Obama’s Middle East Speech: Repackaging or Remaking US policy in the region?

May 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

Today President Obama gave a speech detailing his administration’s response to the Arab Spring, his support for fledgling democracies in the region, his rationale for intervening in Libya and not Bahrain, Yemen or Syria and a way forward for assisting democratic development in Tunisia and Egypt and for Arab-Israeli peace. Kori Schake writes for Foreign Policy that “he (Obama) was long on pedantry and short of concrete proposals,” and that “His national security team should have provided him a much better developed program of policies in advance of a major speech.” Schake is correct to a certain extent. When Obama discussed the government suppression of protesters in Syria, Iran and Bahrain,  he was quick to criticize the repressive regimes in those countries but stopped short of offering any promise of direct support for the democratic movements there. Despite this, Obama’s speech was a success in the sense that it reaffirmed the cosmopolitan principles he advanced in his Cairo speech, that he offered significant aid to the Middle East and that he promised a slight improvement in American policy towards Arab-Israeli peace.

Obama fulfilled some of the promises in his 2009 speech in Cairo, but not all. In that speech, Obama argued:

“There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground,” and that “recognizing our common humanity is only the beginning of our task. Words alone cannot meet the needs of our people. These needs will be met only if we act boldly in the years ahead; and if we understand that the challenges we face are shared, and our failure to meet them will hurt us all.”

In some respects today’s speech and Obama’s recent policies towards the Middle East have lived up to these promises: Obama promised to relieve $1 billion of Egypt’s debt and to provide $1 billion worth of borrowing, he asked the IMF and World Bank to create a comprehensive plan for democratic development in Tunisia and Egypt, he outlined a plan based on the post-Cold War reconstruction of Eastern Europe for the region’s economic development, he passed sanctions on Syria and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and he intervened in Libya with NATO (though the efficacy of this is as yet undetermined). In other respects, some of which Schake makes note of, Obama’s speech, and his policies in the region, have fallen short of these promises. For example, critics of today’s speech will note the, perhaps intentional, lack of any mention of Saudi Arabia, a country ruled by a monarchy, and it is as of yet unclear what the Obama administration will do regarding Yemen or Bahrain, or how it will react if the situation in Syria worsens.

Despite these omissions, Obama’s speech succeeded in continuing to frame US and Middle Eastern relations in a cosmopolitan light, emphasizing mutual respect, open dialogue and America’s willingness to aid and support the region. Obama began this process in Cairo in 2009, and today he reaffirmed those same aspirations and values.  In today’s speech, Obama underlined his, and America’s, empathy towards the people of the Middle East. He said “failure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people will only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues our own interests at their expense,” and “We have embraced the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator. There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity.” Through these speech-acts and by stressing that ownership of the Arab Spring belonged to the Middle East, and not America, Obama broke from the “American exceptionalism” tone that was a central aspect of the Bush administration’s framing of relations towards the region. While Bush pursued unilateral intervention and policies towards the Middle East, going as far as to directly intervene in Iraq and to declare Iran “evil”, Obama has preferred to emphasis mutual respect and dignified dialogue when addressing the region.

Perhaps the most significant moment of Obama’s speech came towards the end, when he outlined his vision of a way forward for Arab-Israeli peace. Obama argued that the basis for peace should rest on working towards a two state solution, and should start with redrawing the borders as they were prior to the 1967 Six-Day War. The United States has allowed Israel much leeway in discussions of Arab-Israeli peace, and so by advocating the pre-1967 borders Obama has promised to take away a small amount from Israel in favor of the Palestinians at the bargaining table. However, this promise is not nearly enough. Israel has had America’s unyielding support for decades, and, while the Palestinians are not wholly blameless (Hamas, for example, has consistently hindered peace negotiations) Israel will continue to resist negotiations as long as it has America to rely on for unwavering military and diplomatic support. Asking Israel, who is certainly in the position of power in negotiations with Palestine, to concede more of its demands could have spurred more constructive peace talks over the coming weeks.

Obama’s speech advanced his effort to remake relations with the Middle East by promising support for the democratic movements of the Arab Spring and by reaffirming the shared values of the US and the region, but failed to suggest a sweeping overhaul of US policy in the region. Despite a few novel promises, such as redrawing the proposed borders of an Arab-Israeli compromise and the offer of US aid and relief of debt to Egypt and Tunisia, Obama’s speech, for the most part, stuck to realistic goals for the short term. By avoiding any clear promises to Syria, Bahrain and Yemen and by only incrementally increasing pressure on Israel, Obama has guaranteed the maintenance of the status quo in US policy towards the Middle East while somewhat succeeding in appeasing audiences in Egypt, Tunisia, Israel and at home.

