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. Gethetruth


    The Problem with the US is its system of Governance, as FZ pointed out in an earlier article about the need for a parliamentary system in the US. The President cannot deal with domestic economic polices and also deal with international political issues. The federated states system is very complex and economic polices formulated at the Center are all about providing subsides. Why should the president be creating jobs ? Its the business of the States. The President cannot be commander of the forces as well as commander of the economy with in the country. What the people want is the President to be a Dictator and yet not give him the power, power is held by the Congress and Senate. This is a stupid system and all the problems in this country derive from it, but we cannot be wrong, we are the Greatest Country in the World, but also the Stupidest and the Debtest.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:22 am | Reply
  2. Voiceinthewind

    The decisions made by Obama have been nothing but good for America and its troops, its security, its image, and its economy and it stime for people to realize we have a leader with a brain that he knows how to use and exercises it constantly not like The Shrub who had no access to a brain whatsoever and did notning but disgrace America and all it stands for on top of killing many innocent people while banckrupting the country and pocketing all the money. Put The Shrub and Cheeneey and thier crew in PRISON where they belong. Good job Mr. Obama.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:23 am | Reply
  3. Jim McDonald

    What about the question of whether we should have intervened in the first place? This was essentially a civil war within Libya. The fact that our intervention was more cleverly managed than it usually is doesn;t address the basic issues of the wisdom and morality of rhe policy.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:29 am | Reply
  4. Shaen

    Fareed Zakaria is Obama's Monica Lewinsky

    August 24, 2011 at 8:38 am | Reply
    • Raza

      Is he an intern at the WH? If not then how can you say?

      August 24, 2011 at 9:05 am | Reply
  5. memphispiano

    Egypt overthrew it's leader without our help...Tunisia overthrew it's leader without our help. Libya probably would have ultimately succeeded as well. To act like the U.S. made the difference is something you cannot prove. Obviously, we made it a little quicker...but overthrowing a dictator is easy (we overthrew Saddam Hussein a lot quicker), but achieving victory is much more elusive, as George Bush found out. Is Obama prepared to pay the price to make sure Libya succeeds to democracy and security?

    August 24, 2011 at 8:40 am | Reply
    • Obama2012

      1) Hussein was NOT brought down quicker.
      2) The war in Iraq was at the price of many lives, US lives ... not so in Libya
      3) The US shared this with other countries before agreeing to help.
      4) None other country was in agreement with us going into Iraq except the Prime Minister of the UK.
      5) No other country agreed to share in the burdon and the victory.

      August 24, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Reply
  6. John Stefanyszyn

    Mr. Zakaria,
    The conditions that you listed are the reflective results of President Obama's "vision", which you did not address.
    If you review the President's 2009 UN speech, you will see that he outlines the strategy that he pledges his commitment to, i.e. covenant.
    The events that have taken place in the middle-east (glorious land) have followed exactly the vision of the President.
    The events in the middle-east have also followed another vision , one that describes the same events, which many people will not take seriously, and yet its words reflect the "belief" of the President and also describe in detail the social and political events.
    ....you may want to take a serious look at Daniel 11:36-45, Rev.13:11-18...you may have a problem understanding the symbols...but they are political-international in nature and they deal precisely with the "vision of freedom now" of President Obama.

    I put forth the challenge to you and all your readers.....compare the vison and UN speech of President Obama to the above scriptures.....to see the parallel....if you want to see the Truth.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:48 am | Reply
    • Raza

      Was it part of Obama's freedom vision to support Saudi Arabia sending troops to crush revolt in Bahrain. The only vision is petro$$$s.

      August 24, 2011 at 9:11 am | Reply
  7. sundownr

    Libya is a big positive in a world of negatives... that is there might be hope for the world yet.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:50 am | Reply
  8. volksmaniac

    Bush's fault .

    August 24, 2011 at 8:50 am | Reply
  9. Frank

    The obsequious Fareed Zakaria seems to have a daily opinion stating the obvious. He takes every opportunity he can to laud President Obama who, with ratings under 40%, cannot be doing everything right.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:52 am | Reply
    • Raza

      Fareed lauds Obama because he wants to be Secy State after 2012 IF Obama wins. He is the neocons Trojan Horse.

      August 24, 2011 at 9:03 am | Reply
  10. R

    For Fareed anything related to Islam is the only important thing in the world. I am not against rebels as i don't like Gadhafi. However, I can see Fareed's excitement on Muslim issues and lack of interest in other's.
    Believe me, for these rebels, removing Gadhafi was the easiest part. Now real struggle will start. That is reconstruction. US or any one else cannot help. They have to rebuild wisely. Hope they succeed in establishing a secular society.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:54 am | Reply
  11. Bob

    When either side (Dems or Reps) respond to a strategy entirely based on whether it was created by "their" side or "the other side," it's not very helpful. The same issue was true when everything Bush did was horrible and evil. The fact remains that Gadhafi's handling of the popular uprising was brutal. If you look at the economic cost (the real cost to date, not the worst or best case imagined cost), how can anyone argue that it was anything but a bargain? And folks who complain about the US always having to bear the brunt of the cost (both soft and hard dollar), again, how can anyone complain? To be sure, it's only "the beginning of the end" of the game so to speak, but a realist looking at the facts (and I warn you, one of my favorite belongings is a book autographed by Richard Nixon, so I'm not entirely "liberal" in nature) has to at the very least be somewhat pleased at the current outlook. It causes legitimate complaints about the administration to get lost in the noise.

    August 24, 2011 at 9:03 am | Reply
  12. Fluffy Bunny

    Most Americans are sick and tired of footing the bill to save these countries from themselves. Our own country is falling apart with "crumbling infrastructure", but has been ignored in order to man and fund a series of Bush's crusades. 9/11 should have been answered with an overwhelming smackdown of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan instead of an excuse to clean up Bush's family business with Saddam. The last 10 years could have been spent fixing our own problems and we would be much better for it.

    August 24, 2011 at 9:07 am | Reply
    • Obama2012

      Isolationism is dangerous, especially in today's world. Read the history of FDR and his time in office and what the world and this country was going through. The US didn't want involvement w/Nazi Germany and wanted to remain isolated. President Roosevelt seen that we could not sit back and not eventually be in danger ourselves.

      August 24, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Reply
  13. andreadealmagro

    I have respect for Mr.Zakaria but I don't know where he got from that we, the U.S., got into a sort of pre-arranged accord when NATO intervened in Libya. The reality was that Kadhafi's forces were at the gates of Benghazi when the French initiated an air assault alone, followed by the British a couple of days later. Then they were joined by the Danes, Norwegians, and Qataris.
    People at Benghazi were hanging French flags from their balconies; not American flags.
    During those fateful days, were were furiously pedaling back, away from the conflict and actually with conflicting statements and actions from every corner of the U.S. government.
    The neo-cons wanted to invade, something that would have been a gross blunder.Obama spoke of sitting that one out.
    I believe our actions there were rather indecisive and and we were just dragged by the events. That was not the creation of a new doctrine. That was...nothing.

    August 24, 2011 at 9:12 am | Reply
  14. curt

    hmmm, isn't Syria now satisfying all your criteria? Where is the US for the Syrian people? Its a slippery slope.

    August 24, 2011 at 9:16 am | Reply
  15. Bill D

    Agree with Obama administration approach, however success will be determined by what Libya emerges from chaos.Young men with automatic weapons and no rule of law is a bad combination. The leadership vacuum has to be filled quickly. Is a new strategy needed to deal with failed states? Yemen, Somalia and yes Iraq and Afghanistan have the potential to implode. Isolate them? A policy of containment may be the only answer. We cannot be in Iraq or Afghanistan forever and they know it.

    August 24, 2011 at 9:18 am | Reply
  16. Baehr

    Great article, although telling the US gov't not to stake personal pride and credit above a shared goal is a silly notion. After all, a politician's job is to get reelected, and voters are, what's the word...dumb. Self-aggrandizement is an easier sell to a dumb base than is well-considered altruism, so there will always be a push for credit.

    Only other thing - there are 1000 billions in a trillion, not 10.

    August 24, 2011 at 9:21 am | Reply
  17. JOH

    1) A local group that was willing to fight and die for change; in other words, "indigenous capacity".
    -Every country has residents that are willing to fight and die for change... This includes the American people as well as majority of the middle-class if they continue pushing them to the dirt. A country of freedom and liberty is not satisfied merely being told what to do. That isn't democracy.

    Also, the United States has had many failed approached with their foreign policy I don't even need to mention. At the same time, their foreign policy helped a country like my place of birth (South Korea) gain their freedom. That's why I love America but people don't realize you can't save everyone if you can't even save your own country from its own people... That "American" unity and the whole "stand together, stand strong" barely exists anymore. People don't trust each other, I know people who got many "friends" that end up stealing or scheme against them. Even with all the censorship of violence and swearing as well as their many attempts to stop the war on drugs/prevent people to smoke cigarettes fail.

    America needs a unilateral solution that heals the entire system, not just remove "undesirables" from the community. And they need to stop the controlled-media for news report... seriously what kind of democracy is this? It saddens me when a British and Russian news broadcast network does a more accurate and revealing news report than America.

    August 24, 2011 at 9:28 am | Reply
  18. innuhnet

    Two words: gulf war. Third word: Kosovo. CNN is feeding the shortsighted political beast by denying a real counter argument that carries more weight than the dramatic frame zakaria is casting on this situation.

    August 24, 2011 at 9:33 am | Reply
  19. Adam

    Fareed Zakaria: Globalist Propaganda Solicitor

    Mr. Fareed, we know your agenda. Its perfectly clear as of late. With your "pragmatic" approach, is there nothing that cannot be compromised? Nothing sacred?

    August 24, 2011 at 9:33 am | Reply
    • El Flaco

      What "sacred" values are you referring to? The most sacred thing to protect is the lives of US servicemen and women. We can't just feed them into machine gun fire as if they were expendable supplies. This cautious strategy of Obama's appears to have been a brilliant success. I know that this thought makes Conservative heads hurt as the Irresistable Force of Truth crashes into the Immovable Object of Conservative Propaganda, but I feel your pain and am sympathetic to your plight.

      August 24, 2011 at 9:49 am | Reply
  20. Bruce

    I like Fareed's view on several issues. Dislike the way we want to start a war intervention, but this is not leading from behind, more like coming down to earth. I think Americans understand this part of this policy (not on the usual big ego trip causes the resentment in others and the operation to fail) Think every situation is unique, this one was started with Gadhafi being a revolutionary 41 year's ago, then after becoming rich and powerful he alienated the people such that he had to hire mercinaries and invoke fear on the populace, army was out there with bad training, broken weapons, all for a reason. The best doctrine is the conditions mentioned in this opinion piece, don't announce what you are going to do and keep a low profile, we're not chosen humans, just share a part of the planet. It is not important that we be the greatest people, we're not really, we just have more technical innovation that made us more wealthy, money doesn't always make for a happy life as we know we have problems. I wish the rebels luck.

    August 24, 2011 at 9:38 am | Reply
  21. Dean

    Neither the neo-cons nor any other Republicans deserve any credit in this affair. IN fact, just the opposite. All they did was criticize the President. They threatened to impeach him over violations of the War Powers Act. They threatened to de-fund the operation. They did everything they could to cause the operation, our President and our military to fail. They deserve derision, not credit. They deserve to be symbolically tared and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail.

    August 24, 2011 at 9:39 am | Reply
  22. Brett

    Zakaria's argument is fatally flawed because of one word: Syria.

    August 24, 2011 at 9:43 am | Reply
    • El Flaco

      So you say, Brett. But in reply may I say:

      August 24, 2011 at 9:50 am | Reply
    • Dean

      Since we are not involved in Syria, it has no bearing on Zakaria's argument.

      August 24, 2011 at 9:53 am | Reply
      • tcp

        I believe his point is that if we use the "new model" developed by the hawkish New Progressives, we SHOULD be bombing Syria...

        August 24, 2011 at 10:15 am |
  23. PeterD

    Zakaria USA is Broke and People in the Real World are tired of your and American Foreign Policy Propoganda.

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

    Has Fareed run out of angles to write about Libya? There's nothing "new" about this multi-nation approach, particularly for US activities in or near Europe. Consider the intervention in Bosnia;; or even the world wars. Seems rather insulting to fellow NATO members. Furthermore (and somewhat contradictorily, I admit), we are carrying most of the water here.

    August 24, 2011 at 9:46 am | Reply
  25. KennyG

    GIVE ME A BREAK! Obama is taking advantage of at the fact that the U.S. citizenry is very gullible to such rhetoric. He did nothing but take the credit for event that other initiated. He did not have anything to do with capturing Bin Ladin but give the okay take action after others planning that had taken place much earlier. He did not initiate the process; he just gave the okay. Likewise, what has he done re Egypt and Libya? Nothing but tell the bad guys to get out or else. Or else, what? He is not a world leader to take seriously. He is one who takes great pleasure in pointing fingers though.

    August 24, 2011 at 9:47 am | Reply
    • El Flaco

      Rule #1 of Conservative Propaganda: Non-Conservative leaders are never successful – even if they ARE successful, they can NEVER be successful.

      Bush Jr. invaded Afghanistan to catch bin Laden, but he wasn't in Afghanistgan. He was in Pakistan watching soccer on wide-screen TV. Americans who died there died for nothing.

      Bush Jr. invaded Iraq to capture "20,000 TONS of bioactive and radioactive weapons grade material, but there were no WMDs in Iraq. Americans who died there died for nothing.

      Maybe the Trojan War was a stupid waste of men, money, and time, but at least Helen was actually IN Troy.

      August 24, 2011 at 9:53 am | Reply
      • tcp

        We did NOT invade Afghanistan to get UBL. We invaded Afghanistan to weaken Al Qaeda...Stop being such a revisionist.

        August 24, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • Really?


      Are you part of the White House staff? Obama's cabinet? A government official, perhaps? Your idiotic views of what the president has done, or has not done is so far off base, that I question whether or not you received a proper education. You are a typical "Obama Hater". Assuming the president has had no say in positive actions, but in the same light, blaming him for the negative. This only highlights the hateful and damaging rhetoric your kind spews. If you have nothing intelligent to contribute to society, please do us all a favor and shut it.

      August 24, 2011 at 11:01 am | Reply
  26. Alina77

    Great job Mr.President, I hope after your presidency, many others Presidents will follow "share the burden" rules, and if they wouldn't, people will be smart enough to question them before getting in to any other wars (by our selves). So, I am not going to be too optimistic about our people, because we are "Americans", after all.

    August 24, 2011 at 9:49 am | Reply
  27. James B.

    I think Mr. Zakaria is the most intelligent voice in our media. If only FOX and MSNBC would deliver the news in such a straight forward and honest way our nation would be SOOOO much better.

    I also believe President Obama has done an outstanding job in the Libya revolution. It scares me to think of how the republican party / tea party radicals would have handled this. I have absolutely ZERO confidence in any of the republican presidential candidates except perhaps Huntsman, but he is a centrist and will never be accepted by the radicals in his party.

    August 24, 2011 at 9:51 am | Reply
  28. Tim

    Mr Zakaria....welcome to your own "Mission Accomplished" moment. The issues in Libya are far from over and the cost and level of participation required by the US and NATO remains to be seen. This is just the beginning. And like Iraq and Afghanistan....if you break it...you bought it. The point of your piece should be that American foreign policy under Obama may be different tactically (and I commend Obama for having the foresight not to put boots on the ground – so far)...but in fact our policy hasn't changed if we still believe our role is to oust dictators in other sovereign nations in the name of liberating its people. The lesson we were supposed to learn in Iraq and Afghanistan is its easy to take out the dictator...but then what?

    August 24, 2011 at 9:51 am | Reply
    • El Flaco

      Any time a totalitarian dictator is overthrown is a good day. It makes the world a better place.

      I know every Conservative is trying to spin this success into a defeat somehow, but that is their nature. If President McCain had implemented the same policy with the same results, there would be flags flying from the porches of every Republican household.

      August 24, 2011 at 10:12 am | Reply
      • tcp

        It is not a defeat. It simply wasn't warranted.

        August 24, 2011 at 10:41 am |
      • Tim

        First off – I'm not a conservative....but you would have to inject some political bias to make your point because you don't actually have one. Your comment is laughable...its only a "good day" if the dictator removed is replaced with some form of self governance for the population. If he's replaced with another dictator nothing's changed. Guess you forgot that the current regime in Iran was due to "revolution"....how's that working out. Egypt being run by the military....not looking so good. The Taliban will be running Afghanistan within months of us pulling out. Too early to call this success. Remember the Iraqi's tearing down the Saddam statue!

        August 24, 2011 at 11:13 am |
  29. john

    CNN giving a good spin for Obama amking America look weak

    August 24, 2011 at 9:52 am | Reply
  30. gr8

    This president with brains is clearly doing a better job than the old one with bravado. You might have a chance of crawling out of the grave the previous guy dug out for you.

    August 24, 2011 at 9:52 am | Reply
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Post a comment


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.