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 (1,076 Responses)
  1. keepamericaalive

    Well lets see if it happened to Obama I wonder what her would say. Dictator of the freaken world. Let him stick his nose in Irans issues and he himself would be the same. An arrogant person who loves to tell the world what to do.

    August 24, 2011 at 10:47 am | Reply
    • Obama2012

      Don't you just hate it when he slam dunks another 2 points, despite all of the conservative opposition??? Despite all the whiners saying he isn't leading? Despite all the posts saying that he hasn't done anything? Despite ... well...don't you just hate it?

      August 24, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Reply
  2. 58Willys

    The article above and CNN live interviews supporting the premise are certainly well thought out and well reasoned. Parts are even brilliant. My deep concern is that while PhDs are weighing responses and brilliant men are pondering options – a cunning snake like Gadhafi has yet to be captured or killed. Politics aside, the threat to the US is real and severe with Gadhafi loose and WMD available to him.

    US and International journalist also remain captive and available as pawns. At this time the end game is not yet over.

    Having a "Globalist" perspective has worked thus far in this instance, but a wounded animal like Gadhafi is just the sort of loose cannon to define chaos theory and unintended results.

    August 24, 2011 at 10:50 am | Reply
  3. GotThumbs


    August 24, 2011 at 10:50 am | Reply
  4. Robert

    Fareed has his lips firmly wrapped around Mr Obama's schlong. Reminds me of the Bush aircraft carrier victory speech. .... But more importantly isn't this Arab Spring a vindication of the Bush Strategy and Plan to seed the Middle East with Democracy???????????????????? Fareed you tool. Comments?

    August 24, 2011 at 10:51 am | Reply
    • Cati

      Robert, Oh where to begin. Bush invaded a country, many boots on the ground at great loss of American life, many injured and in fact brought on (by our actions) an insurgency. If you're not smart enough to figure it out, I'll explain the difference. Here there was a group of citizen type soldiers (dentists, engineers, etc. ) fighting with no help against a dictator stating he'd kill everyone rather than give up power. We had no American loss of life, but we did use massive fire power to eliminate Gadhifi's air force and air defense. Is that simple enough for you?

      August 24, 2011 at 11:13 am | Reply
  5. Joe

    Nice Liberal Article.... I wonder how much Obama and the DNC pays CNN. When I was in Greece, I turned the TV to CNN International, they were playing the Comedy Central's the Daily Show. Tunneled Visioned Liberal Comedians must be their reporters.

    August 24, 2011 at 10:52 am | Reply
  6. Phlyer

    Making friends with a new government is better than making enemies, as long as it is "affordable". It may help to discourage them from sending terrorism over here. But we should not have the illusion that they will ever be good friends or adopt our style of democracy. When the dust settles, it will come down to the Muslim Brotherhood agenda of world domination of their religion. They will accept our help as long as it suits their purpose – and come against us both openly and covertly when they have the opportunity. The best we can do is have good intelligence in place and be ready to neutralize them when it becomes necessary. Which it will.

    August 24, 2011 at 10:52 am | Reply
  7. Voltairine

    U.S. foreign policy will never permit real Democracy in any Middle Eastern nations. See, "The West Is Terrified of Arabic Democracies", Noam Chomsky interviewed by Qantara, June 17, 2011. The gargantuan strategic significance of Middle Eastern oil supplies under the control of a Democratic Arab population who, polls show, overwhelmingly believe that the U.S. is their primary threat, would bring the U.S. and other western powers to their feet, as it were. The west will not permit this, and will do what it has always done.

    A small excerpt from the aforementioned interview:

    Noam Chomsky: “The Arab-Islamic world has a long history of democracy. It's regularly crushed by western force. In 1953 Iran had a parliamentary system, the US and Britain overthrew it. There was a revolution in Iraq in 1958, we don't know where it would have gone, but it could have been democratic. The US basically organized a coup.

