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. sharon

    dear fareed, I can see you are writing from your point of view. Obama using this strategy does not mean america has adopted it. you Americans are very funny, those libyans you protect are still coming to bite you. And i believe when your economy is broke you will turn back and seek for Africans help to bail you from your creditor (CHINA). never belittle AFRICA they have the material,labour to rule the next generation PEACE

    August 24, 2011 at 10:11 am | Reply
  2. lkc

    Good job Fareed! Hope your various articles with truthful views may help change the thinking of people. Keep it up.

    August 24, 2011 at 10:11 am | Reply
  3. Chip

    A new policy would be ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which Obama promised to do 3 years ago and has yet to deliver. So much for Hope and Change! What Hope & Change really meant was "The Same As Bush, Just More Of It".

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

      Apparently, the most vicious insult that Conservatives can think of is to say, "This Democratic President is just as incompetent as the last Republican President. Vote Republican!"

      August 24, 2011 at 10:13 am | Reply
      • qcao

        Yehh...send GOP's bosses all our tax dollar through nonbidding contract...wasteful spending of the offence industry aka defence industry...hey, why don't you just donate all our earning to them without waging a war, so at least there won't anyone killed.

        August 24, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  4. qcao

    Fareed, how does our oil industry get cheap and highly profitable "light and sweet" lybia oil reserve without sending ground troop, and issuing "non=bidding contracts". How do you transfer tax payer money to the rich? GW Bush will laugh at you, you got to be kidding me, wage a war without profit...you stupid...

    August 24, 2011 at 10:14 am | Reply
    • El Flaco

      Wars should not be fought for profit. That would make war into murder for hire. Wars are fought – or should be fought – for justice, to repel an invading enemy, or to rescue the oppressed.

      August 24, 2011 at 10:16 am | Reply
      • qcao

        I agree with you 100%, however that is not the reality, my friend...look back at all the wars occured in the past 30 years...

        August 24, 2011 at 10:20 am |
  5. Dreucalypt

    This model is a brilliant success. And Obama's critics never paused to wonder what he was trying to do. Now they can't figure out how to respond now that his policy has worked out, and given us a better model for the future.

    August 24, 2011 at 10:14 am | Reply
  6. ZeroGods

    Seems like there are many people from the political right who are against our involvement in Libya. Yet many of these same people voted for Bush, who got us into 2 wars that cost hundred of times what Libya cost, cost thousands of American lives, and (especially in the case of Iraq) compromised our national reputation. In this case, Obama worked with others in the international community and helped to achieve a good result at a very low cost, with no American lives lost. As Mr Zakaria argues, this is an excellent model for future interventions. And it doesn't matter whether Obama invented this policy, the fact is he's executing it very well. Seriously people, you can't ask for much better than this. Which leads me to conclude, as others have, that you will probably attack whatever our President does, simply because he's not Republican, not southern, or not white, whatever your main prejudice of choice happens to be.

    August 24, 2011 at 10:14 am | Reply
  7. bobby frank

    I am so glad we finally have a president that understands how to walk the walk. Obama really gets it and I think that is why he is was successful in getting Bin Laden and now helping get Gadafi out of power. Look how much money Bush and Cheney wasted on Iraq and Afganistan. They could have done something similar in those two countries and saved most importantly thousands of american lives and secondly alot of money. They did not have the intelligence to figure out the best way to solve these problems but apparently Obama has. Thank you Mr President!

    August 24, 2011 at 10:14 am | Reply
    • Brett

      So I guess now that Gaddafi is out of power democracy will spring forth and there will be a Starbucks on every block and shopping malls in every town? This is the Middle East and we just put an entire country in the hands of an unorganized group of rebels with no clear path forward for the future. How can you be so short sighted?

      August 24, 2011 at 10:19 am | Reply
    • lash1943

      Now, Mr. President, let's send them an invoice which covers the cost of our involvement in getting them their feedom and they can pay us with discounted oil over the next ten years or so....same with Iraq and Kuwait.

      August 24, 2011 at 10:40 am | Reply
  8. jt_flyer

    We’re a financially broke nation. We can’t even honor our social security commitments to our own people. Let’s go back to the way to the way we were for the 170 years prior to WWII and concern ourselves with our own borders. Get all our troops out of Europe. It’s no longer 1950. Times have changed. Three US states no longer make up the majority of the world’s products. Europe can defend themselves.

