February 28, 2012 — In their provocative essay, Nikolas Gvosdev and Ray Takeyh suggest that the United States seems to be turning away from decades of a realist foreign policy in the Middle East. Washington’s rhetorical alignment with the forces of democracy in the Arab Spring and its acceptance of the fall of longtime allies such as Hosni Mubarak, they argue, mark the end of a long-standing American policy of working through friendly dictators. The greatest change is the NATO intervention in Libya, a battle in which no vital American interests were at stake. Are they right? And are they right to be concerned?
In terms of what has actually happened to date, their argument seems exaggerated. True, the Obama administration has proven surprisingly open to the prospect of change in the Middle East and has maintained its poise even as Islamists swept elections, Israel fretted and the regional mood turned ugly. And true, the United States acted remarkably quickly in Egypt, calling for Mubarak to step down and urging the military to refrain from using violence. We took part in the NATO intervention in Libya. But these actions seem less a sign of a postrealist foreign policy than of a pragmatic, case-by-case and prudential approach to an array of unanticipated challenges.
The Obama administration’s regional policy has indeed departed from conventional realist recommendations, but it has avoided the worst impulses of those aggressors of both liberal and neoconservative breeds who yearn for Bush-style direct American intervention and rhetorical claims to leadership. It has expressed support for the democratic aspirations of Arab publics—and, unlike Bush, did not abandon this spoken commitment at the first sign of the inevitable Islamist electoral success. Contrary to the complaints that it “led from behind,” it in fact moved quickly to embrace change in Egypt—calling on its closest Arab ally to step down only six days after protests began.
The administration has articulated a set of clear standards to guide its actions—including the defense of what it calls universal rights, a clear line against the use of violence and a preference for multilateral action. It acted in Libya to prevent an impending massacre that it believed—in my view correctly—would have taken place within days, and it accomplished its goals at very low cost without the Iraq-style ground occupation for which some hawks called. But it has declined to take similar actions in other places where the blood flowed all too freely—most notably Bahrain (left to the Saudis), Yemen (largely ignored) and Syria (which presented few good options). This may be neo-Wilsonian, but it is a careful and pragmatic example of the breed.
Nor, for better or for worse, has the administration altered the basic structure of the U.S. strategic posture in the region. It has kept quiet about antidemocratic trends in areas of perceived vital national interest, most obviously in Bahrain but also in Jordan and Kuwait. It has continued the same approach toward Iran as previous administrations. And while it has indeed—thankfully—met its promise to withdraw from Iraq, it has not significantly altered U.S. military deployments or basing structures in the Gulf.
The critique’s primary focus, therefore, is Libya, which the authors view as “a fundamental break with past American emphasis on serious threats to U.S. national security as the prime motivation for action.” It is clear why defensive realists, always attuned to the unnecessary expenditure of blood and treasure on ideological or moral crusades, opposed the Libyan intervention. But, as Gvosdev and Takeyh acknowledge, in fact virtually none of the dire predictions about that campaign came to pass. Washington maintained its international coalition, successfully protected the Libyan rebels, did not get bogged down in a quagmire, and did not see Libya partitioned or collapsed. It contributed to the eventual overthrow of the brutal Qaddafi regime without the loss of a single American life and for about $1 billion—a rounding error in the Pentagon’s budget. Its insistence on an indirect, supporting role may not have been full-throated enough for the hawks, but it forced the Libyan opposition to evolve into a credible alternative government and avoided what would have been a catastrophic occupation.
Libya must be judged a success, at least for now. Does it set a precedent for future such interventions, as Gvosdev and Takeyh fear? In a frank televised address that seems to have been largely forgotten, Obama himself was quite clear on this point:
It’s true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country—Libya—at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Qaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground. To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and—more profoundly—our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are.
This seems to answer their question of whether Libya represents a new model by which America “believes that it is possible to promote U.S. values at minimal cost to U.S. interests.” Not when the other necessary conditions for action do not exist: international or regional consensus, an opportunity to stop a singular act of violence, and a cheap and indirect intervention option. In other words, the “postrealist” policies of the Obama administration ultimately look rather realist indeed. I would argue, along with at least some in the administration, that the construction of a new global and regional norm against regime violence is an important strategic objective in its own right. But the response to Bahrain, Yemen and Syria suggests that the United States will act when it can, in the ways that it can, although Obama at least shows little interest in leading a new Wilsonian crusade.
The real questions are whether a more democratic Middle East better serves American interests and what Washington can do about it. The Obama administration did not create the changes in the Middle East, and it could have done little to stop the popular uprisings in Egypt or Yemen even if it had wanted to do so. The administration’s recognition of the limits of American power and its belief in the inevitability of change shaped its responses more than did any naive belief in transforming the region in America’s democratic image. The White House does believe that democracy and open societies will eventually be better for America’s interests, but it has been carefully reformist rather than revolutionary in its advocacy. Even in Egypt, it has opted to work through the military leadership in a frustratingly slow transition to democracy that has infuriated impatient revolutionaries.
Of course, a more empowered Arab public will make life harder for the United States. After all, decades of hostility toward American foreign policy have not evaporated overnight, and few Arabs seem anxious for the “leadership” which hawkish interventionists of both liberal and neoconservative brands want to offer them. The Bush administration’s “gift” to the Middle East was half a decade of horrors, from the abattoir of Iraq to a war on terror that made a mockery of international law and always risked sliding seamlessly into a wider antipathy to Islam itself. Bush ignored the Palestinian problem for so long that what was once called the peace process was long dead by the time Obama attempted to revive it. It should come as no shock, therefore, that newly empowered publics show little interest in American leadership or love for its regional role. But their newfound power means that engaging with hostile publics is a vital strategic necessity, not a liberal luxury.
For all the provocation in its framing, Gvosdev and Takeyh’s essay in fact describes not a radical retreat from realism but a careful, prudent response to regional changes that America could not stop but that it might be able to shape in its interests. The inevitable double standards and hypocrisies that such a pragmatic response necessarily entails have outraged virtually all sides—realists and neoconservative interventionists who demand less or more American action, and Arab regimes and protestors who feel equally abandoned. The sustainability of such a pragmatic progressivism, it seems to me, is the more urgent question with which to grapple.Related: