March 23, 2011

Obama's Geopolitical Juggling Act

Featuring Daniel Kliman

Source: CNN

The juxtaposition of bombs falling over Tripoli and President Barack Obama's Latin American tour highlights a fundamental challenge that has long bedeviled the United States: how to balance the crisis of the moment with the pursuit of long-term strategic priorities.

In the space of two weeks, the United States has pivoted from ambivalence on intervening in Libya to supporting an air war against the regime of Moammar Gadhafi. Already, the president's decision to aid the flagging Libyan revolutionaries is drawing domestic critics from both political parties. With details of the White House's deliberations still largely secret, and the bombing campaign only a few days old, much of this criticism is premature.

If they're lucky, the United States and its European allies will conclude their Libyan intervention soon. A well-placed missile could decapitate the regime in Tripoli, clearing the way for a negotiated settlement to what has become a civil war. Or the rebels could, under the shelter of friendly air cover, regroup, advance and ultimately crush Gadhafi's remaining military forces.

But these are not the only possible scenarios. The division of Libya between the regime and the revolutionaries could harden into a de facto partition, with the United States, its European allies or some combination maintaining a no-fly zone into the indefinite future.

At the worst, Gadhafi's loyalists could rally, and despite the air campaign, advance once more toward Benghazi, confronting Obama with the choice of ratcheting up the level of U.S. intervention or abandoning the Libyan revolutionaries to a bloody fate.

Regardless of how the intervention plays out, Libya consumed Obama's attention during a trip intended to boost U.S. economic and security cooperation with key countries in the Western Hemisphere. As he worked to manage an urgent crisis while sustaining focus on an over-the-horizon but nonetheless vital foreign policy objective, Obama was in a predicament familiar to his predecessor.

When President George W. Bush took office in January 2001, his administration was determined to hammer out a more coherent strategy for managing China's rise, a huge challenge the United States will face in the decades ahead. However, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, permanently disrupted the Bush administration's focus, redirecting top officials toward Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Although America's strategic equities in Asia were not neglected, the Bush administration never grappled with the tensions inherent to U.S.-Sino policy. As a result, the United States turned a blind eye to the military, political and economic contradictions that lie at the heart of its relationship with China, and instead doubled down on the bet that engagement would transform China before China could transform the international system.

(Interestingly, many observers expected China to be in steadfast opposition to the recent U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of military force. These same observers were surprised when China abstained. Perhaps they should not be. The best thing that could happen to China is for the U.S. intervention in Libya to morph into a long, costly war far removed from Beijing's East Asian ambitions.)

So far, the Obama administration has successfully navigated the delicate balance between the urgency of the now and the necessity of pursuing long-term strategic priorities.

Obama could have canceled his Latin American trip to remain in Washington while the Libyan bombing campaign commenced. Instead, braving criticism at home, he embarked on a tour amounting to a long-term investment in America's geopolitical position.

The United States has historically overlooked Latin America. Yet today, the region constitutes a market nearly as large as China's, boasts an influential rising power in Brazil and hosts dangerous criminal insurgencies that respect no borders. Whatever U.S. interests exist in Libya -- there is room for reasonable debate -- the country does not outweigh the rest of the Western Hemisphere.

The past months have underscored that nearly perpetual crises may be a fact of international life in the early 21st century. The United States has been whipsawed by the revolutionary upheaval in Egypt, a natural catastrophe in Japan and now the faltering uprising in Libya.

America cannot ignore urgent events, but neither can it afford to neglect long-term strategic priorities.

In an era where the United States can no longer easily mobilize the world behind a cause, but no other actors are willing or capable of picking up the slack, American leaders must be careful not to get entrapped by good intentions. The Obama administration is walking a fine line.


  • Daniel Kliman

    Adjunct Senior Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Daniel M. Kliman is an Adjunct Senior Fellow for the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). He is an expert in Asia-Pacific strategy, ...