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. skultch

    We are members of NATO and obligated to help with other members' security that happens to be more direct than ours in this situation. This certainly qualifies. Pretty simple. This action was in our mid-term best interest. Clearly.

    I don't see how this is a "new era" in policy. Can someone explain how Iraq was fundamentally different? See 1-4 in the article. Did we not have those same things in place for Iraq?

    August 24, 2011 at 12:02 pm | Reply
    • ZeroGods

      "Can someone explain how Iraq was fundamentally different?"

      Bush decided to invade Iraq; it did not begin as an internal conflict. There are no dead Americans in Libya as a result of this conflict, nor will we leave a large occupying force behind. And whether we're actually bankrolling the operation via NATO (as some have suggested) or not, politically speaking, it is primarily a British/French initiative at this point.

      August 24, 2011 at 12:13 pm | Reply
      • skultch

        "See 1-4 in the article"

        1.) Shiites had been oppressed for decades. Just because they didn't have the power for large scale conflict, does not mean there was no internal conflict.
        4.) I would call Iraq genuine burden sharing. This was ill-defined by Zakaria and you seem to expand the definition to something closer to or even past "equal." We are, what, 80% of NATO's power? Whatever the % really is, I think Iraq came close to sharing based on relative capacity. Why should we expect more?

        The rest of what you said exceeded the scope of my question. I understand the differences between the conflicts. My question was regarding the general US strategy for /entering/ these types of situations and I just don't see a big difference.

        August 24, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • Kool Aid

      @ZeroGods...right on the money! And, you forgot, our operations in Libya will not cost us TRILLIONS of dollars and put us further into unnecessary debt.

      August 24, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Reply
  2. Peikovian

    I don't trust Farhud Zakaria.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Reply
  3. w_roos

    Finally, after hearing people grumbling that "the United States cannot be the world's policeman" for 40-odd years, someone listened! Thanks, President Obama.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Reply
    • Cedar Rapids

      and now people are moaning about how the US didnt lead from the front, or supposedly 'did nothing' or let NATO run the show. Some people are never happy.

      August 24, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Reply
  4. Bob

    It is more like George Bush Sr. policy in First Gulf War were he made sure everyone was fighting and paying for it rather than just the US

    August 24, 2011 at 12:04 pm | Reply
  5. Sark

    President Obama made sure other nations shared the burden, and also went to war without congressional approval. What a guy!

    August 24, 2011 at 12:04 pm | Reply
  6. the_dude

    What a great opinion piece written by the dnc.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:04 pm | Reply
    • street smart

      would Mission Accomplished have been more appropiate?

      August 24, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Reply
  7. Rich

    Wait a minute.....lets look at what actually happened. The US decides to let NATO run things. Great...nothing happens for a long time, lots of people killed. NATO starts to act, even more people killed...rebels run wild....more people killed...the US sits back and watches this happen, even more people killed. This is the first military action in a loing time, where no one (in the media) is screaming about the number of people getting killed. Every time someone is killed in Iraq or Afganistan, the media scream bloody murder. Why not here?

    August 24, 2011 at 12:05 pm | Reply
  8. Frank Lopez

    Is anyone as tired as I am on having proclamations from Fareed Zakaria? And how the US needs to “behave” in the world community? Who is this guy?

    August 24, 2011 at 12:05 pm | Reply
    • NorCalMojo

      I think he's hilarious. So pompous and so clueless. He's like an Indian Al Gore.

      August 24, 2011 at 12:24 pm | Reply
  9. DK

    Well it is a "change" that we didn't go in all alone, but the truth is we shouldn't be policing the world at all when our economy is on the brink. We should be using those resources at home.. period.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Reply
  10. DL

    F0ck Y0u

    August 24, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Reply
  11. Observer

    Bush and Republicans started a war for false reasons. This is a new direction for our nation after Bush.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Reply
  12. rdg18

    Likely U.S. Voters finds the generic Republican earning 48% of the vote, while the president picks up support from 43%. Sorry demorats, you loose.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Reply
  13. Big Bob

    Geez Louise, Fareed! Just how DOES Obama's dictate?

    August 24, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Reply
  14. DJH

    Wouldn't it be easier for you hyper biased, unprofessional clowns in the media to just profess your love of the empty suited clown instead of writing these fluff pieces extolling the greatness of an abysmal failure?