    August 24, 2011 at 10:14 am | Reply
  9. limjim66

    Obama makes this past idiot George w bush and his cronies , the Republican party look like like idiots 1billion $$s compared to 3 trillion $$ stolen by Halliburton and Associates ......

    August 24, 2011 at 10:16 am | Reply
  10. bobcat2u

    The president absolutely handled this situation with a lot savvy. He initially was not wanting to get our country involved in this mess in the first place. When he finally did abdicate, it was on the condition that we would NOT take the lead in the attacks. After the opening phase was complete, he kept his word and we went into a supportive role. Yes, I do call this great leadership. Not like Mr. Bush, who got us into Iraq with an alliance of the " willing ". Most of the countries he asked said hell no.

    August 24, 2011 at 10:17 am | Reply
  11. chris

    isn't this a slap in the face of all the countries who have contributed to Iraq and Afghanistan. All for an attempt at political prosperity. CNN should be ashamed of itself.

    August 24, 2011 at 10:17 am | Reply
    • El Flaco

      No it isn't.

      August 24, 2011 at 10:19 am | Reply
  12. Daveil

    A liberal fairy tale with a supposed happy ending. Similar story to Egypt where the peace between Egypt and Israel has now been destabilized by that regime change. Libya will now become a more prominent source of mujahideen to destabilize Afghanistan and Iraq as well as a weapons provider for terrorists.

    August 24, 2011 at 10:18 am | Reply
  13. jake1969

    Good and accurate piece. Of course, nothing will make today's republicans happy. Their single policy now is "being against anything Obama does...even if it's a good move." It's amusing all their double-talk on the Libya issue. At first, "you aren't doing enough!" Then, "OMG, you are doing too much!" And across the board they all predicted failure. Republicans weren't always like this. It's become quite sad. Their principles don't come first anymore, it's just oppose Obama at any cost. Santorum called Obama "indecisive" on Libya. What did he want? Should we have done nothing in which case Ghadaffi would still be in power? Should we have led the operation, giving it the USA stamp and decreasing legitimacy of the rebel movement? Only McCain had it generally correct from the beginning... Republicans used to rally behind national security causes, even when Dems were in power...now it's all politics all the time. Europe should have played a large role, N. Africa is in their hemisphere...we can't keep leading in every hemisphere in the world. It's just not sustainable.

    August 24, 2011 at 10:19 am | Reply
  14. Dakota

    Fareed, An excellent article. I also agree with others who question the legitimacy of the GOP. I could hardly believe that John McCain remains critical of Obama. McCain is self defecating. He continues pushing the traditional kick-ass, me first approach. He demonstrates he lack of understanding and perspective regarding the economics of war and how to leverage the international community and local forces. Obama didn't lead from behind. In fact, he figured out how to get out in front. I am certain that Hilary Clinton also played a key role. My congratulations to the Obama team. They deserve our respect and admiration, and it is about time for McCain to acknowledge this without reservation or further comment. What a moron he has become in his old age. I absolutely despise John McCain.

    August 24, 2011 at 10:20 am | Reply
  15. El Flaco

    Conservatism: They don't call it "The Big Con" for nothing.

    August 24, 2011 at 10:20 am | Reply
  16. Senigallia

    truth –

    Obama is also criticized for allegedly eroding NATO in the effort to oust Libya's Muammar Gadhafi.

    "And so, the once-intimidating NATO alliance found itself entangled above Libya's deserts for long months in a 'battle of giants' against a state whose army is sometimes reminiscent of a Jenin street gang from a decade ago," says Walt. "Now, with Gadhafi's rule finally drawing to an end, the president kindly took time off from his vacation to festively declare that the future is in the Libyan people's hands – while local tribes are preparing for the imminent bloodshed and al-Qaida is reinforcing its hold on the country."

