A new era in U.S. foreign policy
(Getty Images)
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. Natfka

    Your kidding right? A new era? This is definetly an opinion piece with little knowledge of anything that happened before Obama.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:21 pm | Reply
  2. Joe

    If only the president would get on an aircraft carrier wearing a flight suit with a banner in the back ground (Mission Almost Accomplished) , then maybe the dolts on the right might give him some props.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:22 pm | Reply
  3. 77Observer

    The USA Global PD stands ever at the ready to respond anytime anyplace. All in the name of her best interests.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Reply
  4. ZeroGods

    I suspect that Ronald Reagan, were he alive, would be pleased that Obama contributed US assistance to finishing the job that he started in '86. And did it on the cheap, no less - a nice tribute to responsible government.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:24 pm | Reply

    Yeah those republican would have done this much better. Kind of like Bush did with "Mission Accomplished" some years ago.....OOPS well almost accomplished

    August 24, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Reply
    • Sark

      The mission that was accomplished was catching Sadam. He didn’t say the war was over. But who needs to look into details when your blindly bashing someone.

      August 24, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Reply
  6. Sylvestor Johnson

    It is my hope and prayer that the rebels are wiped out. Once you understand the truth and what is going on, you want to throw up. I hope everyone in those pictures above are eliminated from the Earth. It takes guts for a conservative Christian to side with the REAL Libyan people with Qadaffi, but better late than never. May this end quickly and may the rebels be pushed into the sea.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Reply
  7. MoneyTV

    This supposed "new era" in foreign policy was actually initiated by George H.W. Bush in 1990 with the international coalition to take Iraq out of Kuwait.

    I don't know how you can give credit to Obama for policy that is 20+ years old.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Reply
  8. Lee

    100% waste. It's that simple. The "new foreign policy" is just a new interventionist world government based on the US interventionist model.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:26 pm | Reply
  9. RIMike

    Geez. Why don't you just tear down the washington monument and build a statue of president obama.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:26 pm | Reply
  10. Bob S.

    Another great free political ad for Obama, from his loyal servants at CNN . Too bad this puff piece has nothing to do with reality. Worst administration ever (yes, worst than Jimmy Carter) 1

    August 24, 2011 at 12:26 pm | Reply
    • Ghost

      CNN will only do negative reports on the Tea Party and Republicans... they only do positive stories about Democrats. Aren't you curious about what books he is reading while on vacation????

      August 24, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Reply
  11. Sovereignhominin

    Can we go ahead and declare Obama dictator now? I mean he did decide to go to war all on his own without the authorization of congress or the people. I mean he authorized absolute power without the checks and balances of congress or the restrictions of the consti2ution right? Even he admits that he doesn't need to have authority from the consti2ution.

    a person exercising absolute power, especially a ruler who has absolute, unrestricted control in a government without hereditary succession.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Reply
  12. 77Observer

    The USA Global PD is ready to respond 24/7 anytime anywhere. All in her best interests.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Reply
  13. The Loon

    in other news, there wasn't an Earthquake today on the east coast, lets give Obama credit for that as well

    August 24, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Reply
  14. boka

    Just legalize Marijuana.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Reply
  15. Timothywmurray

    I seem to recall us saying this after the first gulf war. We even invented a name for it, "the Powell Doctrine" the fact that Dick Chenney was completely irresponsible war criminal who opened up a brief but tragic period of american adventurism does not make anything that Obama is doing new. And don't believe we are done spending money to support anti American Muslim extremists in Lybia yet. There will be years of this, hopefully more like Kosovo than Kabul, but who can predict?

    August 24, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Reply
  16. stan

    Seriously?!? I mean seriously? Now we're supposed to give barry credit for leading without leading? Fareed just keeps stooping lower and lower trying to prop barry up. So we're dropping bomb and launching missiles destroying infrastructure and killing civilians but it's not a 'war'...it's a 'kinetic action'. Uh, what?!? Do you people even listen to yourselves? Fareed, how can you give barry props for 'winning' on one hand and pet him on the head for not 'leading' with the other?

