Editor’s Note: Shadi Hamid is director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He can be followed on Twitter at @shadihamid.
By Shadi Hamid – Special to CNN’s Global Public Square
America’s intervention in Libya is not quite the success some are making out to be, as I point out here. Thus far, there is little empirical evidence to suggest that President Obama’s preference for “leading from behind” helped guarantee rebel victory (if anything, it prolonged the inevitable).
That said, the U.S. decision, however belated, to intervene in Libya – a country of tenuous importance to U.S. national security interests – was almost certainly the right thing to do. For this, credit is due. In a fit of isolationist pique, many on both the American left and right opposed the intervention. Iraq, understandably, loomed large. It is possible, however, to over-learn the lessons of the last war. It is true that America has a troubled, even tragic, history of interference in the Middle East. But just as there are bad interventions, there can also be good interventions.
Libya is perhaps the first of such “good” interventions. One hopes it will set a precedent for doing the right thing, even if – or perhaps particularly when – our “vital” national interests are not at stake.
It is odd to think that Arabs can like the United States or even entertain the thought that it is capable of being a force for good in the world. In much of the region, America’s popularity is at an all-time low (U.S. favorability ratings are lower under President Obama than they were under Bush, according to a recent Zogby poll). Yet, today, many Libyans are grateful to the United States for supporting their struggle for freedom against a brutal regime. Libya also happens to be one of the only places where people are willing to consider slaughtering a sheep in the honor of Mr. Sarkozy, the otherwise beleaguered French president.
This suggests that fostering goodwill toward America, far from a fool’s errand, is still possible. As the Libyan rebels are fond of saying, they will not forget who supported them in their struggle – or who betrayed them. Creating that goodwill, however, requires clear, strong support for the protesters and revolutionaries fighting, and dying, for their freedom all across the Arab world.
For a long time, many of us who study the Middle East called for the United States to align itself with Arab democratic aspirations. In Libya, the United States, with France and Britain, oversaw the closest thing to a “pure” humanitarian or pro-democracy intervention. In this way, Libya is a test to see whether doing the right thing can bring with it other strategic dividends. A democratic Libya is likely to have a closer relationship with the United States and to welcome the role of the international community in helping rebuild the country and assist its political transition. By contrast, Egyptians do not look at the United States fondly. This is likely to limit our influence and leverage there in the coming months and years. After all, we supported Egypt’s autocrats for decades, with rather remarkable consistency. Successive U.S. administrations used Egypt to further a set of strategic interests inimical to the values and preferences of the Egyptian people. It seemed to work.
But, in a roundabout, indirect way, aggressively pursuing our “vital” interests in the short run can undermine them in the longer term, as Egypt now demonstrates. In Libya, the opposite may very well be true. The Libya intervention may not have much to do with our “vital” interests. Not yet, at least.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Shadi Hamid.