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. Nomena

    I'm writing outside of the USA.
    Mr FZ made a very interresting analysis of the situation (Afghanistan & Iraq VS Lybia cost operation) and the Obama 's Lybian policy.
    In the begining, US president was just watching but decided to interven when Ghaddafi start to use the military and bomb the Lybian people to stop the uprising against his regime. For Obama, having to deal already with two wars, it's not easy to take that decision.
    The question is: Was the Obama approach was the good one or not. Is it serve the american interest.
    I Think YES.
    I can see that this president is surronded by a very intellectual advisers. Just think about Mr Obama's leadership in the killing of Ben Laden.

    America have a great president now but some people still dont realize it.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:40 am | Reply
    • Joe Canuck

      You are so right...

      August 24, 2011 at 11:54 am | Reply
  2. Ahmad Zomorrodi

    I definitely agree with writer about the new model. What U.S done in Afghanistan and Iraq were utterly wrong. It imposed astronomical expenses to this country which could be shared among its alliances with brilliant results.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:42 am | Reply
  3. Scott Mansfield

    Even though most of the oil in Libya goes to the EU, having a steady supply lowers prices for everyone. I much prefer what Obama did and didn't do to what Bush did. I can not believe that there are people who seriously think otherwise.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:42 am | Reply
    • tcp

      Just so I'm straight, you support wars for oil?

      August 24, 2011 at 11:48 am | Reply
  4. Sweet2th

    Bush should have taken notes from Obama. This is the way you win a war for the people of a country without coming out billions of dollars in debt.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:43 am | Reply
  5. Rhymeskeema

    This author is such a globalist, it makes me puke. No entangling alliances. Non intervention, no global policing.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:44 am | Reply
    • Leafonthewind

      You say "globalist" like it's a bad thing. I wish more of the world's leaders were globalists.

      August 24, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Reply
  6. Joe, Louisville, KY

    Basically this guy is just a yes man for whoever is in power. Always wise after the event...

    August 24, 2011 at 11:44 am | Reply
  7. montyross

    of course others would help because the risk is low for such a country, others helped in the invasion of iraq.....

    August 24, 2011 at 11:45 am | Reply
  8. steve

    Once again this guy is all about Obama. Looked more like the French to me, if that is who we were "supporting" then hats off to the French.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:45 am | Reply
  9. Cameron

    Why were we even in Libya again?

    August 24, 2011 at 11:48 am | Reply
    • Leafonthewind

      Because, Cameron, what happens in other parts of the world affects us either directly or indirectly, and sometimes helping a people rid themselves of a totalitarian dictactor is the right thing to do. Would you have us become isolationist, like North Korea?

      August 24, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Reply
    • Nick

      Because if you see a parent beating up his kid so bad that it might get seriously hurt or die, it is a moral obligation to step in, even though it's not your kid.

      August 24, 2011 at 1:01 pm | Reply
  10. Special Ed

    The United States has the capacity to produce it's own goods, services, food and energy. It is a crime that our leaders have allowed us to become an impotent and dependent nation. Our workers need the work and our factories need the business that comes from supplying the needs of our own. Our foreign policy should be a simple proclamation: We're taking care of our business, everyone else is on their own. Any agressors toward our nation will face swift and utter destruction from afar. There you have it. The candidate that runs on those principles gets my vote. Isolationism is the only foreign policy that is sustainable.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:49 am | Reply
    • Leafonthewind

      The only country that could be called true isolationist is North Korea. Is that what you want for us? The people of that country have no idea what really happens in the rest of the world. They only know what their government tells them. No, thanks.

      August 24, 2011 at 12:55 pm | Reply
  11. guy

    Exactly....everyone has to help...just like an old fashion 'barn raisin'...everyone comes to help build it! no new thinking here...just old fashioned 'helping each other.' Now if we all can get back to that way of thinking as individuals and communities we'd be better off!

