- By Marc Lynch
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).
He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements.
"We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi – a city nearly the size of Charlotte – could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world. It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen."
This was the blunt, powerful heart of President Obama’s speech last night explaining American intervention in Libya: had the international community not acted when it did, thousands would have been slaughtered as the world watched. The effects of that decision would have been felt across the Middle East, where America would have been deemed to have abandoned the people struggling for freedom in the Arab world. And it would have quite simply been wrong. I have long been conflicted about the decision to intervene militarily, primarily because of the absence of a clearly defined end-game and the risk of escalation. I doubt that Obama’s speech will convince many of his critics. But I now think that he made the right call.
My conversations with administration officials, including but not limited to the one recounted by the indefatigable Laura Rozen, convinced me that they believed that a failure to act when and how they did would have led to a horrific slaughter in Benghazi and then across Libya. There was no mad rush to war, and certainly no master plan to invade Libya to grab its oil. The administration resisted intervening militarily until they had no choice, preferring at first to use diplomatic means and economic sanctions to signal that Qaddafi’s use of force would not help keep him in power. The military intervention came when those had failed, and when Qaddafi’s forces were closing in on Benghazi and he was declaring his intention to exterminate them like rats.
And my conversations with Arab activists and intellectuals, and my monitoring of Arab media and internet traffic, have convinced me that the intervention was both important and desirable. The administration understood, better than their critics, that Libya had become a litmus test for American credibility and intentions, with an Arab public riveted to al-Jazeera. From what I can see, many people broadly sympathetic to Arab interests and concerns are out of step with Arab opinion this time. In the Arab public sphere, this is not another Iraq — though, as I’ve warned repeatedly, it could become one if American troops get involved on the ground and there is an extended, bloody quagmire. This administration is all too aware of the dangers of mission creep, escalation, and the ticking clock on Arab and international support which so many of us have warned against. They don’t want another Iraq, as Obama made clear…. even if it is not obvious that they can avoid one.
The centrality of Libya to the Arab narrative about regional transformation is the main reason why I am unmoved by the "double standards" argument that we are not intervening in Cote D’Ivoire. It did matter more to core U.S. national interests because the outcome would affect the entire Middle East. Thanks to al-Jazeera’s intense focus on Libya, literally the whole Arab world was watching, dictators and publics alike. Not acting would have been a powerful action which would have haunted America’s standing in the region for a decade. And many of the same people now denouncing the intervention would have been up in arms at America’s indifference to Arab life — it is all too easy to imagine denunciations such as "the dream of the Cairo speech died in the streets of Benghazi as Barack Obama proved that he does not care about Muslim lives."
The double-standards argument applies more forcefully to Bahrain, where attempts to mediate a negotiated reform package fell apart in favor of Saudi/GCC intervention and a descent into nasty sectarianism. Obviously the naval base in Bahrain and its strategic importance to Saudi Arabia are decisive factors. And the U.S. is paying a price for that failure with parts of Arab public opinion and with many regional analysts, as it should (though al-Jazeera’s limited coverage and the unfortunate popularity of the sectarian Sunni-Shi’a narrative blunt that edge slightly). The double-standards argument about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still there and strong. One of the most frequent points I hear made in the Arab arena is still "where was the No-Fly Zone for Gaza?" The U.S. pays a political price for that, and if a new Israeli war breaks out with Gaza or Hezbollah, and the U.S. is forced to take sides, then this may very well wash away all the administration has done to try to engage and build partnerships with the newly empowered Arab public. Those are real problems — but neither of them should mean that the U.S. can’t at least get Libya right.
That doesn’t mean that there are no problems. The administration hasn’t done a great job communicating its position, particularly on the question of whether or not Qaddafi’s departure is the goal (I personally think it has to be). While I hope that today’s London meeting will produce more clarity on a political path forward, I haven’t seen much to suggest one yet. I’m still very worried about the endgame, that Qaddafi might hold on and drive a problematic partition or that the U.S. and NATO will be tempted to escalate with ground forces to prevent such a hurting stalemate. I worry about second-order effects across the region, including the likely terminal impact on the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program since Tehran can see clearly that Qaddafi’s deal with the West did not buy him long term support. But I also see the potential upsides of a successful intervention. And then there’s the push to apply the Libya model to Syria or Iran or even Saudi Arabia, which most people understand would be disastrous but which may well soon confront the administration whether it likes it or not. But for all of that, I feel that the U.S. did what it had to do, when it had to do it.
Rebecca Frankel is senior editor, special projects at Foreign Policy. She is the author of War Dogs (forthcoming in the fall of 2014 from Palgrave), a book about canines in combat, the subject of her regular Friday column "Rebecca's War Dog of the Week," featured on The Best Defense. Before joining FP in 2008, she was managing editor of Moment Magazine, a publication founded by Elie Wiesel in 1975, where she began working in 2003. In addition to her work on war dogs, Frankel has written on a wide range of topics from the religious escapades of singer Bob Dylan to Hitler's family doctor. Her profile of author Joyce Carol Oates was published in the collection Joyce Carol Oates: Conversations in 2006. She has appeared as a commentator on ABC World News and MSNBC among others. In 2011, she was named one of 12 women in foreign policy to follow on Twitter by the Daily Muse.| Special Report |
Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at email@example.com.
Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.
A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.
Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C.| The Cable |