    In internal discussions in 1958, which have since been declassified, President Eisenhower spoke about a campaign of hatred against us in the Arab world. Not from the governments, but from the people. The National Security Council's top planning body produced a memorandum - you can pick it up on the web now - in which they explained it. They said that the perception in the Arab world is that the United States blocks democracy and development and supports harsh dictators and we do it to get control over their oil. The memorandum said, this perception is more or less accurate and that's basically what we ought to be doing.”

    Qantara: “That means that western democracies prevented the emergence of democracies in the Arab world?”

    Noam Chomsky: “I won't run through the details, but yes, it continues that way to the present. There are constant democratic uprisings. They are crushed by the dictators we - mainly the US, Britain, and France - support. So sure, there is no democracy because you crush it all. You could have said the same about Latin America: a long series of dictators, brutal murderers. As long as the US controls the hemisphere, or Europe before it, there is no democracy, because it gets crushed.”

    August 24, 2011 at 10:54 am | Reply
  8. The Janissaire

    OMG – How full of S*** can you get "because President Obama made sure other nations shared the burden."

    Yea right – he was right behind me twisting my arm to get involved. He didn't ensure didly squat – he doesn't know how to ensure anything.

    France and Italy were some of the first to get involved – was he twisting their arms? I don't think so. Was he twisting Canada's arm to get involved? Probably not.

    Let's see if he can make others "Share the Burden" like taking out someone like Robert Mugabee – another dictator – this one in Africa. He won't be inclined to do so because there's no oil there. But this other dictator on the same continent also needs to go. Burma too!

    August 24, 2011 at 10:55 am | Reply
  9. Tom Walker

    It is about time we tell the rest of the world: If you want to bring freedom to oppressed countries like we do, you will have to take the lead and cover the cost once in a while. "Coalitions" formed by arm bending (Iraq) just are not going to cut it anymore. Bravo to president Obama on this one.

    August 24, 2011 at 10:55 am | Reply
  10. DC

    This is a very wealthy nation, without the previous boss..... Will we get reimbersed for any of this?

    August 24, 2011 at 10:57 am | Reply
  11. JohnCBarclow

    It would not suprise me if Obama eats aborted fetuses to keep his bloodlust in high fever for more murder and mayhem.

    August 24, 2011 at 10:59 am | Reply
    • The Janissaire

      Yes – high gas prices for the next 20 years

      August 24, 2011 at 5:26 pm | Reply
  12. JOE

    Obama got Osama! Obama got Osama. Read all about it... Libyans embrace victory, Obama got Ghadaddi! Libyans embrace victory, Obama got Ghadaffi! Obama's the Bomb! Best president Ever!

    August 24, 2011 at 11:03 am | Reply
  13. ArizonaYankee

    I see CNN's affair with Obama and socialism continues. What a shame that they continue to destroy the country...

    August 24, 2011 at 11:03 am | Reply
    • AlansK

      What a shame that you have no specifics, just what appears to be uninformed opinion. Did you know that in the last months of George W Bush's term we we loosing 750K jobs a month? Talk about destroying the country.

      August 24, 2011 at 11:13 am | Reply
  14. John

    So do the UN and NATO value Libyan civilian lives higher than those of Syrian civilians? This new policy must be making the the freedom seeking people of the world feel all warm and fuzzy.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:04 am | Reply
  15. Colin

    What's up with all the fighting over whether we should have helped Libya or not? That's not what the article is about, it's about a possible productive and cost-effective change in American foreign policy. No liberal Obama praising. The article even goes as far as saying that it was completely fine that Obama/America didn't get direct credit in the minds of the Libyan people. I feel like some of you didn't even read the article...

    August 24, 2011 at 11:04 am | Reply
  16. Guerrier

    Let's reaclal General Powell advise to President Bush : You break it, you own it. This time, the US did not break Libya; the US did not own it. Imagine a US intervention and the cost of a post Khadaffi Libya. President Obama; Thank you for being smart.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:07 am | Reply
  17. Amit-Atlanta-USA

    Mr. Zakaria you talked almost ravingly about Gadhafi just a couple of days ago when you said "Unlike Hosni Mubarak, Gaddaffi is a soldier and will die a MARTYR and NOT run away"!


