Shadow Government

Waiting for an 'Obama Doctrine'

As the broader Middle East continues to be convulsed by profound change, the Obama administration remains focused on the urgent daily tasks of crisis management. And rightly so, for tactical questions of a no-fly zone in Libya, support for political party building and election training in Egypt, pressure for political reform in Yemen and Bahrain, and other such matters will do much to shape the region's future. But there is more to the region's future than just these tactical decisions. The White House now has both the opportunity and the need to begin crafting a new regional strategy for the American posture in the broader Middle East. I hope that at least some officials in the administration -- such as the capable staffs in the NSC's Strategic Planning directorate, the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, and the Pentagon's Policy Planning shop and J5 directorate -- are already exploring this question.

Doing so would help the administration regain the initiative. Thus far the Obama team has given the impression of being too often behind the curve on events in the Middle East, both in anticipating the revolutions and in responding to them. Fortunately as it reacts to each new development, the White House eventually seems to arrive at sound policies -- whether support for the reformers in Egypt, or tightening the pressure on Qaddafi in Libya. Yet notice the verb in the preceding sentence: "reacts." At some point soon, the administration will need to shift from merely reactive mode into asserting more leadership and setting the agenda.

The regional shifts are tectonic, and in this sense I am sympathetic to the Administration's "ad-hockery." For it is not just individual governments that are being changed, but also the entire strategic order that America's regional posture has been based on for decades. While the precise new composition of the region remains uncertain, at a minimum it will be shifting from political homogeneity (autocracies of various flavors) and economic diversity (from the wealthy Gulf Arabs to the impoverished Maghreb) to political diversity (including democracies, autocracies, and other yet-to-be-determined regime types) and economic diversity.

Right now -- as these old orders are crumbling, new governments are being formed, and public impressions are being shaped -- the administration can seize the initiative to cement new partnerships and establish the principles for a new American strategic order in the region. Perhaps this might even constitute an "Obama Doctrine"?

Not all will be changed. Even while the political order shifts, most American strategic interests will remain the same, including counter-terrorism, secure energy supplies for global markets, WMD proliferation, the Israel-Palestinian peace process, and preventing any new mischief-making hegemon emerging from either inside or outside the region (such as Iran or China) .

What might such a strategy look like? I won't presume to lay one out here, and rather suggest that the administration begin by consulting a range of regional experts, as well as doing its own in-house research and debate. But here are a few ideas and considerations that could inform a new strategy:

  • Involve the GOP. A successful, enduring strategy will need bipartisan support, and the best way to ensure this is for the White House to consult with Congressional Republicans and other senior GOP leaders, both for their ideas and buy-in on the strategy. Doing so will also help secure the necessary funding for implementation.
  • Maintain and display American power. While the Middle East's protests and revolutions have been driven overwhelmingly by indigenous demands for reform and liberty, it is telling that in every case the region and the world looked towards the United States for leadership -- whether in deciding which camp to support or helping maintain overall order. The particulars of the American presence will change, but the fact of it should not. Practically, this will mean the strategic reassurance represented by American military bases and commitments to the security of vital sea lanes, especially the Straits of Hormuz and the Suez Canal.
  • New momentum in the counter narrative to Al Qaeda. As this New York Times story observed, the Arab revolutions have thus far dealt a serious blow to Al Qaeda's ideological worldview. While Middle East autocracies crumble from largely non-Islamist protests, a pillar of the Al Qaeda grievance narrative crumbles as well. The Administration has not yet begun to exploit this opening in its counter-terrorism strategy (at least not publicly), but should do so soon.
  • Coordination with Israel. Our closest ally in the region, Israel, has thus far found recent events more disconcerting than encouraging. This may be short-sighted on Israel's part, but it must be taken into account nonetheless. The Administration should coordinate closely with Israel in developing the new regional strategy and ensure that it helps enhance rather than undermine Israel's security.
  • A new economic order. Amidst the political ferment, the region still faces the same persistent economic maladies, from over-reliance on petro-dollars to sclerotic state industries to under-developed human capital. A new strategy needs to include an economic dimension as well: perhaps one start is reviving the idea of a regional free-trade agreement.

Once the principles of a new American regional strategy are settled, President Obama should travel to the region to demonstrate America's sustained commitment. He could unveil the strategy in a major speech -- perhaps in Cairo again? -- and help shape the trajectory of the region at a crucial time.

A closing thought. While historical analogies are always fraught and should not be overdrawn, it is nonetheless intriguing to note that while President Reagan is rightly remembered for confronting Soviet communism as strategically and morally bankrupt, when he left office in January 1989 the Soviet bloc was still largely intact. It was not until months later that the Iron Curtain began to unravel, and it was his successor President Bush 41 who expertly managed the transition to freedom in Eastern Europe. More recently, it was President Bush 43 who strategically recognized that the prevailing autocratic order in the Middle East was untenable. And now it is his successor, President Obama, who has an opportunity to manage the transition towards a new regional order.

Shadow Government

The consequences of inaction in Libya

The sanctions which have been placed on Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, his family members, and his senior officials are strong. They include asset freezes, travel bans, and threats of criminal prosecution. All of which add up to a powerful signal to the Libyan regime that the war it is waging on its own people is illegitimate and unacceptable, and to the Libyan people that our sympathy is with them and we will act to prevent their national assets from being pillaged. The world is now a considerably less inviting place for Libyan officials, who have been known to carouse in the capitals of Europe, the Caribbean, and elsewhere.

But therein a problem lies. The strategy followed thus far by the United States and its allies may persuade many Libyan officials that there is no future in following Qaddafi and therefore, defection to the opposition or negotiating an exit from Libya altogether is the most sensible course of action. But for others, especially those closest to Qaddafi, the sanctions and threats of international prosecution, combined with the advance of opposition forces, may convince them that they have little choice but to hunker down in Tripoli and Sirte and fight.

To deal with this possibility that Qaddafi and his loyalists will use all of the force at their disposal before giving in, and that the violence in Libya may therefore get considerably worse, further international action is needed. The United States and EU should seek U.N. Security Council authorization for the imposition of a no-fly zone in Libya.

We have heard much from U.S. officials in recent days about the risks of imposing a no-fly zone, but inaction also has its consequences.

Qaddafi has used warplanes against the opposition in recent days, and there is little indication that he will cease doing so as long as it is an option. This not only increases the chances of mass casualties, but it will extend the conflict as the relatively lightly-armed and poorly-trained rebels worry about advancing while Qaddafi has such armaments at his disposal. As the fighting drags on and the violence deepens, the risk that extremist groups will enter the fray as they have in other conflicts in the region increases as well, which has serious implications for our future relations with whatever Libya that emerges from the fighting.

Inaction also strikes a blow to U.S. credibility. On Capitol Hill March 2, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the "stakes are high" in Libya, which she warned could become a "giant Somalia." The United States has "joined the Libyan people in demanding that Colonel Qaddafi must go now, without further violence or delay," she asserted. Yet it is not clear to the world that we have joined the Libyan people in doing anything about it. Our sanctions will work indirectly and over the long term. Our warships are standing off the coast of Libya, but taking no part in the struggle there. This perception -- that we can help but have chosen not to, despite calls from the Libyan opposition to impose a no-fly zone --is one we may rue for years to come.

The reasons provided by senior U.S. officials for not imposing a no-fly zone in Libya seem pale in comparison to their descriptions of the stakes in Libya. They have said that imposing a no-fly zone would be complicated and would not account for fighting on the ground. These are prudent points, but they make better arguments for a smartly-crafted intervention than for doing nothing. There are well-grounded fears that a no-fly zone could turn into a long-term commitment (like the one over Iraq in the 1990s) if a stalemate develops. But this risk must be weighed against the potential of a no-fly zone to bring the conflict to an earlier end, keeping in mind that a protracted conflict will carry costs for U.S. national security regardless of whether we are directly involved. U.S. officials have also questioned whether aircraft are being used by Qaddafi against civilians, or whether the Libyan opposition wants a no-fly zone. Recent news reports undermine both points. Likewise, fears that Russia and China would veto a no-fly zone in the Security Council should not deter us from putting the question to them.

Other reasons given for our inaction are less persuasive. Secretary of Defense Gates questioned the wisdom of taking action in "another country in the Middle East," and Secretary Clinton suggested that there are messages on websites that the United States intends to "invade for oil." We cannot allow such canards to guide U.S. foreign policy.

From Tunisia to Egypt to Bahrain to Libya, the world has been wondering where the United States stands. It was on Feb. 23 that President Obama said regarding Libya that the United States would "stand up for freedom, stand up for justice, and stand up for the dignity of all people." And on Feb. 25 Secretary Clinton asserted that, "This is a time for action. Now is the opportunity for us to support all who are willing to stand up on behalf of the rights we claim to cherish." On Mar. 2, she observed that the events in the region demanded a "strong and strategic response." They were right, but so far our actions have not matched these words.

BEN BORG CARDONA/AFP/Getty Images