    Barry has an approval rating under 40%, he only won the election with the support of barely 34% of Americans (52% of the votes, only 65% of population voted = barely 33% support won him election). The raw math then dictates barry has/had only the support of 33% of voting americans. A minority in support. Seems that math says the majority do NOT want barry as president...and never did. Does this majority against barry have the right to overthrow him as his policies appear to be destroying the united states of america? Will NATO bomb the continental usa at the request of 'rebels' should they appear and make the demand? Funny stuff.

    Imagine if Russia and China starting taking out American infrastructure and supplying the populance with weapons. Where would your moronic support of foreign countries interfering in anothers government be then? Oh, but that would be different right?! We're the good guys, eh? Remember to consider that the usa refuses to become a signatory to the International Criminal Court. Remember to consider that the usa both kidnaps (extraordinarily renders) and murders (extrajudicial assasination) people all over the world. Remember to consider that the usa maintains an island prison where it incarcerates people for life without trial or rule of law. Consider the usa has formally trained, funded, and supplied guerillas all over the globe (School of the America's). Consider the usa's use of nuclear weapons and depleted uranium killing and contaminating across the globe. Consider the american soldiers stationed around the globe beating and raping local girls (Okinawa, Iraq). Consider the usa tortures for information (water boarding) and pleasure (abu ghraib). Consider the joke that has become the american legal system (Casey Anthony, Straus Kahn). Consider the usa ignores all other countries sovereignty while going and doing whatever they will, whenever they want (Pakistan). Consider the usa is practically crushed under the weight of local, state and national debts. Still think the usa is automatically the good guy? This is all plainly and painfully apparent to all people around the globe...except the poor brainwashed american populance. The charade is over, the illusion has fallen. The once proud and mighty united states of america seems to have become a caricature of itself. It's like the entire country has become a spin-off of Jersey Shore.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:34 pm | Reply
    • Smart Potato

      This is incredibly "facing" to the Republican party, who has nothing but destroy this country's reputation, killed 1000s of our own military troops, and put us in unfathomable debt. Not to mention, have zero experience in military strategy involving other countries.

      Bush lied to Americans, told NATO to shove it (when not ONE country was in favor of us invading Iraq), then went into Iraq with zero proof of a 9/11 connection, and no strategy. Obama finished the bin Laden job, aligned with NATO (keeping our involvement at a minimum), and this genocidal dictator has been ousted in less than a year. Sorry, but cannot argue with success.

      So, Impatient Ones, imagine what this cabinet can do, given as much time to FIX America as it took Dumbya to destroy it?

      August 24, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Reply
  17. Mathewp1

    Fareed is a brilliant and forward thinking intellectual. I always find the sensibility in his statements. Currently, and in the recent past, we have suffered huge losses. First and foremost in my eyes is the loss of life, limbs, and future family life of our military personnel and their families and friends. I know of a young officer who came back from the war with only one arm and couldn't even do a simple act such as hold his new twin babies safely at the same time. Second, the cost of all this financially is way beyond America's means. We are confident enough to know we do not need the glory for everything, just like we shouldn't be criticized for everything. The current move in Libya finally brought balance to the American foreign policy. I cried all the way home from work when it was announced we were going into Iraq, knowing it would impact my daughter and her future. Restraining our dominance in a foreign country indicates maturity and an understanding of the times. Well done to those involved.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Reply
  18. skultch

    I'm loving the absolutist responses. I have a news flash for you oversimplifying black-and-whiters, the world is more complicated than any single mind can encapsulate. Every oversimplified strategic policy (isolationism, shoot-first and overpower, etc) has incredibly significant implications that you seem to ignore or downplay.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Reply
  19. Arbitor of Truth

    Well done, Obama. He will NEVER get us into a full out war unless it's is actually needed [remote chance in case new "Hitler" arises]. But he will aid our friends and kill our mortal enemies...PROVEN.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Reply
  20. Jerry

    The spinmiesters at CNN are at it again. Show us a breakdown on which country put up the money & hardware to attack Libya to help push the dictator out. Obama turned it over to NATO, but who put up the green. Show us the facts and then I might believe the article.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Reply
  21. CJ