    August 24, 2011 at 11:49 am | Reply
  12. Guerrier

    MCFX and other conservatives make me laugh. Fareed Zacharia is not working for Obama. Conservatives are people who talk about freedom, but never give others the freedom to have different opinion. At least Obama, or his Defense Secretary did not secretly pay retired high ranking military officers to defend their policies in while they were used in the media as military analysts.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:49 am | Reply
  13. ohcraap

    More like new era of Doing the work for European Bankers. This is how you repackage imperialists to something positive.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:49 am | Reply
  14. Keith

    If there is a civil war, so be it. We had one also. I don't think our founding fathers all agreed on everything but what they did agree on they put to paper. As far as obama's Libya policy goes, I think it was the right one. Before Obama the international community would say " oh my god, that's terrible, someone should do something" and so we did, mostly alone or with the U.K. We cannot be seen as warmongers if EVERYONE else is helping too

    August 24, 2011 at 11:50 am | Reply
  15. Denise

    Yes, BHO led them right into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. BUT having other nations involved, he will just point his finger at them, like he always does.
    Refering to a comment by Jim, Libya will not recognize Israel. Egypt didn't.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:50 am | Reply
  16. Jim

    Whew! Thank God for the change! The President may have goofed on the economy, but he certainly didn't on this one.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:50 am | Reply
  17. juanchevere

    As a Veteran who serve in OIF and ONW and a naturalized citizen born in South América. A New Era for United States foreign Policy is needed in this Country. My thoughts are, "It's already happening." Thanks Mr. President.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:51 am | Reply
  18. jane

    I'm glad that NONE of the above were around when the American Revolution took place...we would still be under British rule while you were arguing over who was right...ofcourse there was no such thing as "political parties" at that time. Unfortunately Jefferson and Hamilton did not realize that they're great idea would become a couple of "Sea Squirts" that would devour their own brains.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:52 am | Reply
    • JimR

      "Sea Squirts"? Where is that marine biologist when we need him?

      August 24, 2011 at 11:56 am | Reply
    • Leafonthewind

      Jane, really? No political parties back then? You don't study history much, do you?

      August 24, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Reply
  19. JD

    Conservatives say "sometimes the best move is to keep our government out of it" and liberals condemn them for "doing nothing". But now Obama does nothing and CNN gives him the hero treatment. Especially ironic because the "dictator just removed" phase is exactly where Bush got on his aircraft carrier and claimed "Mission Accomplished". Last I recall, the Left hated that move. Why does the Left now repeat it?

    August 24, 2011 at 11:53 am | Reply
    • mw1979

      Well said, JD. In most cases, Dems and Republicans are on opposite sides of the same circle.

      August 24, 2011 at 11:56 am | Reply
  20. gary

    Lets not pat the president on the back until you see what becomes of this country. Democracy would be nice, however I am guessing we will get another Sharia law muslim disaster producing US hating terrorists who love Iran. We will see.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:54 am | Reply
    • Steve

      At least, we didn't spend $trillions$ to do it and thousands of US lives

      August 24, 2011 at 1:14 pm | Reply
  21. DC

    So now inaction, delay, no plan, and lack of a decision is now regarded as a show of strength and vision........ Wow! why isn't that working for jobs?

    August 24, 2011 at 11:55 am | Reply
    • Cedar Rapids

      'DC – So now inaction, delay, no plan, and lack of a decision is now regarded as a show of strength and vision'

      You mean waiting to see if the rebels were actually going to be a viable force and not a flash in the pan, ensuring the US could not get labelled as being the invading aggressors, ensuring that NATO got involved and working with them instead of being the ones to shoulder all the responsibility?

      August 24, 2011 at 12:04 pm | Reply
  22. Will Kennedy

    It ushered in an era where we aggressively attack countries that are not our enemies. History will not remember this kindly.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:56 am | Reply
  23. Dennis

    This is a rediculous twist of history and facts ! Only designed to desparately support Obama!
    Fact is the UK is providing almost no monetary support! Even Cameron boasted about this. Now the US has spent almost a BILLION on this new war. The monetry spending between the alies is lopsided as usual. It was France and the UK that provided leadership. The US waited weeks to present a face on this situation. Im tired of spending so much money on the military. It's really never been about oil. It's always about the jobs that are created and supported by supporting the goods and services for these myriad of military 'projects'.