    August 24, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Reply
  15. Ghost

    Sure is working great in Syria..... oh yeah.... oops.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:13 pm | Reply
  16. Beau

    BS... Obama did the only thing he knows how, he did nothing. Now, I don't blame him for not getting us knee deep into yet another foreign affair, but giving him a credit and declaring victory for doing nothing is just not acceptable. No matter how many times liberals repeat the lie, it's still a lie.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Reply
  17. I'mSleepy

    $1 billion dollar. Now that's cheap. Much much cheaper than these tax breaks these rednecks vote for.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Reply
    • Ghost


      August 24, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Reply
  18. The Loon

    ok Fareed...I get you're a US citizen and I get that you LOVE Obama...but you really need to stop talking like you've been here since the beginning and you know it all, I wouldn't immigrate to another country become a citizen and then lecture the naturally born citizens about their country...you're a convert, it's not the same no matter what the liberal media tries to say

    August 24, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Reply
  19. JD

    New era: doing it without Congressional approval you mean? Bargain? Ah, "Mission Accomplished." Glad to hear our commitment is done. Earth to Zak: we've only just begun if you want to see democracy there.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Reply
  20. Ghost

    Didn't George H.W. Bush try this in the 90's in Iraq? I guess the Chemical weapons Saddam was willing to use on the rebels in his country turned the tided there... Will this policy work everywhere??? NO WAY.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Reply
  21. Vonabelli

    Yeah, our new policy is to be weak, pathetic wussies. Even the French are calling us weak. When the French call you weak, it's time to examine yourself.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Reply
  22. Larry of DC

    Yes Fareed, a new era in US regime change policy is ushered in by that Nobel Peace Prize winning President Obombo. Going forward, the US will not unilaterally bomb dictatorships into submission and impose uncertain regime change. No, instead, we will enlist the aid of our idiot allies to join with us - of course the US will supply all the money for this useless war mongering, and the US will do all the heavy lifting, but hey, that's us, the Obama Planetary Police force.
    As Obama clearly calculated, if I have no clue how to fix the US economy and unemployment rate, I might as well attack a few foreign countries and give our defense conractors an opportunity to sell us more weapns.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Reply
  23. Joe

    The part that has to change is this...When we go into a country and defeat it, we hoist up the American flag and that country and all it's resources becomes the property of the American people. Then and only then will destroying another country make common sense.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Reply
    • The Loon

      I like it..."Civilization" rules...what's the point otherwise, yeah lets waste tons of money and people to destroy a place and then give it right back to a different version of the people we just fought...we really should have like 100 states by now

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

    The brown bummer odopey hasn't done anything.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Reply
  25. ZeroGods

    I personally enjoy hearing so many Republicans side with Hugo Chavez on Libya. It's very enlightening.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Reply
  26. Carlitos

    Hey Fareed you must be the dumbest liberal at CNN. Do you honestly believe that our foreign policy has been "go it alone"? Even under GWB, we reached out to hundreds of nations and when we invaded Iraq, we did it with the support of at least a hundred nations. News media like CNN refused to report it as such but now that our president has engaged in war, you have the need to report that it is a "different" kind of approach which makes you a total and absolute moron. Not a single one of those countries that Obama has been handling with white gloves likes us. In fact, the hatred towards us has grown under your favorite president's watch.
    Thanks God for elections! We'll be able to get rid of Obama and vote in a "different" kind of fighter – one that will come in and verbalize our hatred – just the same- towards all of those countries in the mid east.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Reply
    • Steve

      Had a few people that Assisted.. Look at the costs in terms of $trillion$ of US taxpayer dollars and American Lives.

      all other countries that assisted.. $Millions$ of dollars and a few lives.


      August 24, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Reply
  27. ricnaustin

    Anybody notice how liberals/left-wingers want what is best for the greater good and seem a little more knowledgable about America and the world, and conservatives/right-wingers think it's all about me, too bad for you, It's mine, don't really have a clue about true American/world facts, and the President is the enemy? Hmmm....

    August 24, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Reply
  28. Ron Paul


    August 24, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Reply
  29. Ed

    You've got to give him this one. He did something right.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:21 pm | Reply
    • Ghost

      HAHAHHA He didn't DO anything.

      August 24, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Reply
    • Ghost

      Ignoring the Problem and hoping everything works out for the best is going well in Libya for now... but Syria is massacring its people while we hope those unarmed protesters turn the tide on the Armored divisions of the Syrian Army. This is a p!ss poor example of how thousands of people died where only hundreds should have if we had taken a more active role.... or an even LESS active role, Ghaddfy would have won in a week. Killing no less of his civilians than Syria has.... French and Italians change their "no blood for oil" policy when its THEIR oil....

      August 24, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Reply
  30. NorCalMojo

    "Mission accomplished"

    We've heard that before. 10 years ago in Iraq. Toppling statues doesn't mean much in the long run.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:21 pm | Reply
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