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Vanishing and Expanding Causes of War

May 13, 2011 § 1 Comment

Following the death of Bin Laden and the surge of democratic revolutions in the Middle East known as the Arab Spring, debate over the continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has begun in Congress. Bin Laden was not only the founder of Al Qaeda, he was also often referred to as the “spiritual leader” of the terrorist organization, and was considered an important symbolic figurehead in the effort to recruit new members to their cause. But, even before Bin Laden’s death, there was some debate over Al Qaeda’s relevance in a Middle East marked with democratic uprisings. After all, as Richard Clarke notes in a New York Times Op-ed, one of Al Qaeda’s express purposes was to replace governments in the Middle East with Islamic governments, such as Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, a goal that may now become a reality, depending on the path democratic reforms take in the region.

It is unclear whether Bin Laden’s death and the Arab Spring will truly marginalize Al Qaeda, but these events have led American Democrats to call for the beginning of troop withdrawals in the region. As reported by Josh Rogin for Foreign Policy, Democratic policymakers addressed a letter to President Obama that stated the following:

“Our nation’s economic and national security interests are not served by a policy of open-ended war in Afghanistan,” that letter stated. “A significant redeployment of U.S. troops from Afghanistan beginning in July 2011 will send a clear signal that the United States does not seek a permanent presence in Afghanistan.”

Additionally, breaking from his party platform, Senator Richard Lugar argued that “with Al Qaeda largely displaced from the country, but franchised in other locations, Afghanistan does not carry a strategic value that justifies 100,000 American troops and a $100 billion per year cost, especially given current fiscal restraints.”

However, there is significant support in Congress for the continued presence of the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Representative Howard P. McKeon, Republican of California, recently proposed a renewal of authorization to use military force against Al Qaeda to the House Armed Services Committee. Opponents of this bill argue that it would unnecessarily renew presidential war powers, thus continuing the exceptional war-time authority of the executive branch.

Underlying current debate on whether or not to continue America’s military presence in Afghanistan is a vast history of expansionist warfare. As James Sheehan states in his course “History of the International System,” (lectures available on Itunes U), wars are often begun for the sake of a policy goal relevant at the inception of conflict, but tend to persist for very different reasons. The Iraq War is an example of this: The United States invaded that country to remove Saddam Hussein and dismantle the country’s WMD potential, but the war persisted long after Hussein’s death and the discovery that WMD intelligence was false and came to be more about state-building in Iraq, and even “winning” in Iraq, than anything else.

The example that Professor Sheehan uses to make this point is World War I. Professor Sheehan notes that the original cause of conflict was the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia. This invasion in turn triggered responses from the great powers in Europe: The Russians backed the Serbs, the French backed the Russians, the British backed the French and the Germans backed the Austrians. However, as Sheehan states, once conflict began “Serbia disappears from everybody’s screen almost at once.” Instead, World War I evolved into a war of attrition in both Western and Eastern Europe, and lacked a clear, overriding goal fueling the cause for war. As Sheehan notes, as the war dragged on it became more about the inability of the officials conducting the war to admit that the enormous sacrifices their country had made in human life and resources were in vain. Thus, the longer the war persisted and the greater those sacrifices became, the more important it was to “win” the war, despite the fact that the original cause for conflict, the invasion of Serbia, was no longer a relevant policy pursuit for any nation involved (except of course, Serbia).

At the onset of the Afghan War, President Bush characterized America’s purpose there as “carefully targeted actions  designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime.” Since 2001, however, the Afghan War has expanded to include some state-building goals, such as training the Afghan military, and the complete overthrow of the Taliban regime in favor of Karzai’s government. Now, Representative McKeon’s proposal would renew conflict in Afghanistan. While the original Congressional approval for military force authorized action against the perpetrators of 9/11, McKeon’s proposal would expand this to authorize force against Al Qaeda, the Taliban and “associated forces.”

