Skip to content

The Widening Gyre

April 23, 2011

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.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Jay Ulfelder permalink
    April 23, 2011 5:51 am

    This is a thoughtful analysis, but I think you overstate the extent to which the intervention in Libya was intended, and expected, to deter repression by other dictators. There was certainly some hope that it would do so, but I think the primary goals were 1) to reshape the perception of the USA’s role in the region and 2) to put another brick in the wall of institutionalizing R2P. The former goal is countervailed by tepid responses in Bahrain and Syria, but imagine how the USA would be seen right now if it had also done nothing in Libya. Meanwhile, the latter is a long-term goal that depends only partly on how things turn out in Libya. The fact that comparable action isn’t happening in Bahrain and Syria just shows how far we have to go before we live in a world where the rights we in the US take for granted at home are institutionalized globally.

  2. April 23, 2011 4:59 pm

    Thanks for the response. I agree about your conception of the operation’s primary goals, however, I think they are linked, to some extent, to the need for deterrence in order to institutionalize without continuing patterns of intervention. Certainly, though, I agree the goals in altering US image were advanced in intervening in Libya rather than nowhere.

    I think the problem with “institutionalizing” R2P is that you cannot separate it from the questions of consistency and precedent which are so difficult and dangerous to seek in a foreign policy. When we talk about institutionalizing R2P, do we mean in our own foreign policies, or in the behavior of other states?

    If the former, then we run into the problem where our strategy needs an escalating number of interventions in order to better establish credibility to the idea that the US will enforce R2P. The message in administration rhetoric that Libya is a unique intervention keyed to specific circumstances cuts against its precedent as part of an R2P norm. The only cure for that is more interventions by the US until countries expect an intervention enough to institutionalize the norm on their own.

    The failure of Libya to deter means the US must institutionalize R2P with more interventions until it becomes institutionalized abroad. But how many interventions will it take to do that? My fear is that embarking on that kind of role will distort other US strategic priorities, while plunging the US into a Sisyphean task of creating through its own behavior, a universal norm that will overcome the particular circumstances which usually trigger states to kill their peoples.

    • Jay Ulfelder permalink
      April 24, 2011 5:30 am

      When talking about institutionalizing R2P, I mean at the level of the international system, not in US policy. I would expect consistency and burden-sharing to come at the end of that process, though, not the beginning. In other words, I would say that we’ll know the norm has become deeply institutionalized when there are decision-making procedures and enforcement capabilities to go with it, and those procedures and capabilities routinely involve a much wider set of governments than the UNSC.

      That might never happen, or it might not happen for a long time. In the meantime, though, I think the Libya intervention was a small but important step in that direction. It’s an important one, in part, because the US is not acting alone. This is not a “coalition of the willing” assembled through bullying and coercion. If anything, the US was a reluctant entrant into a coalition that includes not only NATO but, crucially, a number of Arab countries that have historical reason to be skeptical of American intentions in North Africa. So it’s not a situation where the US is attempting to create a universal norm through its own behavior. If anything, it looks like a situation where a budding international norm helped compel the US Government to act in spite of its reservations.

      That result would deeply trouble me if the USA had committed to another ground war or long-term statebuilding endeavor in Libya. But the USA hasn’t done that. In fact, our government (so far) has explicitly rejected those options.

      More important, I don’t think we need to do that for the intervention to have established a valuable precedent. It would be best for all (except Qaddafi) if the Libyan war ended soon and the post-war political process was peaceful, but I don’t think those things have to happen for the intervention to have moved the needle on international norms around state-led violence against civilians. Even with a deeply institutionalized process, it would be unreasonable to expect 100% success. Even the best police forces don’t prevent all crimes. Recognizing this, the USA (and the other members of this coalition) doesn’t have to do everything possible to oust Qaddafi or to keep peace in a post-Qaddafi Libya in order to advance the policy objective of institutionalizing shared responsibility for preventing state-led civilian killing.

      • April 24, 2011 10:20 pm

        I’m just not convinced that R2P is really being “institutionalized” here. The Arab support for R2P was extremely subjective, as the Arab League and GCC supported it even as they participated in repression in Bahrain, and stand silent in the face of civilian killings in other states.

        As you said, the norm was used to pressure the US into intervening more, but clearly the norm is being selectively used to get the US to make decisions that it has a shakier strategic stake in.

        That does not mean the norm is being institutionalized. You correctly point out the action does not have to be 100% effective, but we have to take selection bias into account. If we are not acting on the norm in other situations where it applies because of strategic concerns, and the coalitions assembled are motivated primarily by strategic considerations (as Arab League/GCC behavior demonstrates), then the norm is merely being invoked.

        As long as strategic considerations continue to bracket the formation of coalitions bracket not simply the enforcement but the institutionalization of R2P (how often is it even invoked in Asia, for example?), I am quite skeptical Libya will have much value beyond itself as a precedent for further protection of civilians, and I do not think further interventions along those lines will be able to institutionalize it at a systemic level, rather than at a doctrinal or regional one.

  3. Jay Ulfelder permalink
    April 25, 2011 7:50 am

    You know, I think you’re right that the intervention in Libya will probably have little instrumental value. This case probably reflects the current condition of global governance more than it changes it.

    Even if that’s the case, though, I’m glad to see it happen. I would rather live in a world where the impulse to share responsibility for the defense of basic human rights is not invariably overridden by the impulse to defend the interests of (the fictive, gated communities we call) states, even if only occasionally. They are called human rights rather than national rights for a reason, and I wish we would all take that promise more seriously.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: