By Benjamin A Shobert
The fall of Arab authoritarian states comes at a unique moment in American diplomatic history. Not necessarily because the events themselves dwarf challenges the State Department has faced over the past decade: after all, this is much of the same group of professional diplomats who dealt with 9/11, the ongoing irritant that is North Korea, as well as the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
No, this unique moment for American foreign policy comes because American politics have hardened in ways that make engagement with those we disagree with - whether domestic or foreign - almost impossible to achieve. The demands of ideological purity have become shackles that threaten to impede and emasculate American policy.
This problem is particularly noticeable as American foreign policy must make decisions about how to engage the newly forming Arab governments, many whose democracies will inevitably elect leaders whose religious values, cultural standards, and orientation towards the United States will be poorly received in America.
There is perhaps no older problem which plagues students and practitioners of diplomacy than how to engage those foreign leaders whose ideology is odious. Purists believe in isolating those they disagree with. Their hope is that by doing so, they will rob those they oppose of any legitimacy that would come from being acknowledged by, or accessible to, the world's stage.
Conversely, pragmatists such as the classic realist Henry Kissinger believe engagement usually softens hardliners and ultimately creates a more stable environment for peace and prosperity than anything that comes through confrontation and isolation.
The aftermath of the Arab Spring is going to force upon the world a realization of how deeply divided the countries remain: around religious versus secular, nation versus tribe, the people versus the military, the poor versus the rich. And, what the world may likely find in the aftermath is that the heavy-handed totalitarian - evil and vain as he may have been - played a necessary role in keeping the lid on these tensions.
Americans, so deeply wedded to the idea that democracy cures all ills, are likely to find that the new Arab governments are a long way away from what they hoped. As Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution wrote in a recent Foreign Affairs, "Washington tends to question whether Islamists' religious commitments can co-exist with respect for democracy, pluralism, and women's rights."
More troubling still is the possibility that, as a means of keeping these newly liberated nations from fragmenting, Arab governments will need to embrace hardliners in the Islamic religious community who are likely to present America as an existential enemy. Once American bewilderment at this about-face fades, it is likely to be replaced by a very strong reluctance to do business with those who feel they need to characterize American policy as inherently flawed.
American diplomacy has faced a similar dilemma in the past, most notably when it chose to engage the Mao Zedong-led China, propelling Kissinger as national security adviser to president Richard Nixon to make a secret trip that paved the way for entente. Just like leaders of the new Islamists are likely to do, the United States was vilified by Mao for his own purposes. And just as China's communist philosophy stood in stark contrast to the free-market economy and politically democratic values America held dear, so to will many of the cultural, religious and political values that the next group of Islamist leaders choose to align themselves with.
It is worth noting that the Chinese attitudes towards America which greeted Nixon and Kissinger were not all positive and could have quickly soured: after all, the US had played an important role during the Chinese civil war supporting General Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang.
In the aftermath of this, Mao's politics had made frequent portrayals of America as central to the strife and conflict during that period. Similarly, it will take many years for Arab citizens to forget that, as Shadi Hamid writes, ''[They] have been protesting an authoritarian order that the United States was, in their view, central in propagating.''
Perhaps most troubling, just as China had fought America through proxies in Korea, and had fueled skirmishes around the world which had made it clear that the country entertained expansionist ideas about where it could seed the world with other communist revolutions, so to will many of these new Islamist governments have questionable relationships with Islamic political groups who have connections with what many in America will see as terrorists.
It would be very easy to see how American politics could quickly make it impossible for American diplomats to successfully engage their new Arab counterparts.
Even in this respect, America's engagement with China illustrates the great good that can come when limited and gradual engagement is chosen over isolation and confrontation. Certainly the easier political choice for Nixon would have been to further isolate China.
But Nixon chose to take the domestic political risks in the US that would allow China to pivot towards a more open relationship with America. And to his great credit, Nixon was right. He lived long enough to see this initial tentative opening on both countries' parts towards one-another blossom, turning China from a desolate, famine-struck country, into an economic powerhouse.
In many ways the Arab world of today is very similar to the China of 1972: both had the potential to shatter, fragmenting into smaller discontinuous pieces along ancient cultural lines, both were in dire need of economic growth and political reform, and both had as many reasons to distrust America as they did to trust that engagement would benefit them.
Both had political institutions that were at various stages of collapse: China's was just around the corner, while the Arab world has fully gone round the bend.
China chose to engage the US in large part because America made it so easy to do so. The US largely avoided demagoguing China's Communist policies when it would have been very easy to score easy points by tearing into Nixon's plan.
This was all possible because the American engagement with China was largely motivated by a belief that the US could triangulate China against the Soviet Union. Today smart American diplomats suspect that engagement with the new Islamists will allow a similar triangulation against both Arab failed states and hard-liners within their own countries.
The new Islamist leaders are likely to at times find it necessary to vilify America. It is all but inevitable these same leaders will have very harsh words for Israel. Probably many of these leaders will harbor beliefs about religious freedom, pluralistic culture, and political Islam that American politicians find impossible to swallow.
Yet, American diplomats know that just as the US did with China, engagement is necessary. American foreign policy has always had to pursue its objectives against the backdrop of American politics. That both groups were able to work together productively over an engagement with China should be a reminder they can accomplish the same thing once again today with the new Islamist governments rising from the authoritarian ashes of the Middle East.
By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON - As rebels moved to consolidate control over a post-Muammar Gaddafi Libya, foreign policy analysts in the United States are debating whether Washington's role in the nearly six-month civil war in the oil-rich North African nation marks a new model for military intervention and "regime change" in objectionable countries.
Much of the debate has revolved around the claim made in April by an anonymous administration official quoted in The New Yorker that President Barack Obama was pursuing a conscious strategy of "leading from behind" - by which he meant quietly galvanizing action by others to gain the desired result without the US itself being seen to lead the charge.
"It's so at odds with the John Wayne expectation for what America is in the world," the adviser told the article's author, Ryan Lizza, who noted the contrast between Obama's "softly-softly" multilateral approach and the brash cowboy unilateralism of George W Bush and particularly his invasion of Iraq.
"Leading from behind" was instantly adopted by neo-conservatives and other hawks as the catch-phrase that, in their view, effectively captured the weakness of Obama's approach to the rest of the world.
As the conflict in Libya moved into stalemate in the following months, the phrase became something of their mantra, derisively repeated at every opportunity by Republican presidential candidates, as well as right-wing columnists and television talking heads.
Gaddafi's apparent defeat, however, has turned the tables. Some analysts, such as the influential commentator for CNN and Time, Fareed Zakaria, have even claimed that Washington's successful strategy in Libya marks "a new era in US foreign policy".
"Many have criticized US President Barack Obama's strategy of 'leading from behind' in Libya, but that strategy now seems utterly vindicated," wrote Blake Hounshell, managing editor of foreignpolicy.com. "It was Libyans themselves, with significant help from NATO, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, who liberated their country from Gaddafi's grip."
That analysis was echoed by Obama's Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, who contrasted the rebel march into Tripoli with "situations when the foreign government is the occupier".
"There are two principles that the president stressed at the outset [of the Libya intervention] that have been borne out in our approach," he told foreignpolicy.com's Josh Rogin. "The first is that we believe it's far more legitimate and effective for regime change to be pursued by an indigenous political movement than by the United States or foreign powers."
"Second, we put an emphasis on burden sharing, so that the US wasn't bearing the brunt of the burden and so that you had not just international support for the effort, but also meaningful international contributions," he said.
Others have made much the same point, with Zakaria arguing that Obama had rightly insisted on four conditions being met before committing US military force in Libya: the existence of a local opposition willing to wage war; regional support in the form of an Arab League endorsement and the active participation by the two Gulf sheikhdoms; United Nations Security Council authorization; and the willingness of Washington's European allies to bear much, if not most, of the burden in carrying out the campaign.
"It's important to recognize how different this is from Iraq, where the Bush administration - either through arrogance or incompetence - got almost none of these conditions fulfilled," he wrote last week.
All of this celebratory analysis has stung the hawks who, while praising Gaddafi's demise, have declined to give Obama much, if any, credit. Indeed, the first reaction by two key Republican leaders who had lobbied for early and forceful intervention in Libya sounded like sour grapes.
After praising the contributions of the rebel movement and Washington's European and Arab allies, senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham expressed "regret that this success was so long in coming due to the failure of the United States to employ the full weight of our airpower".
Bush's top Middle East aide, Elliott Abrams, echoed that argument in a National Review article entitled "No, Obama Was Not Right." "Had the White House acted sooner and more resolutely, Gaddafi could have been brought down sooner, and with fewer Libyan deaths," he wrote.
Moreover, he suggested, the administration had inflicted lasting damage on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) due to its failure to heed pleas from France and Britain, which carried out most of the air attacks on Gaddafi's forces, to resume the much more active role it played during the first week of Operation Unified Protector when US warplanes and cruise missiles took out Libya's air-defense system and other major military targets.
The NATO allies "will wonder whether 'leading from behind' is very different from refusing to lead," he wrote.
That argument was echoed by one of Abrams' former aides on Bush's National Security Council, Michael Singh, now with the pro-Israel think-tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"Washington's reluctance to become involved in Libya sends a negative signal to the Iranian regime and others regarding Washington's stomach for confrontation," he wrote in a foreignpolicy.com article entitled "Leading From Behind Still Isn't a Good Idea".
"It conveys instead the impression of an America that is increasingly unwilling or unable to exercise influence in the Middle East, a development with deeply troubling implications."
Meanwhile, Daniel Drezner, a conservative international politics professor at Tufts University, mocked the principles and conditions set forth by Rhodes and Zakaria that Obama purportedly insisted had to be met before he would intervene militarily.
"[The] set of criteria Zakaria lists is so stringent that I seriously doubt that they will be satisfied again in my life," Drezner wrote on his blog on foreignpolicy.com, noting that Russia and China, for example, were unlikely to approve another Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to protect civilians when the last one was used by Western powers to carry out regime change.
As for Rhodes, "[B]urden-sharing and local support are obviously nifty things to have. I guarantee you, however, that the time will come when an urgent foreign-policy priority will require some kind of military statecraft, and these criteria will not be met. The Obama administration should know this since its greatest success in military statecraft to date did not satisfy either of these criteria," he wrote in an allusion to the May killing of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
Still other hawks took an entirely different tack, insisting that the talk about "leading from behind" greatly understated Washington's actual role in the Libya operation.
"[T]he American contribution, while small in absolute terms, was absolutely crucial," according to Max Boot, a neo-conservative at the Council on Foreign Relations, in an op-ed entitled "Did Libya Vindicate 'Leading From Behind?" in Thursday's Wall Street Journal.
"It's a shame that some officials are playing down the US role, absurdly trying to turn the 'leading from behind' gaffe into some kind of Obama doctrine," wrote Robert Kagan, a leading neo-conservative ideologue, in the Washington Post. "In an allegedly 'post-American' world, it is remarkable how indispensable the United States remains."
But unlike Kagan, a co-founder of the Project for the New American Century, David Rothkopf, an international business consultant and author who served under former president Bill Clinton, suggested that the anonymous Obama adviser quoted by The New Yorker may indeed have had it right and hailed the Libya intervention as a "pivot point in US foreign policy" that signaled "a long-term shift away form the hyperpower unilateralism of the Bush years".
"A cash-strapped US is one that will necessarily have to lead in a different way that depends more on effective collaboration and burden-sharing with other like-minded powers than did the triumphalist, exceptionalist, plutopower of the 'end of history' years," he wrote in a post entitled "On the economic roots of leading from behind" on his foreignpolicy.com blog....lol lol ....