Libya may be in America's vital interest after all
Suha El Darat, 19, from Misrata, Libya gestures in celebration outside the Libyan Embassy on August 22, 2011 in London, England. (Getty Images)
August 26th, 2011
04:42 PM ET

Libya may be in America's vital interest after all

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.

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Topics: Libya • Middle East • United States

soundoff (112 Responses)
  1. Wizard1234

    A little known fact: The United States could do without the entire Mideast if need be. It is only about oil. We no longer need to have our surrogate (Israel) test our weapons systems against those of the Soviet Union, left to its own the Mideast will continue to writhe in internecine warfare until a super-dictator emerges and subjugates the entire region.

    We can survive without the Mideast oil. It will be brutally hard on our poor amd lower class, but we can survive. Coal gasification, oil shale, nuclear power, LNG, fuel cell, reduction in average vehicle size and power (read special taxes on behemoths) and the like will see us through.

    Withdraw totally and immediately from that misbegotten, cesspool region, bring our troops home, defend our southern border against the failing Mexican nation and live free.

    August 27, 2011 at 9:58 am | Reply
  2. Blackxodus

    You reap what you sow and God will judge the American people for your support of the U.S./NATO bombing of Libya. "As it was in the Days of Noah, so shall it be on the Coming of the Son of Man." said Jesus. As we witness the devastation caused by Hurricane Irene causing many to evacuate for safety, while we go to our coffee houses and shop, maybe we should all think of the fear and horror the innocent civilians of Libya are under with our tax dollars financing the U.S./NATO bombing of government buildings, infrastructure and the murder of policeman and government workers of Libya. Go to understand the wider war being planned and see the website to learn the truth about Libya. God will punish America with rain, hail, snow and earthquakes teaches the Hon. Elijah Muhammad and Min. Louis Farrakhan.

    August 27, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Reply
  3. Freedoms Guardian

    Abbu Husien For new president of Libya!!!

    August 27, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Reply
  4. faheed

    @Freedoms Guardian: I Like!

    August 27, 2011 at 12:54 pm | Reply
  5. DrDoIT

    Just wait till the muslum radicals take over power.. then we'll wish gaddafi was in power.

    August 27, 2011 at 1:00 pm | Reply
    • Hugh Allen

      Well, since the radicals have taken over Congress, there's a lot more to fear from America.

      August 27, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Reply
  6. .


    August 27, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Reply
  7. Michael

    Gadaffi FINANCED terrorism around the world (apparently also included "AL QAEDA"). The bombing attack two days ago against UN HQ in Nigeria.. appears to have been directed by Gadaffi. Obama may be too young to understand; however, YES.. Libya and freedom for its people is in the National Interest of the U.S. -

    August 27, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Reply
  8. Contro

    Most Americans will ever feel the effects from Libya except for the gas prices. We are there protecting our interests for these oil giants.

    August 27, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Reply
  9. rob2tall

    Libya has always been a key location of interest since the discovery of a massive water supply while looking for oil.Like enough to create a massive farming community that can supply water for up to 1000 years.Clean water has great commercial value-and in a desert area-you can grow tons of foods with the right supply of water..exportable foods.Its not just oil-a democratic country is more stable, and friendly to those who helped them become free

    August 27, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Reply
  10. rob2tall

    The Great Man-Made River (GMR, النهر الصناعي العظيم) is a network of pipes that supplies water to the Sahara Desert in Libya, from the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System fossil aquifer. It is the world's largest irrigation project.[1]

    August 27, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Reply
  11. Richie

    Top of the morning Cameron,

    A little known "man" once said "worry about the means and you will get the end you deserve"...

    Only one page previous in your nation's rich history...

    But now it is being ghost written in the most elegant and splendid way the world over with Poet restoring our principle and dignity to make the world a truly blessed and beautiful place for all to celebrate their inner worth...

    "Thugs" come from all corners of the world Cameron but the most dangerous and sadistic ones are the ones cloaked with the thinnest veil of courage and conviction...

    August 27, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Reply
  12. Jon

    listening to what the obama admin and its flunkies put out for public consumption and political pts in advance of the 2012 election is just what they WANT you to below...from an excellent site from former intel officials...about what is REALLY happening in libya.

    August 28, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Reply
  13. Jim

    I just wonder what country the military-industrial complex of the United States will choose to invade next. It seems any leader who isn't totally obeying our government's orders is one of our next targets. I'll bet Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran is next in line to be hit. People need to listen to Eisenhower's farewell speech. –

    August 28, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Reply
  14. AlbertEinstein

    Anyone care to explain why articles at cnn are sounds off as soon as they are posted

    And while some peoples with converging mindset are allowed to post, other peoples are being censored

    Any attempt at criticizing overexhaustion of world ressources, misbehavior of China or powerfull corporations is instantly crushed.

    All for the glory of ruining the worldwide environment ! Amen !

    August 28, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Reply
  15. AlbertEinstein

    Aha ah ah ! so there is a _fllter_ looking for specific words !

    talking negatively about _ch_ina isn't tolerated. neither is defending eco_logical views or criticising _big_corp_orations_ like the _oil_ind_ustry

    my second post never showed up !

    August 28, 2011 at 4:52 pm | Reply
  16. LarryMoniz

    Talk about hypocracy! The mostly Muslim populace of the Middle East wants the U.S. to stay out of their internal affairs. But when we do, then people like the writer of this piece, Shadi Hamid, proclaim: "In a fit of isolationist pique, many on both the American left and right opposed the intervention."
    Then, the U.S. is made to feel like it should do penance for being concerned about its own internal problems including a tanking economy. America should now send money to Libya, an oil rich country with a higher standard of living than many of its neighbors. According to Wikipedia: "Since 2000, Libya has recorded favourable growth rates with an estimated 10.6% growth of GDP in 2010." That's about 10 times what U.S. GDP was in recently announced statistics.
    But Hamid is looking for a handout to rebuild a country disrupted by it's own people. "Welcome the role of the international community in helping rebuild the country and assist its political transition." Americans are hated by those in the Middle East, but they do so love our money. With the current state of GDP perhaps Obama should be seeking foreign aid from the new government in Libya.

    August 28, 2011 at 8:21 pm | Reply
  17. hermanovic

    I am astonished how some people can change their view completely just to make the US look bad. America received lot of criticism because they wanted to 'force democracy' on some countries. But this was clearly not the case in Egypt. Washington found a reliable allie in Mubarak, a man who was a saint compared to most dictators in the region, and did everything in his power to prevent new international conflicts from happening. But now Washington is being blamed for 'blokking democracy' in Egypt, so for doing exactly the opposite compared to Afghanistan and Iraq. Apparently,America's only acceptabel policy, from the point of view pf Western US-critics, is to treat all dictators like Cuba and N-Korea. But how many pro-democracy rebellions have there been in Cuba and N-Korea in the last 50-60 years?

    August 29, 2011 at 3:23 am | Reply
    • wilbur

      dude....almost nobody is in Libya. Giant empty country. 7 million people along the coast. its a show for what already happened....military bases (like we care) in Libya. Me? why would i care?

      August 29, 2011 at 8:46 am | Reply
  18. Jihan

    OIL OIL OIL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    August 29, 2011 at 7:28 am | Reply
    • wilbur

      That yes but mostly.....strategic position. Mid east could get too hot soon.

      August 29, 2011 at 8:49 am | Reply
  19. wilbur

    we have owned Libya since wwII. Nobody (almost) lives there. The bases are ALREADY going in the desert. Look it up:
    Tripoli airport=Wheelus. This is the most obvious cia job since iran 79

    August 29, 2011 at 8:44 am | Reply
  20. alam

    Dil ki bat sune har kue par parkhe kue kue.

    August 29, 2011 at 9:09 am | Reply
  21. Ben

    Wow! Obama knew things that no expert on the Middle East for the last 500 years knew about the "vital" importance of Libya and luckily, CNN is here to share that new-found wisdom with us. BS!

    August 29, 2011 at 9:22 am | Reply
  22. John Q.

    I think it's quite possible that our involvement in Libya actually hurt foreign relations in the long run, and probably made the world more dangerous to boot. First our relations with Libya were actually improving some, with Gadhafi turning over his WMDs to the US for disposal, working with the CIA in-country to fight terrorist groups, even agreeing to detain prisoners from Iraq and Afghanistan to help close Gitmo, paying retributions for past crimes, etc. Then after helping to disarm him, we turn around and bomb the crap out of them; all for guaranteed access to high quality oil for Europe. Under the ruse of a no-fly zone, the US and NATO were after regime change and nation building by another name from day one; we chose sides in a rebellion. Even countries glad to see Gadhafi go, and helping it happen, must be thinking that maybe having some WMDs for protection isn't bad idea after all for personal protection? They might be next and the US/NATO won't be neutral, that the US can't be trusted is the message. Anybody think that Iran isn't dead set on producing nuclear weapons now if by chance they weren't; heck, after watching what just happened there is no way they won't, and I wouldn't blame them. No doubt others are thinking the same. Any credibility we or NATO had is shot... especially with all the propaganda of just protecting civilians that anybody with a brain knows is false. Secondly a big opportunity to increase our relationships with the countries of Africa was blown. We completely blew them off in favor of Arab League winks and nods to proceed, not giving the African Union a chance to be involved, and ignoring the fact Libya is in Africa after all, just happens to be predominately Muslim. The AU was desperately trying to play a roll in ending the fighting, but the power brokers of Europe and the US weren't to be denied their due. Sure, NATO knows whats best for Africa, not Africans... makes no sense at all, and only further isolates us from the continent making us seem like colonialists indeed. The African Union now clearly knows where they stand in the pecking order of world politics, great move Obama, NATO, et all. Lastly here at home, we seem to have relinquished power to the Presidency to make war whenever he chooses with no Congressional approval, and no time limit to do it. Obama even redefined what war is, that robot drones, cruise missiles, aircraft, and the use of mercenaries for nation building is fine, as long as there are no "boots on the ground" it isn't a conflict. What a great precedent set for future Presidents to use when wanting to overthrow another country... think about it.

    August 29, 2011 at 9:33 am | Reply
  23. KeithTexas

    This war is about Gadhafi, they told him not to play with the Russians or the Chinese but he did anyway. The European and American corporations demanded this little war and they got what they paid for.

    August 29, 2011 at 10:18 am | Reply
  24. Gutter Protection

    I genuinely enjoy examining on this web site, it contains great content. "Don't put too fine a point to your wit for fear it should get blunted." by Miguel de Cervantes.

    July 4, 2013 at 3:52 am | Reply
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