    And, BTW, why do you have to use the word "MARTYR" for Mr.Gadhafi Mr. Zakaria? Is it b'coz unlike Hosni Mubarak who was pro-US (& almost pro-Israel) you were unhappy to see an anti-Western Muslim dictator vanish in the face of US & Western onslaught (in line with your well known Pro-Islamic, Ant-Semite agenda!)?

    August 24, 2011 at 11:08 am | Reply
    • El Flaco

      How can you think that Zakaria was praising Ghadafi? The Muslims who die a martyr's death are idiots. They are dying for nothing. Ghadafi is a not-very-smart thug whose regime is awash with the blood of good Muslims who wanted nothing but a good life for themselves and their families.

      August 24, 2011 at 11:12 am | Reply
  18. Sara

    Obama entered office with a huge mess on his hands. He has made some mistakes but the wins are pretty good too. I haven't seen any president do as much as he has in the first 3 years. He's smart, but he's also bold. The alliance with India, the slap to Pakistan when he got Osama bin Laden, the support needed for Libya without it all being about the Americans, and the smartest choice of all–extending unemployment for the millions who were close to losing everything. I would now like to see a bill to make it illegal for companies to ignore unemployed applicants–they are advertising, "unemployed need not applied." It's wrong. Regarding Libya–it's not the first of the arabic dictatorships to fall and they will have support from all around them as well as the big economic players.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:09 am | Reply
  19. jason

    NIce spin by the media to try to make it out like Obama has stood up for the US in making other countries carry some of the burden. They know that Obama throws the US under the bus at every opportunity, and that the voters see it, so they are trying to paint it like Obama is standing up for the US. Not buying it CNN. Obama's approval is at an abysmal 38%. Lowest of his presidency. Support among whites is 30%. He doesn't stand a chance. This bag of goods you all in the media sold the public on Obama is showing you guys to be fools and beyond biased.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:10 am | Reply
    • AlansK

      "They know that Obama throws the US under the bus at every opportunity"

      How about some examples Jason?

      August 24, 2011 at 11:18 am | Reply
    • Team America

      So Obama is evil and out to destroy America in your eyes, and we're the blind ones?

      August 24, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Reply
  20. tcp

    I feel like you don't understand that all debates morph into a left/right bash fest...

    August 24, 2011 at 11:10 am | Reply
  21. Jason

    Actually the President didn't make sure other carried some of the burden. Other countries were forced into action becuase of US inaction and the inability of the President to make a clear and consise decision.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:11 am | Reply
  22. theox

    umm..the way it happened was France went in alone – bombing Libya, making Obama look weak, so Obama jumped on the bandwagon to save face (votes). Obama didn't lead this, plan this, or had anything to do with most of this. Nice try though.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:11 am | Reply
    • El Flaco

      You Conservatives are really stammering out a lot of excuses about why this success CANNOT be a success because Obama would get credit for it.

      How about this one: "The truth is that Ghadafi has conquered the entire nation and has destroyed ALL NATO forces, including over two million US soldiers, BUT the Liberal Media refuses to print that terrible news because it would make Obama look bad!"

      I think that will fly with most Conservatives.

      August 24, 2011 at 11:19 am | Reply
  23. Bob Ramos

    Obama = 10 ; Republicans (includes presidential wannabes) = ZERO

    August 24, 2011 at 11:11 am | Reply
    • Gary

      With the national unemployment rate at 9.2 percent, OBAMA = Fail!

      August 24, 2011 at 11:17 am | Reply
      • Sara

        The unemployment rate was rising fast BEFORE Obama was elected–and the housing market had already crashed. How can you be unaware of that?

        August 24, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  24. Ochoa

    Great article! Great points! It's always great to go back and see how politicians felt originally and then see the results! America doesn't have to be the one leading our wars to be strong. We can have others share the responsibility and the costs and while doing so we'll gain popularity amount the world. We need allies people!

