explanation of the Libya decision—the availability of international support for humanitarian intervention in a particular case, he said, helps make it in America’s interest to intervene in that case. This statement is an absurd conflation of ends and means.
Third, there is the “demonstration effect”argument. Those espousing this argument believe that the United States has a strong interest in reversing perceptions that U.S. influence in the Middle East is declining as Iranian influence is growing.
It is always difficult to reverse perceptions when they are basically congruent with reality.
So, none of the arguments advanced by various factions within the Obama Administration for military intervention stands up to serious scrutiny. But, beyond this, the U.S. military intervention in Libya has done potentially grave damage to America’s non-proliferation and counter-terrorism policies. After the way the Obama Administration has treated Qadafi, why should any government be willing to trade-off its nuclear capabilities or ties to groups that the United States considers terrorist organizations in return for what it thinks are implicit security assurances stemming from its new relationship with Washington?
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett