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. Mike S. - Dayton, OH

    Fareed – As usual I couldn't agree with you more. There are so many positive angles to this it's difficult to put them all down in a single comment. Obama made an incredible gamble and it has largely paid off so far. And it's important to highlight his approach with McCain's idiotic criticism – 'We could've done faster, better, with more U.S. credit...". It was only because Obama waited as long as he did that we were able to secure maximum international support, which was critical to establishing legitimacy for any operations and for spreading the fallout risk as broadly as possible. It probably would never occur to the unstable and strategically inept McCain but there was no reason for us to push for a forced premature conclusion to the conflict by massively increasing our involvement. We knew we had the ability to cut off Ghadafi in every way diplomatically, economically and militarily to effectively cripple his governing control and give the rebels the best chance at success. We knew there was time and we needed it. Because we didn't rush things, NATO was able to create protocols for coordinating action together and with the rebels; the rebels were able to gradually consolidate their gains while gaining diplomatic support and recognition abroad; the rebels were able to create some form of governing authority and develop at least some post-Ghadafi plans; NATO was able to train rebel forces particularly in the West which became crucial in this later stage of the war and will be even more so in securing the country going further. It was precisely our minimal and behind the scenes involvement that allowed this rebellion to retain its legitimacy. And just as important, this slower incremental approach has allowed the Arab spring to continue into the Arab summer and put even more pressure on Syria, whose own nascent movement has a greater chance at developing into something more. Is it too early to celebrate? Of course it is and this thing is fraught with risk as everything in the Mid East is. But b/c of Obama's approach, everyone has a stake in the Libyan outcome and we came away with no casualties and virtually no expenditure of treasure of diplomatic capital.

    August 24, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Reply
  2. kerry

    This was definitely an improvement over what the U.S. did in Afghanistan and Iraq. Finally a president who is not a cowboy and blunders in hoping for the best. Please do not vote for Perry, we do not need any more cowboys. I live in Texas now, I know. Nor do we need Teabaggers either. Moderates make the best politicians.

    August 24, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Reply
    • NorCalMojo

      Right now, Libya is at the same point Iraq was in 2003.

      August 24, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Reply
  3. vic , nashville ,tn

    The fact is Obama handle it well Libyan crises. He is smart and he is surrounding by smart people. President took time but output always good.
    “The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan collectively cost the U.S. $1.3 trillion.” More than money world lost confidence on us. Obama regain the trust

    August 24, 2011 at 3:33 pm | Reply
    • NorCalMojo

      It's just getting started. Both Iraq and Afghanistan were won more quickly and more decisively than Libya.

      The hard part is what comes next.

      August 24, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Reply
  4. NorCalMojo

    You'd think Afghanistan and Iraq would have taught us about premature celebration.

    Saddam's statue was toppled in 2003. 8 years later, we're still there and it's still costing us money.

    I'll be back in 2 years to tell you all "I told you so"

    August 24, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Reply
  5. Mike

    Americans want glory for two reasons:
    1) For troops who participated in those missions to feel appreciated.
    2) All foreign interventions carry the intention of furthering American Democracy. To turn a culture to democracy requires the citizenry to appreciate America in order to strive to emulate it.

    August 24, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Reply
  6. SiriusVH

    In my humble opinion, Libya was handled better by Obama than Iraq was by Bush.

    Perhaps the difference stems from having someone who actually thinks in the White House. It seems that thinking is painfully difficult for GOPsters. The recent crop of GOP President-wannabes (Bachmann and Perry especially) confirms that.

    August 24, 2011 at 4:05 pm | Reply
  7. SiriusVH

    America does not have a monopoly on Democracy .... Many other countries (most of Western Europe) can 'educate' un-democratic countries on the benefits of democracy. So, there is no need for America to get involved in every conflict, esepcially when no key strategic interests are at stake ....

    August 24, 2011 at 4:10 pm | Reply
  8. SiriusVH

    On the basis of what I have seen so far, I think that Obama has no interest in getting too involved in re-constructing Libya, which is not to say that he will be totally disengaged ...... Besides, the Europeans have more interests at stake and will probably do more more to help Libya .... did I mention oil?

    August 24, 2011 at 4:15 pm | Reply
  9. Jason K

    He still spent our money without the consent of congress on military operations with a country we neither declared war on or had any military stategic value. Our foreign policy still sucks. When he closes a few hundred off shore military bases...like ones in Ecuador or something I'll consider giving him some credit.

    The mandate for the President and US Military is to protect US citizens from threats foreign and domestic, NOT to secure foreign interests for the profit or gain or corporate individuals or groups.

    Don't know why I'm bothering though since 90% of what I write gets banned from Zakaria's opinion posts anyways.

    August 24, 2011 at 4:17 pm | Reply
  10. Really?

    Let's all pat eachothers backs. Maybe hang a "Mission Accomplished" sign. We all know, once you topple the regime in power in a Middle East nation, the fighting's over.. Right?

    August 24, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Reply
  11. Jarhead

    In their blind hatred of Obama, the GOP and the red necks who support them are now trying to claim ownership of this new foreign policy approach that is Obama's own and for which he should receive full credit. Events in North Africa and the Middle East are turning "our way" without any military involvement or aggressive political maneuvering. That we helped our allied at NATO was perfectly reasonable and expected. But nothing more. What a success story this has been. No predecessor has ever done anything like it. Congratulations Mr. President. Now, let's get out of Afghanistan and Iraq at a pace that YOU feel is appropriate and the fell with the Republicans.

    August 24, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Reply
  12. Salam

    For those who are concerned about the money, First of ll, I don't think that Libya will not end up paying this 1 bilion dollar. Second, just the benefits of over 3 billion dollars of Libyan Money in US is enough to cover this expense besides the future of American business in Libya regarding oil companies and many others.

    August 24, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Reply
  13. me

    To be sure, not a "new era", so much as a restoration of how things used to be before the neocons and their puppet dictator Bush destroyed our country.

    Obama has said from day one (even before day one, if you read his book) , that he wants to restore the environment of sane political discourse that once existed in the US. Some of us still remember those days, you know. Our brains haven't been erased by talk radio goons. Back in those days it was "united we stand, divided we fall."

    It's telling, and it reveals a lot about the sad state of U.S government and politics, that Obama has had better results internationally than he has had domestically. It just goes to show you, there are still a lot of folks in America that want to divide us for their own political gain. The Bush administration, and the current mob of GOP candidates are all from the same America-hating ilk. They'll destroy us before admitting they were wrong.

    August 24, 2011 at 4:43 pm | Reply
  14. Salam

    For those who are concerned about the money, First of all, I don't think that Libya will not end up paying this 1 bilion dollar. Second, just the benefits of over 30 billion dollars of Libyan Money in US is enough to cover this expense besides the future of American business in Libya regarding oil companies and many others.

    August 24, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Reply
  15. Blackwingedbeing

    I'm just waiting for the IMF and The World bank to come in screw everything up. There's no new F. Policy????

    Please watch John Pilgers video
    The New Rulers Of The World
    Is global power actually in the hands of large multi-national corporations?

    August 24, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Reply
  16. HistoryWins

    Zakaria was critiquing Obama's foreign policy. That has nothing to do with the outcome in Libya. Getting America some dignity in the eyes of the world at this time is not just nice – but necessary. If only his economic policies were this successful...all in all, still grateful to have a reasonable realistic person as President. Too bad people cannot see what an improvement he is on the last guy!

    August 24, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Reply
    • Geo

      Good point. I would believe a right wing person more if he was less partisan and willing to acknowledge successful policy by the other side. It seems the right swings from Neoconservative interventionism to traditional isolationism with disconcerting speed. It's like they can say one thing one day and say the complete oppostie the next without skipping a beat, first accusing Obama of not doing enough and then too much. They have the lost the ability to think and speak rationally. Strangely, if you follow Zakaria, he is a sterling example of traditional conservatism.

      August 24, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Reply
  17. outawork

    Is stand back and watch a good foreign policy?

    August 24, 2011 at 5:06 pm | Reply
  18. GaryB

    Some of my Republican friends were calling Libya Obama's (well, actually, they used a less respectful name) Vietnam a few weeks ago. A couple of days ago, they were predicting mass anarchy in Libya followed by a conservative Islamist state. Today, they're claiming that Libya is a big victory for the policies set in place by George W. Bush. In their eyes, no matter how well things go, Obama and his foreign policy will never get any positive creidt. He'll only get the blame if things go wrong.

    August 24, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Reply
  19. Unreal

    The true 'new era in US foreign policy' is one where the president can go to war without congressional approval or oversight. If it's such a worthy cause, and if it's so cheap, then why wouldn't you try and get congressional approval? Obviously the Bush policies were wrong, but he did get the congress to approve. This is a dangerous regression of american policy that will lead to more war and more military spending and more dead american soldiers. Zakaria is clearly just begging for a spot in the obama white house...or does he truly believe what he is writing? I don't trust the judgment of anyone who says a billion dollars is a small amount! you could easily house every chronically homeless person in this whole country for a whole year with that much money...or contribute over $15,000 to the treatment of every cancer patient in this country...or give $1,000 to feed every child that regularly goes hungry in this country....or we could start paying off the deficit....any of these options would be more effective in helping americans than fighting a war in n. africa.

    August 24, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Reply
  20. g.j.manschot

    Cannot agree more!
    The face of America, as seen by the world (minus America that is) changed, for this one time, from:
    "We, the USA, the Greatest Country on earth, have changed history again. Look how good, righteous and powerful we are in establishing freedom and democracy out there"
    into/towards
    "They are the Ones, look how courageous, freedom longing and powerful they are. We are proud having supported these freedom fighters in there cause, together with surrounding nations, the Arab league, the European union in particular the UK, France. Italy and NATO overall, on a United Nations mandate!
    And by the way, while the USA is in its cost cutting balancing act, at close to no cost at all!
    Is the USA finally becoming modest and very influential and successful at a relatively small cost level at the same time??
    That would be clever and beneficial for ALL!
    Let's hope this is going to be the new "Modest" and "Leading from behind" doctrine of USA foreign policy.
    It may be a loss for the American Ego, but it will be a gain for the world.
    And: The USA will be looked upon as a friend in the cause of freedom, instead of an secretive aggresor with an oil agenda .

    August 24, 2011 at 5:29 pm | Reply
  21. Covers,

    I think that Libya is a great example of humane libertarianism. Americans are a lot more optimistic about it than the British who are now whinging they shouldn't have been in the country at all because it's nothing to do with us. Bit selfish...

    August 24, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Reply
    • thedizzle

      I've grown to despise Zakaria, and all of you mindless idiots who actually believe any of this crap about Libya and Gaddafi. This man is the victim of global totalitarianism! NATO committed an act of treason and murder with the massive bombings of Libya and Gaddafi's regime. France, the UK, and America are all lining up to steal Libya's oil and if you continue to refuse to face reality, we are all doomed! There was absolutely NO humanitarian crisis before we started bombing Libya, but you better bet your a$$ that not only have we created a crisis with killing thousands of Libyans already, just wait and see what happens in the very near future. Stop drinking the koolaid, fools and maybe learn something about freedom and it's demise in the USA.

      August 24, 2011 at 6:19 pm | Reply
  22. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    Republicans are best when it comes to National Security – WAR – no brains required just – WAR.

    August 24, 2011 at 5:52 pm | Reply
  23. thedizzle

    I've grown to despise Zakaria, and all of you mindless idiots who actually believe any of this crap about Libya and Gaddafi. This man is the victim of global totalitarianism! NATO committed an act of treason and murder with the massive bombings of Libya and Gaddafi's regime. France, the UK, and America are all lining up to steal Libya's oil and if you continue to refuse to face reality, we are all doomed! There was absolutely NO humanitarian crisis before we started bombing Libya, but you better bet your a$$ that not only have we created a crisis with killing thousands of Libyans already, just wait and see what happens in the very near future. Stop drinking the koolaid, fools and maybe learn something about freedom and it's demise in the USA.

    August 24, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Reply
    • Kmotiv2

      Idiot... Why are you talking like to oil is some big secret? We'll help out Libya because human rights are being neglected and whatnot... aaaand they have oil that they may share with us when we remind them that they overcame their oppressor with our help. Duh? When gas costs 5 bucks a gallon instead of 8, maybe you'll think again.

      August 24, 2011 at 11:35 pm | Reply
  24. plutoniumkid

    This quote from a PRI story says it all

    "A spokesman for a new rebel-run Libyan oil company, Agoco, essentially confirmed Lee's analysis, saying Russia and China may have a harder time returning to Libya's oil fields."

    Sometimes being the good guy does pay

    August 24, 2011 at 6:32 pm | Reply
  25. getreal74

    well said and thought out fareed.better than anything some of these rednecks on here could have thought up.

    August 24, 2011 at 7:12 pm | Reply
  26. Blue Dog

    Obama just got lucky. he got lucky on Egypt, lucky on Libya, lucky on Osama, lucky on thwarting all other terrorism plans, lucky in taking country out of recession, Looks like he's the most lucky man in the world. I guess he can get lucky on Economy also if only the teabaggers let him do that.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:40 pm | Reply
  27. bruce mccoy

    You call that leadership? Obama had to be dragged into the US limited involvement. Why couldn't he have just said no? His advisors told him he couldn't turn down NATO allies, especially since the UN agreed for humanitarian reasons – Obama said, OK, but we're only contributing support, as NATO asks for it. While that's laudable, I certainly wouldn't want to 'lead from behind' on other occasions – hopefully this will be a short 'break'

    August 24, 2011 at 9:36 pm | Reply
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