    August 24, 2011 at 10:22 am | Reply
  17. Nateisgreat

    Does anyone know what the toll in human life is because of the NATO intervention? The government and the media have never fully disclosed the casualties we have caused through direct bombings and the support of an armed insurrection. I pray Libya will flourish as a democracy in a post-ghaddafi world, And my heart goes out to all those who struggle for the freedoms many of us take for granted... But the question remains, did we prevent a massacre in Benghazi only to purpetrate a wider massacre throughout Libya

    August 24, 2011 at 10:24 am | Reply
  18. Mark

    Before we engage in too much back-slapping let's not forget this "model of intervention" was denounced by Brazil, China, Germany, India, Russia and other nations. It's doubtful this type of western (mainly) unilateral action will go uncontested in the future. Furthermore, how much "skin in the game" is the US going to have after putting Libya back together over the next 10 + years? Ousting bad guys is like winning the NIT Tip-Off Tourney ... still have to play the season out.

    August 24, 2011 at 10:24 am | Reply
  19. El Flaco

    From Page 1 of the Little Red Book of Conservative Propaganda.
    1. Non-Conservative leaders must fail.
    2. If Non-Conservative leaders succeed, they have failed.
    3. If Non-Conservative leaders fail, they have failed.
    4. If Non-Conservative leaders propose an idea that might succeed, you must oppose it.
    5. If Non-Conservative leaders propose an idea that might fail, you must oppose it.
    6. If Non-Conservative leaders do nothing, you must oppose them.
    7. If Non-Conservative leaders do anything, you must oppose them.

    August 24, 2011 at 10:25 am | Reply
  20. Daveil

    It's interesting to see all the liberals agreeing with Zakaria and stroking themselves over how great Obama's "new" foreign policy is. Where will he choose to intercede next based on human rights and dignity rather than US security interests.

    August 24, 2011 at 10:25 am | Reply
    • El Flaco

      Conservatism is truly evil, as evidenced by Daveil's comments.
      Conservatism is amoral, anti-Christian, and un-American.

      August 24, 2011 at 10:26 am | Reply
      • tcp

        Liberalism is evil as evidenced by El Flaco's comments. WOW! That's really pretty easy...

        August 24, 2011 at 11:23 am |
  21. Trip Richert

    Disposing foriegn leaders has always been easy for the US. It is the chaos that follows the destruction of the old government that is the most costly part of any conflict. I'm optimistic that the Libyan people will be able to build a better future for themselves, but declaring victory now would be exactly the same as declaring victory in Iraq after the deposal of Saddam Hussein. It's a good start, but Libya has a long way to go.

    August 24, 2011 at 10:25 am | Reply
    • Brett

      100% agree with this

      August 24, 2011 at 10:28 am | Reply
    • ZeroGods

      That's an excellent point. Hopefully, the same model will be used for the reconstruction as was used for the war: the Libyan people do most of the work themselves, with support from the international community.

      August 24, 2011 at 10:29 am | Reply
  22. Paul Ohio

    Aren't you the policy wonk that prematurely called Egypt a success? Why don't you wait a little bit before you call this a success too. And how does it feel, Fareed, to become a walking talking point with as much analysis in your essays as a 12 grade history paper. Your writing lacks insight and clearly injects your political view using isolated examples to prove na ill conceived narrative. Obama-foreign policy = a gorgeous wet dream

    August 24, 2011 at 10:26 am | Reply
  23. QuietStormX

    All of these critics just proved who was and is the smart one? President Barack Obama and those who joined and thought things out and now seeing it work.

    August 24, 2011 at 10:27 am | Reply
    • Brett

      What's worked? I'll believe it's worked when there are peaceful democratic elections and a moderate leader is put into office. Right now all Libya has is a rag-tag government made up of rebels that are barely older than I am.

      August 24, 2011 at 10:30 am | Reply
    • Larry of DC

      Seeing what work? A bunch of armed gangs with AK 47's driving the streets of tripoli in Ford station wagons??? Get a life. Obama has no clue what will happen in Lybia now --he has spent billions of dollars we do not have –and for what? Ghadafi was no real threat to US national security and he was able to hold down Al QAEDA in Lybia We have no clue what happens now in that divided country run by competing gangs of kids armed to the teeth.

      Russia and CHina were smart to sit on the sidelines - ditto for germany who played a miniscule part and spend pennies compared to Obama's spenidng.....

