A Moral Adventure

Is Barack Obama as much of a foreign-policy realist as he thinks he is?

Late in the summer of 2007, I watched Barack Obama speak to a small crowd gathered in the backyard of a supporter in Salem, New Hampshire. He had a lot to say about foreign affairs. Abroad as at home, he said, we need "a new ethic of mutual responsibility" based on the recognition that "we have a stake in each other." Thus the need to reinvigorate the United Nations, increase foreign aid, and end torture. Afterward I asked him whether that ethic really arose from pragmatic calculation, as opposed to moral duty. "You don't want to oversimplify it," he told me. But it was true, he went on, that U.S. national security was tied to human security across the globe. Failing states produced transnational problems, including massive refugee flows and epidemic disease. And because how people in poor or abused countries felt about their own lives would shape their attitudes toward the West, it behooved the United States to address their suffering. "The hard case," he added, "may be convincing people that we can do anything about it."

I thought back to that conversation when I listened to Obama's March 28 Libya speech. At its core was the president's assertion that "it was not in our national interest" to permit Muammar al-Qaddafi's troops to carry out a massacre in Benghazi. But what was that interest? After all, Defense Secretary Robert Gates had said only the day before that the United States did not have a "vital" interest in Libya, while critics of the mission have ridiculed the notion that Americans should be pouring scarce resources into a civil war in one of the least strategically significant countries in the region. A lot of things, after all, are in America's national interest; why act here?

Obama labored to explain how failing to act in Libya could compromise U.S. interests: A massacre in Benghazi would have "driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya's borders," endangering democratic transitions in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia; emboldened regional autocrats to resist calls for reform; and undermined the credibility of the U.N. Security Council, which had called for action. Those are hardly trivial concerns; but -- as arch-realist Ted Koppel pointed out on Meet the Press on March 27 -- 700,000 people had already fled the violence in Ivory Coast, where the United States had no thoughts of intervening; and inaction in Libya could add only a mite of damage to a Security Council that had watched while Darfur burned.

In short, Obama's application of conventional definitions of national interest wasn't much more convincing than it had been in my conversation with him four years ago. Perhaps, then, the realist critics are right: Obama has embarked on a moral adventure, and quite possibly an ill-fated one, under the flimsy cover of national interest. And it's certainly true that Obama has the "liberal" view -- now shared by neoconservatives -- that American power must at times be used for moral purposes, which is to say for the benefit of others rather than to advance American interests. That is why, right after the assertion about national interest, he added, with uncharacteristic passion, "I refused to let that happen." Obama believes -- like virtually all presidents, to be sure -- that the United States has a singular moral status that carries with it singular obligations. "Some nations" might ignore atrocities abroad, he declared. (Obama is addicted to this particular straw-man device.) "The United States of America is different." Realists cringed.

Of course it's in the interests of any state to act in conformity with its own expressed principles -- even George Kennan would concede that. But Kennan, who was no fan of democracy, practiced diplomacy, and wrote about it, in an era when statecraft took place behind closed doors; the American public knew virtually nothing, for example, about the vast world of intelligence activities and shadowy diplomacy during the Cold War. Today's advocates of realpolitik often write as if this continues to be true -- as if the United States incurs no real costs for publicly supporting friendly autocrats. The deep anti-Americanism in Latin America and the Middle East, where the U.S. government supported hated rulers for decades, proves the contrary. In fact, as Obama said in that backyard in Salem, the way the United States is seen to behave in the world enormously affects its capacity to shape events. That's a national interest, whether or not you call it "vital."

Indeed, no president has ever been as acutely sensitive to this species of "soft power" as Obama, whose early speeches were full of the imagery of outsiders looking at the United States -- of the "desperate faces" of people in remote countries gazing up at an American helicopter, feeling hope or perhaps hate. One of Obama's mistakes early on was to put too much stock in the idea that the world was looking at him -- his face, his voice, his biography -- as evidence of American renewal. That was why his June 2009 Cairo speech was long on autobiography and noble sentiment, and short on new proposals. And the speech, so giddily received at home and, initially, abroad, did very little to change the way the United States was seen in the Middle East.

Obama has learned that only deeds will change America's standing in the world. The Libyan intervention was such a deed, and was certainly intended to be seen as such. The politics of the decision were at least as compelling as the morals; in a setting where Western military power really could prevent mass killings and where -- unlike Iraq -- Arab neighbors were imploring the United States to intervene, the failure to act would have been understood across the Middle East as a decisive statement of American indifference. Is the calculus of national interest there really so complicated?

A lot of the talk-show chatter beats up on Obama for moral inconsistency: Why Libya and not Ivory Coast, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Some of those critics would like to see more intervention, but most would like to see less, or none. I'm pretty sure, for example, that Koppel wasn't advocating bombing Abidjan. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Michael Doyle recently asserted that the "slaughter of civilians" does not "automatically qualify" as a threat to international peace and security, and so should not trigger Security Council action. Would the United States protect its vital interests better by adopting such a view, keeping its powder dry until some hypothetical Rwanda-level genocide came along? The answer is obvious -- and Obama gave it by observing that the fact that the United States can't always act to stop mass violence "cannot be an argument for never acting." Rather, he said, the United States will "measure our interests against the need for action."

It's not a simple calculus. Obama might have saved more Libyan lives by acting earlier, before the Arab League and the Security Council had authorized an intervention. But by reminding the world of the Iraq invasion, carried out without U.N. support, he would have generated enmity that might have doomed the mission over time. The same is true with making regime change the explicit goal of the bombing campaign; doing so would rupture the coalition and lose Arab support. But at the same time, agreeing to limit the mission to humanitarian protection has trapped Obama in a contradiction, because he has openly called for Qaddafi to leave. And if the bombing succeeds in protecting civilians but Qaddafi stays in power, the mission will inevitably be seen as a failure -- thus damaging American prestige. The skeptics who have predicted that the battle will end in a stalemate have a point -- but not a good enough point to justify inaction.

We need to examine the premise that realism is realistic. Realists like to think that they look out for America's interests while progressives, or whatever you call the other side -- and it badly needs a presentable name -- have a moralistic preoccupation with America's values. Maybe Eugene McCarthy, the Vietnam-era dove who ran for president in 1968, was such a progressive; Obama certainly isn't, which is why, even as the United States attacks Libya, the White House has preserved a careful neutrality toward Bahrain and Yemen, key allies that have brutally repressed mass protest. But there's a price to be paid for that, too. Arab citizens are no longer passive or resigned. And they will increasingly judge the United States not on remote but emotionally charged issues like Palestine or counterterrorism policy, but on the way American policy affects their own lives and prospects. A ruthlessly realist calculator would say that the United States would be well advised to put itself on the right side of history.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

The Hard Part

What happens if the Libyan rebels actually win?

You may recall the last time the United States and its allies used military force to overthrow a hated Arab dictator. The resulting vacuum was quickly filled by anarchic looting, murderous rivalries and, ultimately, civil war. The blitheness of President George W. Bush's administration towards post-war Iraq was quite possibly the most inexcusable blunder in the history of American foreign policy. It's a mistake we wouldn't want to make again. That's why Lisa Anderson, one of the very few American scholarly experts on modern Libya and president of American University in Cairo, recently wrote that "Any military and diplomatic intervention that will bring an end to the Qaddafi regime should be accompanied, from the beginning, by mobilization of the resources for political reconstruction."

That does sound like a good idea. But it's not happening. A senior official in President Barack Obama's administration says that the situation in Libya is "much too fluid," and the identity of the rebel leadership much too uncertain, to permit serious planning about a post-Muammar al-Qaddafi world, should the rebels actually seize power. The White House is, to be fair, a bit preoccupied, what with organizing the no-fly zone, trying to stave off chaos in Yemen and Bahrain, and attempting to assist a soft landing in Egypt and Tunisia. Most of those countries, as this official says, are of greater strategic significance to the United States than Libya is. And there is, of course, the all too real possibility that the military intervention will produce a stalemate rather than a decisive rebel victory, in which case any such planning would be moot.

The good news is that Libya is not Iraq. The country's tribal divisions should not prove as insuperable an obstacle to national unity as Iraq's Shia-Sunni-Kurd divide. And should the rebels somehow overthrow Qaddafi, they will have the legitimacy which comes of winning an insurgency, as the Iraqis placed on the throne by U.S. power did not.

But one of the fundamental lessons of Iraq is that things will be worse than you think. Not only does war unleash all manner of latent enmity and violence, but decades of abusive treatment by a ruthless dictators fuels pathologies that only fully manifest themselves when the lid of control pops off. Pro- and anti-Qaddafi tribes could square off against one another; Qaddafi could unleash the jihadists he once trained to wreak violence both at home and abroad. So you wouldn't want to bet on a happy outcome in Libya -- you'd want to do whatever you could to help deliver one. And it behooves those of us who have argued for the intervention now under way to give serious thought to what form that help should take.

The United States will not be the occupying power in Libya as it was in Iraq, and thus will have far less leverage, and far less responsibility. The Libyans will be calling the shots. But thanks to Qaddafi's malevolently whimsical vision of a nation without a state or state institutions, whoever inherits the country will need an enormous amount of outside help.

Larry Diamond, a Stanford scholar who served with the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and was a leading advocate for intervention in Libya, says that the most directly relevant lesson of Iraq -- and of Afghanistan, for that matter -- is "security trumps everything." People won't accept a new political order if they may pay with their lives for doing so. It's impossible to know right now where those threats may come from. But since Libya will have no foreign troops to stop looting or score-settling, the United States or others will have to train Libyan forces in what Diamond calls "democratic policing."

Diamond's larger point is that, for all the unique problems Libya will present, it is possible to start planning now, while the war is still raging, to deal with them. In the run-up to the war in Iraq, the U.S. State Department convened regional experts and emigres into a series of working groups known collectively as the Future of Iraq Project. This vast body of work -- admittedly of varying utility -- was simply discarded when the Pentagon took over the post-war planning. Diamond suggests a similar planning exercise for Libya, with working groups on key post-conflict issues like transitional justice and civic administration as well as security and policing.

Other veterans of Iraq are wary of such methodical exercises. Barbara Bodine, a seasoned diplomat who served as administrator of Baghdad and central Iraq in the first months after the war, says that many of the lessons she learned there, including "don't fire the whole bureaucracy," and "don't fire the army," may not apply to Libya. What is relevant, she said, is the endemic failure of political understanding. "We don't know enough to engage in social engineering." Bodine said. The Iraqi emigres whom the U.S. backed in the months before the war, like Ahmad Chalabi, proved to be a great deal less public-spirited and nonsectarian than they claimed to be. And while the Libyan rebels'  "transitional government" is currently headed up by former senior government civil servants and technocrats, a very different group may rise to the fore should the rebels finally succeed -- or should the civil war turn into a protracted slog, as seems all too likely.

Encouraging local capacity is thus more important than devising and importing elaborate solutions. The key lesson, Bodine concludes, is, "Wherever possible, work through existing institutions." Unfortunately, Libya has very few institutions at all. Outsiders might have to let the new rulers work out their own political problems in their own way, but nevertheless provide enormous amounts of technocratic help.

But who should those outsiders be? The United States has learned painful lessons about the limits of its credibility in the Arab and Muslim world, which is one reason why Obama has kept the American footprint as small as possible. Why, then, contemplate an American-led effort to rebuild Libya, especially one that U.S. taxpayers are not about to fund? When Libya was freed from colonial rule in 1951, it fell under the tutelage of the United Nations, which helped organize a provincial assembly and draft a constitution. Perhaps the U.N. needs to return to Libya and play something of the administrative role it did in post-conflict states such as Kosovo and East Timor. James Dobbins, a former senior American diplomat now at the RAND Corp., has argued that U.N.-led state-building efforts have generally proved far more cost-effective than American ones.

Libyans, who preserve a national memory of the hated colonial experience under Italy, however, may view even the U.N. as a neo-colonial force. Lisa Anderson suggests drawing on the resources of the global South, on states such as South Africa and Chile that have made the transition from dictatorship to democracy. One possible source of institutional -- but non-state -- support, she notes, would be the Club of Madrid, a group of former heads of state of democratic countries. That would be, she says, a "twenty-first century solution" to the problem of state-building.

I'm not quite convinced that a country that missed out on 20th century state-formation is ready for 21st century solutions. Still, all these issues are worth debating. What is not worth debating is whether, having decided to intervene in Libya, the international community has both an obligation to prepare for the post-conflict situation and the capacity to do something about it. The fiasco in Iraq does not demonstrate that outsiders are helpless to shape such chaotic settings, but rather that you need to pay close attention to their very complicated realities, and approach them with due humility. If they ever do reach Tripoli, the Libyans whose heroic resistance to Qaddafi we are now apostrophizing are going to turn around and say, "Help us." And it will not be enough to give Donald Rumsfeld's cynical shrug and say, "Democracy is messy."