The Widening Gyre
The horrible news of Assad’s butchery is a tragic reminder of just how flawed our strategic approach to the Middle East since the Libyan uprising has really been. Faced with history disappointing our hopes for it, and desperate to play our necessary part in righting its course and preserve our image in a region where we could control little else, we intervened in Libya in large part because that was where we felt we could most make a difference.
We intervened in Libya hoping to use force in such a way that we could avoid the fate of consistently intervening. By quashing a dictator in Libya, we hoped to sap the violence of will in others and deny them inspiration for their brutality. Unfortunately, as I and many others suspected, this golden calculus could not survive contact with the tumultuous strategic environment of the Middle East. Whatever the merits of intervention in Libya in saving Libyan lives and stemming Gaddafi’s tyranny, it has done nothing similar in Bahrain or Syria.
Having failed to establish a precedent to deter dictators from suppressing their own populations, some liberal internationalists and interventionists now desire a second-best precedent to compel the United States to take further action. While few have explicitly called for forceful action, either overt or covert, the drumbeat is steadily increasing with every awful image and news item from Syria. In doing this, we have acknowledged precedent has failed as a deterrent. Foreign regimes have correctly calculated that the risk of being overthrown by their own populations is far more serious than that of US intervention, because US intervention is not guaranteed and its consequences not always more severe than failing to suppress an uprising. This is the gamble Syria has made.
The problem with this idea of precedent is that it sees more US interventions as a sign of successful policy change, and not a failure of their strategic logic. If the precedent is not immediately better autocratic behavior, it must be more consistent US action, and only by reaching some critical tipping point in international intervention behavior will deterrence establish the kind of “rule-based” constraint against internal violence the US and others seek to implement.
In reality, the proliferation of intervention only obfuscates a sound grand strategy for the Middle East. Intervention, so far, demonstrates where US interests are not at stake, not where they are. We intervene, and continue to intervene, in Libya not because our interests in Libya and its environs were great, but because they were minor enough to worth risking Libya’s stability with a long-term civil war. The deployment of Predator drones and foreign advisors from Europe basically cements this expectation of a drawn out campaign. Predators can allow a bombing mission that might cause outrage if it involved putting US servicemen in danger to extend nigh indefinitely. Advisors, however, will not deliver major improvements except in due time. We are not acting swiftly because, in Libya itself, there is not much at stake for US interests.
In Syria, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, however, the interests at stake are much more significant. Syria, in particular, is a major player in the region and is important in US policy considerations of Lebanon and Israel, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have important diplomatic, economic, and military ties to the United States and the critical Gulf region. It is precisely because the interests at play are stronger, and the players (both state and potentially non-state) involved more powerful (and thus relevant to US concerns), that we are cautious in intervening or even escalating rhetoric and soft engagement in the crises.
Because of this fear of throwing US weight around where it counts more directly for US material and strategic concerns, it becomes all the more important to create the proper image and reception of US power and the role of the region through intervention in Libya, where the stakes are not so critical as to recommend as much caution, as far as US policymakers are concerned. Essentially, we now have a strategy of intervening where it is safe and easy to, for the sparsity of vital interests, to bolster our image in hopes of indirectly influencing events where our interests are more directly at stake but the situations too volatile or risky to permit rash escalation.
The result is intervening where it does not count in places policymakers do not really care about for their own merits or feel compelled to plan far in advance for. The more the US intervenes, the more responsible and the better image we create for the US through adhering to the consistent precedent necessary for establishing the rule-based order that will mitigate, eventually, the need to intervene. Yet it never comes, because the dictators who know the US has too much at stake and is now too busy elsewhere will obey opposite strategic logic. Consequently, we are left feeling not compelled to retrench and re-evaluate our positions, interests, and interventions, but instead to expand our missions ever further to salvage our prestige or add new ones in riskier locales – because if we intervened in a relatively minor arena such as Libya, why not Syria, where it really counts?
How long can this continue? How long can the US afford the costs and opportunity costs, both economic and geopolitical, of these actions? What lessons will the rest of the world take from it? We cannot know until we find out, but that is no reason to try to find out the hard, bloody, frustrating way of pursuing this tragically flawed strategic vision.