      August 24, 2011 at 10:36 am | Reply
    • Paul Ohio

      I The real tragedy, is that the best intelligence communities in the world, the CIA and the Mossad, did not see the revolutions in Egypt and Libya. What other choice did the US have? In Egypt there is a huge Muslim Brotherhood influence, and in Libya, we don't even know what the rebels are made of. If Obama has such a strong foreign policy stand, why don't we have a limited role in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Iran. Do we only intervene in the name of human rights when America doesn't shed blood and there is a weak central gov't. Or, like in Syria, where the central gov't has enough firepower to suppress and kill its own people, do we look the other way.

      August 24, 2011 at 11:35 am | Reply
  24. zlul

    Author seems to be ignorant of the fact and neglect the fact that this "war" cost us billions of dollars at a time where we literally have no money left.

    August 24, 2011 at 10:27 am | Reply
  25. Larry of DC

    Fareed, Fareed, get your facts straight and take off your Obama cheerleading skirt. The US funds 75% of the NATO budget. That means that the US funded this Libya adventure. While the US is spending countless billions on iffy regime change with no well thought out end game for Lybia, Russia and China did not spend 5 cents, electing instead to stay out of this experiment and tend to their own countries and economic challenges. This is what the US should do, and more importantly, it is what the vast majority of Americans want. Obama has no chance of a second term if his response to our economic and unemployment woes is to start wars in other countries...

    August 24, 2011 at 10:27 am | Reply
    • El Flaco

      Sorry, Larry, but your foreign policy is un-American.

      When a totalitarian government begins the wholesale slaughter of its citizens, all democracies – and certainly all Christian democracies – have to act.

      Your admiration for Russia and China is noted. From the Conservative point of view, those countries have many admirable and enviable qualities.

      August 24, 2011 at 10:31 am | Reply
      • Tear

        El Flaco, using those paramters, why has Obama not forged ahead in Syria and Iran then? They are just as bad as Libya in going after their own people. And did you also hail Bush when he went into Iraq, we all know Saddam was ruthless to his own people, did you also cheer him on? Your hyper-partisan cheerleading is what helps to destroy this country. The US had no business going into Libya.

        August 24, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
  26. Ken

    What a joke. The UK has to borrow spy planes from the US to do their role in Libya, Norway already withdrew, France pulled back their carrier as it was badly in need of maintenance, Italy pulled their carrier to save costs, and the dutch are begging the US and allies for ammo as the four planes they had fighting have used up their supplies! Because of a virtual collapse of NATO forces in the last couple weeks, sorties by US planes doubled and were set to go up further to make up the NATO slack. Even the combined forces of NATO could not do what the US could do alone. And the US has had to spend time, money and resource to prop up all aspects of the "burden sharing". But sure, let the liberals paint this as working out OK.

    August 24, 2011 at 10:29 am | Reply
    • ZeroGods

      I consider myself a liberal, and I say that those problems should be solved. If NATO members have difficultly with their own forces, then call them out. Continue putting the pressure on them to step up to their responsibilities. It's never going to get any better if the US demonstrates a willingness to go it alone.

      August 24, 2011 at 10:34 am | Reply
    • GotThumbs


      August 24, 2011 at 10:57 am | Reply
  27. hammeredtoe

    Of all the idividuals CNN can muster up, Fareed Zakaria seems to have the handle on and most qualified opinion of any global matter. I think that he should run for president and get the present golf player out of office ASAP. The earthquake we had yesterday was the almighty pointing his finger squarly at Washington, DC to tell the US that he has had it up to his ears with the crap that is going on in this country today!

    August 24, 2011 at 10:29 am | Reply
  28. Steve

    It's a good thing that this "new era" will come to an end next November. This article is laughable. Fareed, what's it like being in the tank for Obama?

    August 24, 2011 at 10:29 am | Reply
  29. gef05

    "Shared the burden". OFGS. Get your head out of the sand and actually read up on America's involvement in foreign countries over the past 100 years.

    August 24, 2011 at 10:31 am | Reply
    • GotThumbs


      August 24, 2011 at 10:56 am | Reply
  30. olepi

    We haven't really seen this kind of professional intervention since the Gulf War with GHW Bush. He was able to get the Arab states to help attack Iraq, and got Israel to wait. Bush II's foreign policy efforts are akin to a bully grabbing what he wants. Finally we are getting back to actual diplomacy! Of course, all the current crop of Republicans are against it, if President Obama might get any credit at all.

    August 24, 2011 at 10:32 am | Reply
    • LGD

      Right on!

      August 24, 2011 at 10:36 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.