    Sure. He broke US law by not obtaining Congresses approval first with no foreseeable objectives. 'Renegade' O-Blamo is still spending billions and billions of taxpayers money in 3 wars for none other than oil... AGAIN... in an attempt to keep gas prices down so that he can get re-elected and finish his task of single handedly crashing the American economy and diminishing our standing in the world by reducing the US to a socialist/facist government.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Reply
  22. Mike

    Fareed, you are so naive it's scary! Obama is close to useless (and I'm a democrat) but he ain't stupid. Here's the reasons Obama stood back and watched. (A) We have no money for yet another war WHICH CANNOT BE WON. (B) With 2 wars still running, if Obama dragged us into yet another (un-winable) war he can kiss his chances of re-election goodbye. (C) If he got us into another war, what respect we still might have around the world would be close to zero. (D) When this is over, there will be another couple of thousand hard line Muslims determined to attack us. Usually, I find your comments insightful but where Obama is concerned, you need to wake up and smell the coffee. He's a very nice school teacher.......that's all.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:38 pm | Reply
  23. Justin Csae

    Haa haa haa ! Libya has oil that is the only condition for are help, Syria does not have oil so that revolution does not matter. So shove it up your oilly bottom Fakked mohamed what ever your crap name is.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Reply
  24. LiberalNN

    When liberals do it it's called "justice" and it's right! When conservatives do it it's evil and wrong and immoral.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Reply
  25. Randy

    Fareed makes a lot of sense to me. There is no panacea here: most of human history is like this – some good with some bad but ultimately a slight vector toward progress. I celebrate the Libyans victory for their new country and thank the West for helping.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Reply
  26. Mathewp1

    I hope America is not expected to pay much for the reconstruction of Libya, as I heard yesterday they have 130 billion dollars in safe boxes in different parts of the world. Any reconstruction should come out of their budget.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Reply
  27. greg

    Think we could learn a lot from Star Trek's prime objective, specifically the non interference part of it. Let nations solve their own problems. Sure be a money saver.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Reply
  28. Obama2012

    So proud of my president. It's amazing how other world leaders can negotiate and work with President Obama, for the good of the world, yet, congress can't work WITH him for the good of the country.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Reply
    • Jerry


      August 24, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Reply
  29. Bob

    Fareed, you simply are wrong on this one.

    First, It was a mistake (and frankly, dishonest) for the President to intentionally diminish the role of the United States claiming this as a purly NATO operation, while the US was the main element of teh operation, financially and militarily. President Obama was hiding behind the cover of NATO.

    Second, this operation took way too long and put the Libyan people at greater risk for a longer time partly because Obama was unwilling to lead. Only a few special operations troops on the ground but could have made a huge difference. More lives were lost with Mr. Obama's slow, low key approach than if he had used more American power.

    Third, this can hardly be called an Obama success at this point especially with chaos in Tripoli and it is uncertain if Libya will turn into another Somalia or not.

    Fourth, Since Mr. Obama took a back seat to NATO, if it is called a success, it is more a NATO success, not an Obama administration success. His supporters simply cannot claim a big Obama sucess whien he downplayed the US role. You cannot have it both ways.

    Fifth, as a American, I find it simply disheartening for an American President to so identify with third world opinion as to intentionally downplay, and distain American power and America's role in the world and actually trying to reduce Amerca's power. While I don't seriously question Mr. Obama's patriotism or intentions, I surely do question his judgement and his ability to lead the Uniited States and whether he really has the best interests of America at heart
    or the world at large. He was not elected to be World President.

    Mr. Obama needs to remember that he is the American president and stop apologizing to the world and start leading or America will in the future not have the ability to influence the world very much at all.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Reply
  30. Will

    Wow, the dictator is gone, and it didn't cost America over 5,000 of our bravest soldier's lives, trillions of dollars in treasure, and festering resenting from the Arabs in the region.

    August 24, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Reply
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Leave a Reply to Brunilda Dishinger


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.