Perhaps the most important takeaway from Professor Sheehan’s lecture is his comment that the persistence of World War I caused the rivalries and antagonisms among Europe’s great powers to harden and become more steadfast, arguably contributing to World War II. Renewing conflict in Afghanistan and allowing the War on Terror to persist, and the executive’s ability to indefinitely detain terrorist suspects to persist along with it, risks the potential of further ingraining a sense of Islamic rivalry with the West and America. The Arab Spring and Bin Laden’s death have arguably given us an opportunity for a fresh start in the Middle East. Not only will there be new regimes with which to conduct diplomacy, the Islamic world will also have less frustration with their own government and less of a sense that America is partly responsible for propping up the abysmal, yet America-friendly regimes in the Middle East. Al Qaeda’s support relies on viewing America as an enemy. If we take this opportunity to lessen our military presence in the Middle East, we may very well succeed in our original goal as of September 12th, 2001: to undermine Al Qaeda to such an extent that it becomes wholly irrelevant.

Terrorist trials in military courts

April 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

This week the Obama Administration announced it would back down from its decision to try Guantanamo Bay detainees in civilian courts, and would instead revert to the Bush Administration’s policy of using military trials. Supporters of the Bush Administration’s policy, like Texas Representative and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Lamar Smith (R), argue that Obama is making the right choice. In Representative Smith’s words, “It’s unfortunate that it took the Obama administration more than two years to figure out what the majority of Americans already know: that 9/11 conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is not a common criminal, he’s a war criminal.” Alternatively, opponents of military trials are dismayed, arguing that America’s judicial system should be adequate for any crime, and that trying terrorists in military courts undermines the rule of law. The Obama administration’s decision, and the drama unfolding around it, represent the legal ambiguity of not only the detainees at Guantanamo, but of executive powers of war in an era of terrorism and violence sponsored by non-governmental organizations.

In response to the terrorist attacks on September 11th, President Bush not only began a war, but began what would be a decade long (and counting) debate on the legal status of citizen combatants, or terrorists. These individuals, labeled “enemy combatants” by the Bush Administration, have complicated the traditional laws of war. Prior to September 11th, individuals involved in combat would have a clear legal status as the combatants of a nation or state. If those individuals broke the law, they would be in violation of whatever international laws of war their state had agreed to through treaty (such as the Geneva Conventions). In Bush’s War on Terror, however, “enemy combatants”  are members of non-governmental organizations, Al Qaeda or the Taliban primarily, and because neither of these organizations are clearly states it is uncertain as to whether international laws of war apply to them (there is some debate as to the status of the Taliban, see here).

By declaring “war” on terrorism generally speaking, Bush acquired all the traditional executive powers of war, which, it turns out, are quite far-reaching and flexible. However, because “terrorism” is not a state, as would be the typical target in a war, the extent of executive power in this conflict, and the length of time in which it can be used, is uncertain. Because terrorism is more of a tactic or idea than it is a definable entity, it is unclear as to what victory in the War on Terror would be.

All of this uncertainty has fueled executive overreach throughout the War on Terror. Bush, and now by extension Obama, have been able to break the law or exercise power in areas traditionally under the purview of the judiciary or legislature. For example, the Bush Administration’s warrantless surveillance program in 2005 violated the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Additionally,the newly reimplemented military trials constitute a breach of the Geneva Conventions: the Conventions allow for military trials, but also guarantee the right to appeal to a civilian court (Article 106), “essential guarantees of independence and impartiality” (Article 84), the right to call witnesses (Article 105), and the right to confer with an attorney in private (Article 105) (The Geneva Conventions, 1949), none of which are allowed under the current military trials. By violating the Conventions, Bush undermined laws that constitute  basic principles of the rights of the accused in all democracies, and were meant to protect not only America’s enemies in war, but American soldiers in a time of war as well.

Proponents of military trials argue that using civilian courts to bring Guantanamo detainees to trial would risk the potential release of highly dangerous criminals, such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who is accused of orchestrating the September 11th attacks. However, what would be the result of using a civilian court in this case? Either Mohammed would be found guilty and given due punishment as accorded by federal law, or he would be found not guilty and would be freed of indefinite detention at Guantanamo. Saying that Mohammed cannot be given legitimate civilian determination of his guilt because he is “too dangerous” is tantamount to declaring his guilt before a trial even occurs. Furthermore, allowing our executive branch to make this decision, even if it is at the insistence of certain members of Congress, is a violation of the balance of powers among the branches of our government. In the War on Terror, we have allowed our executive to declare war on what is essentially a military tactic and to unilaterally prosecute any individual who could be accused of association with that tactic. Obama, by caving in to political pressures and extending the Bush Administration’s legal tactics of the War on Terror, has exacerbated the situation rather than ending a decade of legal ambiguity and executive overreach.