    August 24, 2011 at 11:15 am | Reply
  25. Gary

    the national unemployment rate at 9.2 percent, Screw Libia

    August 24, 2011 at 11:16 am | Reply
  26. Jason

    First, I can't understand why CNN is so enamored with Zakaria as an analyst. The front page is quickly becoming less actual news and more a Zakaria blog. Second, comparing the financial costs of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan with LIbya is absurd. To claim this as a "model" is nonsense. There is nothing about the approach taken in Libya that would have been remotely successful in either Iraq or Afghanistan. The dynamics are not even close.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:16 am | Reply
  27. Lazarus

    Fareed Zakaria, you're so up Obama ass, that you just might find some oil. What a sorry article, really brings out your one sided pov and mediocracy.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:16 am | Reply
    • AlansK

      You've convinced me.... that you have nothing to say, just insults and hate.

      August 24, 2011 at 11:22 am | Reply
  28. MCFx

    Wow! This is CNN/s front story???!!! Fareed Zakaria, a doctor, defending Obama (more like cheerleading for him) on foreign policy. Next, CNN will have Dear Abby giving a front page story: "New Era In Quantum Physics". This deserves the "Give Me A Break" award.

    Had this been Bush in the exact same position the caption would have read "Failed Foreign Policy: Libya Victiory Despite Leading From Behind". This has been Obama's strategy since he's been in politics. He voted "Present" nearly 130 times while in Illinois. He was criticized for being absent on the healthcare debate (when Democrats couldn't get it together despite having the supermajority). He was absent on the debt ceiling debate and he's being criticized for being absent on the jobs issue.

    Why? So, that when it goes bad you can point the finger (like he’s doing on the campaign trail) and if it goes good you can step in and take the credit.

    The Obama admin has been a string of one political blunder after another. He’s shown his inexperience by getting outmaneuvered in just about every political topic in Congress. And what did we expect from a freshman Senator with no executive experience? And you can thank the media outlets like CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, & MSNBC for vetting Sarah Palin 100 times more rigorously for the vice-presidential position than Obama for President! Thanks guys.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:17 am | Reply
    • rep

      You don't like Obama. Fine. I can respect that. It's willful ignorance and making things up that is just plain uncalled for.

      You must get all your facts from FOX. They're all either wrong or taken so badly out of context as to be purposely misleading. Obama voted 130 out of 4000 times in Illinois–a small amount and common when in the minority party to avoid "traps" set by the majority. He led regular, televised bipartisan meetings on the healthcare debate–I watched some–and tried to broker many (bigger) deals on the debt ceiling debate–all of which Boehner threw back in his face. (When the GOP final agreed on a deal it was Boehner who said he got 98% of what he wanted in the end–right before the downgrade. Remember?). Oh yeah. The Dems never had a supermajority. That word has a real definition. Please look it up!

      If this had happened for Iraq, it would NOT be such an albatross for Bush. Iraq was FUBAR from day one and it still is. Go tell one of the thousands of widowed women, fatherless children, and childless parents that war was worth it. Libya has ZERO Am casualties, cost less than $1B, we're done in 6 months, and the costs of cleaning up are not on our bill. That's a win, but any standard.

      August 24, 2011 at 11:33 am | Reply
  29. Spacial

    Enjoy your crumbling country America while the earth trembles as Obama reads his teleprompter.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:17 am | Reply
    • AlansK

      Wow. You really nailed it. That teleprompter is the cause of all our trouble!!! Get a grip.

      August 24, 2011 at 11:24 am | Reply
  30. Me

    Our Allies have helped and shared the burden in Afghanistan and Iraq how did he miss that.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:18 am | Reply
    • AlansK

      I don't think he missed that at all. What percentage of the cost in dollars and man power have our allies supplied in Iraq and Afghanistan and what precentage have the supplied in Libya? I think that the US has carried most of the burden for the first two, not so much for Libya and it doesn't look like we'll be stuck there for 10 years either.

      August 24, 2011 at 11:28 am | Reply
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