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

    Why is anyone patting themselves on the back? This is the same 'Mission Accomplished' BS that Bush did back when Saddam Hussein fleed. There are still too many variables, and we don't know the stability the rebels bring to government. Only time will tell if the removal of Ghaddafi is for the better or worse of this nation. Egypt still has to prove its success and when/if it happens, we can breathe a sigh of relief. From history's perspective, this is only the beginning.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:57 am | Reply
  25. bd

    End the Middle East crisis. Outlaw sale and manufacture of the internal combustion engine by 2020.

    That'll take 'em down a few pegs.

    August 24, 2011 at 11:59 am | Reply
    • bresson

      Great Idea... are your really on board though? how do you get to work every day?

      August 24, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Reply
      • bd

        Necessity is the mother of invention. America is great and if any country can find a way to innovate and adapt and make a profit at it, it's the USA.

        Think of the opportunity. Talk about economic stimulus!

        August 24, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  26. Kool Aid

    Wow, I haven't seen this many zeros in one place since my last trip to a Teabag rally. You repukelicans just can't stand that the big, scary, African, muslim, socialist, communist, fascist, green alien in the White House just spiked one in the end-zone. It just crawls up you rear end, doesn't it? Man, that must hurt. Quick, find another redneck from Texas to lead us...before the rest of the world thinks we have some smarts!!!

    August 24, 2011 at 11:59 am | Reply
    • ain

      whatever Bigot.

      August 24, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Reply
    • Kool Aid

      You have the unmitigated gall to call ME a bigot? Why? Because I call you people out for what you are and point out the fundamental flaws in your arguments? I'll say this, I admire your audacity

      August 24, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Reply
    • DJH

      I always find it humorous what you mindless, intolerant sheeple consider success

      August 24, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Reply
    • Kool Aid

      Mindless 'sheeple'? Aren't you all the ones who can only regurgitate the ideas of such intelectual giants as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck? Isn't it YOUR side of the aisle who gave us the two longest wars in American history? Mr. Kettle, you have The Pot on line 3...

      August 24, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Reply
  27. bresson

    What it really comes down to is Mcdonalds and Starbucks on every corner in Tripoli and Bengazi, which as synical as it sounds is good for the US. Thats been our policy since ww2, expanding our global markets while exploiting labor.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Reply
  28. Brian

    I will say this about Obama. He knows how to wage war in a much more efficient manner than Bush ever did. I wouldn't call this a success yet though. They still don't have a new government yet. We really have no idea who plans on taking over this country. If the Arab League has anything to do with it, don't be surprised if we end up with yet another country run by a radical religion.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Reply
  29. Liz

    well i think its important to consider the fact that in the late 80's we went in to Afghanistan to help the Taliban (talibani literally translates to students- the movement was born from anti-soviet students attending the university of kandahar) because the movement looked democratic. there was a local coalition fighting and we had the support to go in there and help the taliban against the soviets. However, after this was over we still continued to supply afghanistan and we let the borders between afghanistan and pakistan melt together, and allowed pakistan to support and train taliban troops. It turned out that the Taliban didnt just want the soviets out of there business, they wanted eeeeveryone out. After 9/11 we started fighting the Taliban- the SAME people we were supporting, supplying, training, etc. after the Soviets left. we started paying more attention to the borders between pakistan and afghanistan (strictly legal borders- the pashtu population lives in the area on and surrounding the border, a border that wouldnt exist without external powers creating them for political purposes many decades ago). Now it seems to me that no matter if a movement looks democratic, if there is a group of people ready to die for the cause, whether it is inexpensive to intervene, or what. If we continue to enter in to wars that are not our fight, we might end up with another backlash just like the taliban did to us. Limited military intervention is the only solution.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Reply
    • Cedar Rapids

      The US helped the mujahideen, not the taliban; the taliban didnt exist during the soviet occupation of afghanistan.

      August 24, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Reply
      • Liz

        you are correct. they were called the mujahideen, a student movement. they were talibani (which means students) it is what gave birth to the official "Talban"

        August 24, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
  30. Common Sense

    right on, Zak

    August 24, 2011 at 12:02 pm | Reply
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