Why did the international community mobilize on Libya but not Ivory Coast?

April 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

*Fifteen minutes before this post went live, France, under the direction of the U.N., began a campaign “aimed at neutralizing heavy weapons that are used against the civilian population and United Nations personnel in Abidjan,” (From New York Times) in Ivory Coast. So, while the international community can no longer be said to have done nothing in Ivory Coast, action there is still very limited relative to intervention in Libya.

In his most recent post, Arvind asked whether or not international intervention in the conflict in Libya was justified. Since then it has become clear that Libya is not the only country undergoing what could be labeled a civil war: recent events in Ivory Coast suggest that the situation there has degenerated to the point of nationwide conflict as well. Additionally, just as in Libya, reports from Ivory Coast suggest that both sides of the conflict may have participated in mass civilian killings. This raises the question, why did America and the international community mobilize against Qaddafi in Libya, but not Ivory Coast?

Corinne Dufka, in an argument in favor of intervention in Ivory Coast, noted the following about Gbagbo, the incumbent in Ivory Coast whose refusal to leave office sparked protests there:

“In the view of both the African Union and the United Nations, Gbagbo has overseen what probably amounts to crimes against humanity. His security forces and allied militias engage in brutal killings, forced disappearances, politically motivated rape, indiscriminant shelling, and torture in an often-organized campaign of terror against real or perceived supporters of Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of last year’s election.”

Since Obama’s speech on March 28, in which he explained the reasoning for intervention in Libya, many have noted the development of what is being called the “Obama Doctrine.” This, in sum, is an argument delineating the correct circumstances for intervening militarily in conflicts in other countries. Here is how Obama phrased it:

“To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and -– more profoundly -– our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”

As noted in this Foreign Policy article, Obama is essentially describing the “Responsibility to Protect,” a political-philosophical doctrine that argues in favor of protecting civilians in other nations if their government is unable or unwilling to do so, or if the government itself is the source of the harm to civilians. On paper, the situation in Ivory Coast could arguably be placed under the purview of the responsibility to protect, since many reports indicate that Gbagbo, the incumbent who lost the election in late 2010, has ordered the killing of civilian protesters. Assuming this is true, why haven’t Obama or the international community supported intervention in Ivory Coast?

There are two popular strategic rationales for international intervention in Libya, as opposed to other current Middle-Eastern conflicts, one of which I reject and the other I believe may be a significant factor. The first of these is the oil interest in Libya. Some argue that, since Libya has a small but not insignificant percentage of world oil production, the West intervened for the sake of the size and stability of their oil supply, and not for humanitarian reasons. However, as Arvind pointed out to me yesterday, this argument does not make sense. If the west were interested in the stability and size of the oil supply, it would have been more beneficial to ignore Gaddafi’s crimes, allow him to run over the rebels, and get oil production back up and running. Or, if siding with Gaddafi simply was not an option, the West would have sent in ground troops to protect the oil supply and end the conflict quickly. Of course, this may yet happen, but as for now it remains off the table.

The other strategic rationale has to do with Libya’s relative importance to American and international policy in the Middle East, and for the current revolutions there more specifically. Intervening in Libya has two benefits for America and the international community in this regard: we do our part in helping to continue the current populist political movement in the Middle East and in removing an unsavory dictator, while also painting the West and international institutions in a favorable light. Ivory Coast does not fit into this strategic reasoning because it is considered wholly a part of Africa, and not the Middle East, and because democracy has already functioned well there for years, whereas Libya has been ruled by a dictator (Qaddafi) for approximately 40 years.

Beyond strategic reasoning, I believe there are more basic rationales that could explain why intervention in Ivory Coast has not become politically salient while intervention in Libya has: preponderance in force and political framing. While the opposition movement in Libya started as grassroots political protests, the opposition in Ivory Coast had a leader-Alassane Ouattara, the winner of the recent election-and an already organized rebel movement. The opposition movement in Libya would have been severely hampered by Qaddafi’s superior military might and so it needed international assistance, but in Ivory Coast the two sides are more evenly matched.

