A new era in U.S. foreign policy
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August 23rd, 2011
10:57 PM ET

A new era in U.S. foreign policy

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

Back in March, many neoconservatives in Washington were extremely dismissive of the way President Obama was handling the intervention in Libya. They argued that he was doing too little and acting too late – that his approach was too multilateral and lacked cohesiveness. They continuously criticized President Obama for, in the words of an anonymous White House advisor, "leading from behind."

But now that these critics are confronted with the success of the Libya operation, they are changing their tune and claiming paternity of the operation.  They are further arguing that if their advice had been heeded, the intervention in Libya would have been swifter and even more successful. But the Libya intervention is so significant precisely because it did not follow the traditional pattern of U.S.-led interventions. Indeed, it launched a new era in U.S. foreign policy.

The United States decided that it was only going to intervene in Libya if it could establish several conditions:

1)    A local group that was willing to fight and die for change; in other words, "indigenous capacity".

2)    Locally recognized legitimacy in the form of the Arab League's request for intervention.

3)    International legitimacy in the form of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973.

4)    Genuine burden sharing with the British and French spelling out precisely how many sorties they would be willing to man and precisely what level of commitment they would be willing to provide.

It was only when all those conditions were fulfilled that the Obama Administration agreed to play a pivotal but supporting role in the Libya operation.

It is important to emphasize that even though it was a "supporting role," the U.S. was indispensable to the operation. Nobody else could have eliminated Gadhafi's air defenses – and, effectively, his air force - within three days. Without America, the operation in Libya could not have taken place. But the U.S. was also "supporting" in the sense that after these initial strikes, it moved into the background and asked its NATO partners to do the heavy lifting. Thereafter, the U.S. intervened only when it felt it needed to. All of this suggests a very different model for intervention, which I believe is a vast improvement over the old, expansive and expensive model.

The new model does two things:

First, it ensures that there's genuinely a local alliance committed to the same goals as the external coalition.  This way, there is more legitimacy on the ground. And if there is anything Afghanistan and Iraq have taught us, it is that local legitimacy is key.

Second, this model ensures that there is genuine burden sharing so that the United States is not left owning the country as has happened so often in the past.

Compared to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Libya operation was a bargain.  It cost the U.S. about $1 billion.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan collectively cost the U.S. $1.3 trillion. In other words, success in Libya could be achieved at less than one-tenth of one percent of the cost of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.  That's not a bad model for the future.

Now there are critics of this approach on both the right and left. Some on the left – the great liberal internationalists – are horrified by the fact that people in Benghazi cheered for French President Nicolas Sarkozy. They think only President Obama's name should be on the lips of the liberated Libyans.But there is actually nothing wrong with a world in which the Europeans are also associated with the cause of freedom and liberty. It means that they will also be more willing to bear some of the burdens and pay some of the costs of intervention. And it means they are more likely to be involved in the difficult process of reconstruction.

The old model of American leadership - where we took all the decisions, bore all the burdens, paid all the costs and took all the glory – has to change. People in Washington are going to have to realize that when other countries step up to the plate, they too will naturally get some share of credit.  It's more important that Libya be saved than that Washington is seen as the sole savior.

In the future, we will again have to follow this limited model of intervention. The United States is not going to have the kind of defense budget nor the national will to engage in a series of major military operations in countries that are, frankly, not vital to our national interests. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was very clear and he was right: Libya is not vital to our national interest. The point, however, was that the Libyan revolution was an important event in the context of the Arab Spring and that if we could be helpful, it would be of great benefit to Libya and to America.

The question before Libya was: Could such interventions be successful while keeping costs under control - both human and financial.

Today's answer is: Yes.

For more of my thoughts through the week, I invite you to follow me on Facebook and Twitter and to bookmark the Global Public Square.


soundoff (1,073 Responses)
  1. Melissa

    Obama handled this very well. In spite of the moaning by the rethugs.

    August 25, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Reply
    • Robert Johnson

      Actually, much of the flak came from liberal Democrats, Larson and Kucinich being examples of the noisiest.

      August 25, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Reply
  2. Danteg8son

    Fareed would be wiser to put off going into a "Mission Accomplished" rapture until he sees how things actually work out in Libya.

    August 25, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Reply
  3. Ugur

    the Globe is chaos, we need a new order on this planet. We live in the revelations, nothing will get better until it gets horrifically worse. America will soon witness this on its on soil.

    Although I must say this is not George W. Bush's or President Barack Obama's fault. It is prophecy, this is the way it was supposed to end. for this Era of Mankind. Ill still be behind Obama, even when the horseman arrive.

    August 25, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Reply
  4. Sharky

    OMG Obama was right! Take that neo-con warmongers.

    August 25, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Reply
  5. JoePub

    I stopped reading the article at the 5th word (neoconservatives). At that point I realized that this would be nothing but a mudslinging piece.

    August 25, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Reply
  6. henfr

    “success of the Libya operation”? It’s way too early to call anything over there a success. The operations to over throw Iraq and Afghanistan were quick an “successful” too. Overthrowing a government is easy. Creating a government from the void that’s left is way more difficult. And please, don’t start make comparisons to Egypt. They are reforming an existing government, not starting from scratch. Look to the mess in Iraq and Afghanistan for a model of what happens next.

    August 25, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Reply
  7. blockaid1

    This guy is an idiot, You take what's happening in Libya and make it out that the next war will have the same scenario. Zakaria is a left weng propaganda nut job. I mean really,,,comparing Afghanistan to Libya, yep we should have just waited for Nato and the people of Afghanistan to bring justice to USA for what the Talacowards did on 9/11. This guy has a Europe mentality and like the rest of the Dems want to change USA to be just like Europe. Socialist / communist.

    August 25, 2011 at 7:57 pm | Reply
  8. Gebsch

    Great article. Having lived in Vietnam during the 1960's-70's, I can attest that President Obama is much smarter in how he handle the situation in Libya, most importantly, no American lives are lost. He has support from NATO allies who are paying their share of expenses. We lost thousand of young bright people, who should be our future, in current wars, but we are so busy and callous that we forget about them in a few days, as if they were not part of us. And the citizens of countries where we lead/started the wars ? Too weary or too frighten to care. We don't need to be the best or the greatest in an "in their face" manner. There is satisfaction in KNOWING that we are still the best.

    August 25, 2011 at 10:05 pm | Reply
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    August 26, 2011 at 7:22 am | Reply
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    The new era in US foreign policy would be sending the comedians over Obama and Biden

    August 26, 2011 at 7:14 pm | Reply
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