Qaddafi’s preponderance in force had another effect on the international community’s decision to support intervention. Because Qaddafi had the capability to mass murder civilians and the opposition movement lacked the ability to prevent him from doing so, it was easier to frame conflict there as the beginnings of government sponsored mass-killings. Because Libya was framed in the light of potential moral hazard, governments of the world were compelled to act, or else risk the potential for the situation in Libya to deteriorate into a resemblance of the genocide in Rwanda. Ivory Coast, on the other hand, “looks” more like a civil war, with two sides of approximately equal strength fighting over the politics and society of their nation.

This is not to say that the underlying differences of the conflicts in Ivory Coast and Libya should be reasons to intervene in one and not the other, or even to intervene at all. However, it is useful to understand why some conflicts become the object of interest of the international community (Kosovo, Somalia) while others are either completely ignored or simply left alone (Sri Lanka, Sudan, Rwanda). As this case shows, there are clear distinctions between Libya and Ivory Coast that have compelled international action in one situation and not the other, and understanding these distinctions helps us to understand the actions of our own government along with the norms and morals of the international community.

Deciding on Libya

March 28, 2011 § 2 Comments

I was out of town over the last week doing volunteer work in New Orleans (more about this later) and so I missed much of the news and opinion about Libya as American air strikes began. As I have caught up with events unfolding there, I have had an unusually difficult time deciding whether American intervention there is well-advised. As I discussed the issue with Michael earlier today, I realized that this difficulty is, in large part, caused by the immense uncertainty surrounding the course that events there will take. Normally, when presented with an issue, I decide by attempting to determine the relative harms and benefits involved in each alternative and judging these against my own priorities. In Libya, however, the outcomes resulting from American intervention or non-intervention are not definite facts, they are probabilities whose results lead to yet more questions.

The first question is about the alternatives to a military intervention. The obvious course would have been to do nothing. In the absence of any intervention whatsoever it is not at all clear that there would have been a large scale humanitarian crisis and, in fact, our intervention could easily worsen the situation. Furthermore, it is possible that a combination of negotiations and sanctions would have convinced Gaddafi to stop attacking his own people without the need for military action.

Humanitarian concerns are given some credence by Gaddafi loyalists’ clear disregard for civilians in their attack on the rebel held city of Misrata and their apparent use of rape as a weapon of war, but it is far from clear that mass murder of the Libyan people would have taken place in our absence. Nor is it clear, for that matter, that this humanitarian crisis would have eclipsed the many in which we have not intervened: the Democratic Republic of Congo and Darfur have both experienced demonstrable humanitarian crises of a massive scale without our military taking action.

Assuming that the humanitarian crisis in our absence warrants intervention we must consider the probability of success of the current, limited intervention which involves no (or very limited) ground forces. Though the rebels have made gains in recent days, taking back the strategic oil town of Ajdabiya, their continued success is far from assured. The rebel army consists of only about a thousand trained men and continues to be relatively disorganized. This suggests that, unlike our experience in Afghanistan where we worked closely with the Northern Alliance, the rebel forces on the ground in Libya simply may not have the requisite experience or manpower to defeat Gaddafi, and this, without even considering the much higher degree of our involvement in Afghanistan. Success of this limited intervention, then, is far from assured.

If our current action fails, what comes next? If no further forces are committed, the Libyan people likely would be left worse off than if there had been no intervention at all. The toll of our air strikes and the extensive fighting between rebel forces and Gaddafi loyalists would leave an even larger humanitarian crisis behind with only a Gaddafi led government to provide aid. If the international coalition decides to send in ground troops – and leaving the Libyan people worse off would lend some moral weight to the argument that we ought to – then we are left with the question of American involvement.

Committing American forces to the ground in Libya appears to me to be a bad idea. With two major engagements already in Afghanistan and Iraq (not to mention our many minor commitments around the world) neither the American military nor the American people are ready for another conflict in the Arab world. If the American military refuses to enter, the international coalition may be unable to succeed without them. After all, this is – despite the cheers of international cooperation – the smallest coalition assembled since the First Gulf War. In either case, a more involved intervention may rob the rebels of their legitimacy to govern leading to a long lived insurgent movement as we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the end, if everything follows the plan and Gaddafi is removed, we have to consider the nature of whatever replaces him. Given the disorganization of the rebel movement, the lack of planning we are able to do with such a movement, and Gaddafi’s creation of a state without many state institutions (all nicely detailed here), Libyan rebels may end up unable to create a functioning government. Out of this anarchic situation we could even imagine a new dictator coming to power or further devolution into a Somalia-like failed state.

Assuming the better case – that a new government is eventually established and that it is a democratic one – it still may not uphold human rights, provide well for its people or be favorably inclined towards the United States. Although, as Michael noted during our discussion, even if the government of Libya is not the best on these counts,  democracy may have a liberalizing effect over time leading to an improved situation. We ought to consider, however, that most of the Libyan rebels come from the same parts of the country which sent many insurgents to Iraq.

The commitment of the international community to intervening in Libya seems fraught with uncertainty. It compares favorably in many aspects to Iraq and Afghanistan: the United States has done a fair job forcing other countries to take the lead, the rebel movement is homegrown, and it has already begun to set up an interim government. It also has areas in which it falls short: the size and sophistication of the rebel army, the dearth of state institutions, and the lack of clarity regarding who will control the new government.

This uncertainty suggests that it may have been ill advised to begin an intervention in Libya when a limited commitment would have difficulty succeeding, and when a more involved one may only succeed at the cost of the subsequent government. Given our intervention, however, it now appears as though we must bring it to some degree of resolution. We are now, to borrow a poker term, pot committed: having taken a course of action we are now forced by changing circumstance into further commitments.

What is needed then, is a continual assessment of the cost of our continued presence in Libya against the benefits and harms to the Libyan and American people. For this to work, Obama should lay out clearly what the costs of the war will be, and what our strategy going forward is. While I would oppose the invasion of American ground troops, Obama should continue to pressure coalition members into taking a larger role while providing support for their actions. At least, that is, until more of these questions are resolved and we can more clearly determine whether continued American involvement is helping the cause of Libyan freedom and whether this help comes at too high a cost to the American people.

Former worst Ambassador to the U.N. speaks out in favor of “no-drive zone”

March 15, 2011 § 3 Comments

On Monday, former Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton criticized Obama for his response to the situation in Libya. According to Bolton, Obama’s policy course has consisted only of “rhetoric combined with studied inaction,” and is too cautious.

Instead, Bolton recommends the following bold steps to assist Libya:

“The steps America can take to protect our key strategic interests are becoming increasingly limited. Options include a no-fly zone (now belatedly endorsed by the Arab League) and possibly a no-drive zone for Gadhafi’s military vehicles, plus recognizing Libya’s opposition as its legitimate government. Whatever we do, however, must be done quickly to have a realistic chance of success. Unfortunately, while the clock ticks and our interests disintegrate, Obama remains essentially passive.”

The situation in Libya is without doubt serious and has the potential to become a protracted civil war. That being said, the notion of a “no-drive zone” is absolutely ridiculous. The only realistic means by which the United States could prevent Gadhafi’s military vehicles from driving through Libya would be military intervention. A no-drive zone, no-fly zone and recognition of the Libyan opposition are also certainly not the only options on the table for the United States. Secretary Clinton has already met with the leaders of the opposition to discuss this very topic, a move which does not seem to suggest inaction on Obama’s part as Bolton has argued.

The slow implementation of a no-fly zone in Libya is also not entirely Obama’s fault. Discussion of the no-fly zone has been held up by China and Russia in the U.N. security council, a tidbit that Bolton probably did not accidentally forget to mention. Prior to being named U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Bolton was highly critical of the organization.

Bolton’s argument that our government should unilaterally establish a no-fly zone is not surprising, but is the wrong choice. Unilateral American presidential action on foreign policy issues was the favored choice for the Bush administration, and so hearing Bolton echo these ideas should be expected. Fortunately, however, America has moved beyond this strategy. The idea that America can, and should, ignore international institutions and alliances in favor of working alone not only damages relations with other countries, but damages America itself by forcing us to conduct our policy in a less cooperative international environment. Consider that a war lacking strong ally support in Iraq, a war lacking strong ally support in Afghanistan, and the establishment of an indefinite detention facility that tarnishes America’s human rights and legal reputations are some of the results we saw from this approach.

Obama’s foreign policy approach has been cautious and prone to keeping dialogue channels open from the start. Rather than jumping to conclusions like the “Axis of Evil” or “we’re positive Iraq has WMDs,” Obama appears to support a more cerebral policy that focuses on developing understanding and conversation with other governments before acting. In situations like that in Libya, waiting to discuss options certainly leaves a bad taste in our mouths, as we receive daily reports of Gadhafi’s violent repression of anti-government revolts. The trade-off for America, however, is improved international relations, well thought out policy decisions and international respect and perceived legitimacy of American actions, all of which are essential for leadership.

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